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Defeat in Detail: The Ottoman Army in the Balkans Review

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The defeat of the Ottoman army in the First Balkan War was utterly decisive. On every front, the Ottoman armies were thrown back, crushed, forced to surrender, isolated, withered on the vine. only in the defense of Istanbul itself did the Ottomans enjoy some strategic success. Being able to defend one’s capitol against Bulgaria, in some of the best defensive geography in all of Europe, doesn’t make for a particularly impressive triumph.

This has left a deeply negative impression of the Ottoman army, incompetent, backwards ineffective, and doomed to defeat. Edward Erickson’s book Defeat in Detail: the Ottoman Army in the Balkans, 1912-1913 takes a new look at the performance of the Ottoman military, its engagements, and the context of the Ottoman military’s development.

it does an impressive job of this, managing to portray a different perspective of the Ottomans and a refreshingly different view of the Ottoman capabilities and limitations. To start off, the book deals with the history of the Ottoman military, discussing its development, modernization, and reform in the 19th century. This mentions the military influence of the Germans and foreign training on the Ottoman army, its structure, training, and army distribution. From then it moves into high gear with the Ottoman 1908 Young Turk coup, which led to major reforms in the military, to develop notably, and a first for any European military, a triangular infantry division organization. This was accompanied by broader changes in Ottoman artillery, command and control, and troop structures.

It then looks at the planning, preparation, and strategy in the First Balkan War. The bulk of the book is devoted thereafter to a combat history of Ottoman troops. At the end, the influence of the war on Ottoman arms, the revealed strengths and weaknesses of the military, and the reform of it in preparation for the Great War takes center stage. A final annex covers the development of military aviation.

The First Battle of Catalca is an ominous prelude to the First World War, as Bulgarian troops hurled themselves into prepared Ottoman defenses and were gunned down.

The First Battle of Catalca is an ominous prelude to the First World War, as Bulgarian troops hurled themselves into prepared Ottoman defenses and were gunned down.

Defeat in detail has a tremendously detailed description of Ottoman military action, covering war plans and objectives before looking at the conflict itself. It provides a good tactical-operational description of each of the battles, how the action unfolded, and what the deficiencies and mistakes were on both sides. This is linked into post-battle and post-war analyses, which showcase Turkish strengths and weaknesses, an excellent capstone to the narrative. While of course a general history of the war is always preferable, it does give a sufficient understanding of the political side of the conflict for it to be able to fill in on this front.

Sometimes this seems structured to try to prove the author’s points rather than as a reflection of actual Ottoman strengths. One of Erickson’s key points is that the Ottoman army had positive characteristics beyond just its German advisors and Germany’s role in its modernization, but it constantly seems to have as its highest praise the degree to which the Ottomans followed German tactical proscriptions. it does admit at times the infeasibility of Turkish plans, but it still credits the Turks for tactical sophistication - when any good military plan should be tailored for the troops and options one has available, rather than perfect military art! There is little of a “Turkish war of war” which is explored in the book (in stark contrast to many of the other pre-WW1 histories which point out the tremendous focus on national stereotypes and attempts to devise national combat types), but mostly just the ability of the Turks to mimic the Germans. Also, while it is very well done tactically, it lacks for the literary genius of other books on similar themes, such as Alistair Horne’s “To Lose a Battle.” It doesn’t have the personal touch of a soldier’s view, and is rather dry and scientific. And the overwhelming mass of details about military units and movements is useful for providing a reference but makes following the book difficult and grasping the key points a slog.

There is still a fine military history book, which helps rehabilitate the image of the Turkish army, present an honest impression of its strengths and weaknesses, and fulfills a crucial gap between the staggering and defeated army of the First Balkan War, and the grizzled Ottoman army of the First World War, which fought so impressively against the odds for four years against overwhelming enemy power. But it could have been much much improved by looking at the Turks on their own and being less enthralled with an inferiority complex to the Germans.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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