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Battlefield Mass Headhunting: The Ottomans Compared to Modern Adherents
Recent analysis of the practice of decapitation by Islamist terrorists raises questions about the effectiveness of these horrific tactics in a modern world. This paper, will present a short review of 18th and early19th century reports of mass head hunting that occurred during wars between the Ottomans and the major European powers. European historians and commentators frequently cite these events providing eye witness accounts, and importantly commenting on their reaction to it. These early accounts of the Russian and Turkish wars, and the French invasion of Egypt provide an interesting insight into the tactical effectiveness of Ottoman head hunting practices, and will be compared to contemporary analysis of recent beheadings by Islamist terrorists.
Ottoman Head Collecting
A 17th century illustration of an Ottoman deli cavalryman is depicted holding a severed captive head. (Ralamb, 1658) The deli which transliterates literally into ‘crazy’ or ‘daredevil’, were volunteer axillary cavalry in Ottoman armies, who fought for plunder, and who practiced brutal terrorising tactics in the border lands that separated the Ottoman empire from its European neighbouring states. Depicted with a scimitar and decapitated head, this figure would have struck terror among local peoples and troops as the deli rode in advance of Ottoman armies softening-up the opposition.
Deli Cavalryman, with Tiger Skin and Holding a Decapitated Captive Head
Rålambska dräktboken (The Rålamb book of costumes), 1658
The 18th and early 19th century wars between the Ottomans and the major European powers, continued with the deli cavalry as a key component of Ottoman armies, and the accounts of these wars are full of reports of mass head hunting. For instance, recorded in an English journal of the Egyptian campaign of 1800, referring to the Ottoman-Albanian troops during a battle, told of how as they:
“pushed on, got hold of five unfortunate French soldiers, whose heads they unmercifully cut off, and brought back with them, to claim the reward of their barbarity; for a certain sum is, given by the Turkish commanders for the head or ears of an enemy.” (Walsh, 1803)
This account illustrates two aspects of Ottoman head hunting; firstly mass head collecting was a key aspect of Ottoman military practice:
“the Turks, with deafening shouts and sabre in hand, sallied out of their entrenchments, and cut of the slain and unfortunate wounded.” (Alison, 1840)
In another passage, from the Egyptian campaign, an account describes how the Ottoman soldiers:
“were scattered through the fields in search of heads and were not very nice as to how or where they obtained them; it was said that some of our ... [British] ... soldiers’ heads were among them.” (Low, 1911)
At the 1810 battle of Battin, it was commented how a Russian infantry column was destroyed entering the Turkish trenches, “and the bravest … followers who crossed it left their heads in the hands of the Turks.” (Alison, 1841) Similarly, at the 1811 Turkish crossing of the Danube, there was repulse of a Russian commander, who lost:
“two thousand of his best troops ... [to] ... the Turks, with deafening shouts and sabre in hand, sallied out of their ... [entrenchments] ... and cut off the heads of the slain and unfortunate wounded.” (Alison, 1841)
In general, it appears that Ottomans would opportunistically collect heads at any time during a battle:
“All those who had been killed or wounded had their heads cut off by the Turks and Arabs.” (Walsh, 1803)
Beheadings of the dead and wounded, in battle were a common Ottoman practice, and frequently occurred on a massive scale, and it is known that the Ottomans even carried a special weapon for the task:
“Every Turk ... carries with him ... a long, and somewhat curved dagger or knife (the inward curve having the sharp edge), called a kinschal, which he uses principally in cutting off heads.” (Valentini, 1828)
As stated these various accounts, both indicate the opportunistic nature of Ottoman head hunting, and that the wounded, and any enemy (even allies) dead were likely to be decapitated. The profit motive for head hunting on the battlefield was a significant aspect of Ottoman warfare and this will be discussed next.
