A bashi-bazouk or bashibazouk (Turkish başıbozuk, literally "damaged head", also named delibaş, literally "crazy head", both meaning "free headed", "leaderless", "disorderly") was an irregular soldier of the Ottoman army. A Bashi-Bazouk may be Turk but also Circassian, Kurd, Arab, Albanian. They were particularly noted for their lack of discipline.
Although Turkish armies always contained bashi-bazouk adventurers as well as regular soldiers, the strain on the Ottoman feudal system caused mainly by the Empire's wide expanse required heavier reliance on irregular soldiers. They were armed and maintained by the government, but did not receive pay and did not wear uniforms or distinctive badges. They were motivated to fight mostly by expectations of plunder. Though the majority of troops fought on foot, some troops (called akinci) rode on horseback. Because of their lack of discipline, they were incapable of undertaking major military operations, but were useful for other tasks such as reconnaissance and outpost duty. However, their uncertain temper occasionally made it necessary for the Turkish regular troops to disarm them by force.
The Ottoman army consisted of the following:
- The Sultan's household troops, called Kapıkulu, which were salaried, most notable being Janissary corps.
- Provincial soldiers, which were fiefed (Turkish Tımarlı), the most important being Timarli Sipahi (lit. "fiefed cavalry") and their retainers (called cebelu lit. armed, man-at-arms), but other kinds were also present.
- Soldiers of subject, protectorate, or allied states (the most important being the Crimean Khans)
- Bashi-bazouk usually did not receive regular salaries and lived off loot.
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Under the best conditions, an Ottoman commander-in-chief would be able to muster hundreds of thousands of soldiers and lead a campaign into Austria or Iran, whichever posed the greatest threat.
On the eve of battle an Ottoman commander would tap any source of manpower he saw fit; hiring mercenaries was one of them. The hiring process occurred in an open market, with prices determined by negotiation between the mercenary troop leader and an Ottoman commander. Prices were affected by the quality and quantity of mercenary troop available as well as the commander's requirements. Oral negotiations usually led to a written contract. Some of these documents survive today, often showing small mercenary leaders contracting for very high amounts.
The bashi-bazouk were notorious for being brutal and undisciplined, thus giving the term its second, colloquial meaning of "undisciplined bandit" in many languages. A notable example of this use is in the comic series The Adventures of Tintin, where the word is often used as an expletive by Captain Haddock.
Their use was abandoned by the end of the 19th century. However, self-organized bashi-bazouk troops still appeared later.
The term "bashibozouk" has also been used for a mounted force, existing in peacetime in various provinces of the Ottoman Empire, which performed the duties of gendarmerie.
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