Modern historical accounts, record the Ottoman practice of battlefield head hunting:
“One might collect the heads of the enemy corpses on the battlefield ... in the hopes of material reward, as revealed in countless Ottoman narrative sources.” (Sakul, 2012)
An English diplomat’s account from Egypt, also pointed to a transactional and profit motive to head collecting by Ottoman soldiers:
“a principle of self-interest seems to pervade all ranks; and this is carried so far, that I have seen the heads of their own companions displayed before the … [grand] … vizier at the battle of Heliopolis, merely to receive the reward attached to every man who brings the head of an enemy.” (Morier, 1801)
Another passage, from the Egyptian campaign describes the tent of the Ottoman admiral and general in Egypt, who, “sat in state on velvet cushions distributing rewards in money to every Turk who brought a Frenchman’s head.” (Low, 1911)
In the Napoleonic period, the pay of the Ottoman soldier was a daily-rate of one penny and two-pence, using the British currency of the period as an example (Morier, 1801); by comparison a British soldier receive one shilling. It is known that the janissary received only a small amount of pay, even by Ottoman standards: “infantry ... receive rather small pay.” (Miller, 1802) Extra money, such as bonuses:
“were given for distinguished service, as when the survivors of the serdengecti (head-risker) and dil kihc (naked sword) units got extra pay.” (Nicolle, 1995)
An account of the Ottoman governor of Acre during Napoleon’s siege, describes how he was seen in his palace citadel:
“sitting in a conspicuous place, surrounded by the mutilated members of the assailants, and by turns rewarding such as brought him heads and distributing ... [musket] ... cartridges.” (Camden, 1814)
Head-hunting was therefore a lucrative business, offering financial rewards to those who could collect heads, and a means of rewarding soldiers.
Modern historical accounts, record how:
“Chopping off the corpses’ heads is quite appalling for the modern observer just as much as it was for the contemporaries.” (Sakul, 2012)
A passage, from the Egyptian campaign tends to support this proposition:
“I went to view the horrid spectacle of a pile of heads, and beheld with detestation the exulting manner in which they brought them in and the way they kicked them about.” (Low, 1911)
However, a German commentator, noted somewhat disparagingly, that head hunting was mainly the actions of an element in the Ottoman army, calling them: “the rabble, who do nothing but plunder the dead and cut off heads after a victory.” (Valentini, 1828) That same commentator noted, that in the:
“field, the grand vizier appears as a man who has nothing else to do than to receive heads and ears.” (Valentini, 1828)
European commentators saw head hunting as one of the “barbarous usages of the Turks” (Valentini, 1828); but not militarily effective, and somewhat typically of the 18th, or even early 19th century mindset:
“The Prince de Ligne observed, on this practice of the Turks, to cut off the heads of the wounded or prisoners, that it was more formidable in appearance than reality; for it could do no harm to the dead, it was often a relief to the wounded, and that it was rather an advantage to the unhurt, as it left them no chance of escape but in victory.” (Letters written during the Turkish campaign from 1787 to 1789: Valentini, 1828; Alison, 1841)
An English account from Napoleon’s siege of Acre, which involved a combined British and Turkish sally-attack on the French besieging entrenchments noted how the Ottomans:
“agreeably to the usual barbarity of their practice, were more active in collecting heads, than in endeavouring to annoy their opponents.” (Camden, 1814)
In the modern context, it has been argued that:
“Large scale beheading allow for rapid advancement on the battlefield.” (Campbell, 2016)
The reasoning behind this is that,
“these beheadings are not simply a brutal method of drawing attention to the Islamist political agenda … [they weaken the] … opponents’ will to fight.” (Furnish, 2005)
However, as we have seen from an 18th or early 19th century perspective the act of head hunting was more a tactical hindrance, rather than achieving any sort of advantage. Its practice resulted in attacks stopping, as Ottoman soldiers looked for prize-heads to collect for a reward.
Instances Where Heads Were Taken, and Not Taken
The Ottomans in the Napoleonic period were known to have accepted the surrender of solders, such as the French garrison of the Ionian Islands and along the Dalmatian coast, in 1799. These prisoners of war, were treated in a not dissimilar manner to any other European prisoner of war in the Napoleonic period. The French were repatriated by 1802. It is known, that there were instances where the Ottomans decapitated dead prisoners, however this was not for any financial motivation, or even as an act of barbarity, but rather as a bureaucratic action:
“to prove that the captive neither ran away nor suffered an unauthorized execution during the march.” (Sakul, 2012)
This act of accounting for heads, may have been common practice, as one early Napoleonic account mentions a specific number of heads being presented to the grand vizier, who, “had upwards of forty heads brought to him on the field of battle.” (Wittman, 1803) As all these heads were paid for, and the vizier himself was ultimately paid by the sultan, when these heads were bagged and sent to Constantinople, as part of the reporting on the progress of the army in the war.
This paper has been written from the perspective of the relationship between beliefs— behaviours—tactics. This type of analysis is a sub-category of TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures) analysis, and its function is to understand how identifying the beliefs and personal behaviors form the tactics used. (Flaherty, 2012) The practice of beheading captives, has been argued to be:
“for well over a decade now, the dual terrorist TTPs … of suicide bombings and later beheadings have been utilized in tandem by radical Islamists. These terrorist activities appear to be collinear and synergistic with a number of professionals now arguing that, at least on the level of cultist spirituality, they may indeed represent a symbolic duality of martyr sacrifice to god (as a suicide bomber) as well as victim sacrifice to god (the hostage being beheaded).” (Bunker, 2014)
In cultural or religious terms, the traditional theological justification for decapitation and display of severed heads has largely remained the same. The religious reasoning behind beheading, is based on a belief:
“When you encounter the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads until you have crushed them completely.” (Furnish, 2005)
In one 18th century account from the Russo-Turkish wars, “the vizier wrote to the … [sultan] … that so numerous were the heads taken off the infidel, that they would make a bridge from earth to heaven.” (Alison, 1840) A similar commentary appears from 1828:
“Their war against the infidels, whom they look upon as reprobates, assumes the character of one of extermination. They cut off the heads of the dead as well as of the living, and collect them in the same manner as the heads, claws, or snouts of noxious wild beasts are delivered to the authorities appointed to reward the slayers. The custom, which has been questioned by modern historians, of collecting the noses and tips of the ears of their enemies, is literally true. When, after a successful affair, the quantity of heads becomes too considerable for conveyance, those smaller salted parts are forwarded in sacks, as testimonials of their good fortune. The Porte awards payment for these trophies of extirpation, but prefers receiving entire heads, in order that they may be fixed on poles in the capital, with all suitable ... [brilliant display].” (Valentini, 1828)
In modern times, the well-known events of the 2014 withdrawal of the 300 soldiers of the Syrian 17th Division, who were ambushed by the Islamic State force attacking their base, killing 50 of them, saw these soldiers decapitated, and pictures were posted on an Islamic State Twitter account showing heads stuck on the spikes of a gate. (OODAloop, 2016)
A comparison between the 18th and 19th centuries Ottomans and modern adherents of the practice of decapitation challenges some of the operational concepts about the effectiveness illustrating that while these horrific tactics in a modern world, have been generally been accepted as achieving a tactical advantage, in other historical periods this has not always been the case, and in the 18th, or early 19th centuries the reverse was true, that head hunting was largely ineffective as a tactic.
The only other tactical advantage, in the last decade, were various Islamist terrorists have actively sought-out foreign nationals as captives to behead them, is illustrated by this 2006 experience of one hostage who was held:
“his captors as capricious and that this was the most unsettling aspect of his experience. Developing a countertactic to such impulsive behavior by militants would be extremely difficult.” (Campbell, 2006)
Emphasising the ‘capricious and impulsive behaviour by militants’ does harken back to the tactics of the deli cavalry, who would behave capriciously and impulsively, even wearing strange clothing consisting of animal furs and bird wings—seeking to scare and psychologically disorient their opponents. (Uyar, Erickson, 2009)
The other key difference to exist between the 18th and 19th century Ottomans and modern adherents of the practice of decapitation, was the purely transactional motivation for head hunting, turning the practice into a commoditization of heads. The Ottoman’s commoditization of heads underpinned a crucial process of imperial exchange, where heads were bought in a system of transactions that linked ultimately to the sultan, in the imperial capital.
Contemporary Western news commentary focus of the immorality of Islamist terrorists who have decapitated captives. Compared, however, to the reaction of 18th or early 19th century Western commentators, they saw the Ottoman practice of headhunting in a much wider cultural context, where the display of decapitated heads was still common practice in the West, and even in places where it was no longer done, it was still within living memory, especially in the context of the French revolution.
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