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With the Cameliers in Palestine

Chapter II — The Imperial Camel Corps

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Chapter II
The Imperial Camel Corps

The Imperial Camel Corps was a cosmopolitan body of troops that gradually grew into a brigade some two thousand eight hundred strong. Companies each of six officers and one hundred and sixty-nine other ranks were formed at various times, four companies forming a battalion. By December 19, 1916, four battalions were in existence, which were combined into one organized brigade, with the necessary units, such as a machine-gun squadron, artillery, field troop, signal section, field ambulance, and detachment of the army service corps, and a brigade ammunition column.

The Brigade was composed of the First and Third Battalions, recruited from the Australian Light Horse, the Fourth Battalion, composed of two companies drawn from the Australian Light Horse, and two, the 15th and 16th Companies, from the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, and the Second Battalion which was recruited from British Yeomanry Regiments. There were two additional detached British companies. A machine-gun squadron, the 26th, was formed from drafts from the machine-gun sections of the Scottish Horse, the Lanarkshire Yeomanry and the Ayrshire Yeomanry. A mountain battery of the Hong Kong and Singapore R.G.A., composed of big brawny Sikhs, two hundred and forty strong, with six nine-pounder guns, carried on the backs of camels, formed part of the Brigade. In addition to the Machine-gun Squadron, armed with Vickers machine-guns, each company had a section (equivalent to a mounted rifle troop) equipped with three Lewis guns. The whole force was nearly equal in strength to two mounted brigades.

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The field ambulance, instead of using wheeled vehicles, transported the sick and wounded in "caco-lets," on the backs of camels. These consisted of two canvas stretchers balanced horizontally, one on each side of a specially constructed saddle. In these the wounded men could either sit or lie at full length, and were shaded from the sun by a small canvas hood. The jolting motion of the camel frequently was most trying to the badly wounded men, but it was sometimes a case of this kind of carriage, or death, and these camel cacolets, going as they did where wheeled transport was impossible, undoubtedly were the means of saving the lives of many wounded men who otherwise would have had a poor chance of being carried back to safety. This was especially the case when the mounted troops were fighting their way across the sands of the Sinai Peninsula during the latter half of 1916, and again, in March, 1918, when Shea’s Force ploughed its way up the muddy goat-tracks on the rocky mountain-sides east of the Dead Sea, leading to Amman, where neither horse artillery nor wheeled transport could follow the advance.

The whole of the Camel Corps was mounted on camels, of which well over three thousand were required to mount the men, and carry the transport. These animals, if following each other head to tail, would make a column over eight miles long. No wheeled vehicles of any sort were attached to the Corps. As each man always had to have in stock five days’ supply of food and water for himself, and a similar supply of grain for his mount, as well as over two hundred rounds of ammunition, the whole Brigade could, at an hour’s notice, go off into the "blue" for five days without any communication with or assistance from its base.

During the whole of its existence the Brigade was under the command of Brigadier C. L. Smith, v.c, m.c, d.c.l.i., who had seen active service in the South African page 28War, and in Somaliland, and who for several years served in the Egyptian Army and in the Soudan. He served in the European War from 1914, and was employed with the Egyptian Army in 1915 in command of the Camel Corps. In December, 1916, he was appointed to the command of the newly constituted Imperial Camel Brigade, with the rank of Temporary Brigadier-General, which position he retained until the disbandment of the Brigade in June, 1918. The following extract from the London Gazette of June 7, 1904, relates the circumstance under which he won the Victoria Cross in the Somali War. "At the commencement of the fight at Jidballi on January 10, 1904, the enemy made a sudden and determined rush on the 5th Somali Mounted Infantry from under cover of bushes close at hand. They were supported by rifle fire, advanced very rapidly, and got right amongst our men. Lieut. Smith, Somali Mounted Infantry, and Lieut. J. R. Welland, m.d., Royal Army Medical Corps, went out to the aid of Hospital Assistant Rohamat Ali, who was wounded, and endeavoured to bring him out of action on a horse, but the rapidity of the enemy’s advance rendered this impossible, and the hospital assistant was killed. Lieut. Smith then did all that any man could do to bring out Dr. Welland, helping him to mount a horse, and when that was shot, a mule. This also was hit, and Dr. Welland was speared by the enemy. Lieut. Smith stood by Dr. Welland, and when that officer was killed, was within a few paces of him, endeavouring to keep off the enemy with a revolver. At that time the Dervishes appeared to be all round him, and it was marvellous that he escaped with his life."

When Brigadier-General Smith was appointed to the command of the Imperial Camel Corps he was only thirty-eight years old, and at the time, must have been one of the youngest brigadiers in the British Army.

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Mounted drill in the Brigade began with "barracking" the camels, that is causing them to adopt a kneeling position. This was brought about by the rider tugging the halter rope downwards, while at the same time he kept uttering a guttural sound, "duh, duh, duh," at every tug; he frequently made other remarks not very complimentary to the animal’s parents. The camel seemed to kneel by numbers. One! Bend the lower portions of the forelegs. Two! Sink down on the lower sections of the hind legs. Three! Fold the upper portion of the front legs on top of the lower. Four! Bring down the upper parts of the hind legs above the lower. Five! Shuffle and tuck in the feet comfortably. Six! Groan.

On the order "Get ready to mount," the rider pulled round the head of the camel until it looked to the rear; he then placed his left foot on the bend of the animal’s neck, and grasped with his right hand the stout peg at the back of the saddle. On the word "Mount," he raised himself briskly into the saddle, throwing his right leg over the front peg of the saddle. He then released the halter to its full length, and the camel instinctively rose to its feet. If the rider was not alert and the camel moved first, the former was liable to be thrown over the saddle. While the mounting movement was in progress, most of the camels roared like wild beasts. When the Brigade in "Column of route" was mounting, the order moved from front to rear, and those in the rear ranks could hear the movement coming towards them like the approach of breakers on an angry rock-bound seashore. When the animals rose to their feet the noise immediately stopped. On a dark night in a wadi the effect was weird. The camel has been called the "Ship of the desert," but the Camel Brigade when mounting could by no means claim to be the "Silent Service."

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The company formations were a mixture of the Infantry and Mounted Rifle systems. The unit was the "group" of four men; eight groups formed a section; four sections with Lewis gun and signal sections made up a company; four companies formed a battalion; and four battalions made up the brigade.

Each battalion had a distinguishing colour; the men of the First Battalion (Australian) under the command of Lieut-Col. G. F. Langley, wore on their hats a red, triangular "flash" or pyramid, to give it a name more in keeping with its Oriental environment; those of the Second Battalion (British Yeomanry) under Lieut.-Col. R. Buxton, wore green flashes; the Third Battalion (Australian) under Lieut.-Col. N. B. De Lancey Forth, wore black and white; and the Fourth Battalion (Australian and New Zealand) under Lieut-Col. A. J. Mills, wore blue.

The Headquarters Administrative Centre of the Brigade was at Abbassia on the outskirts of Cairo, not far from Heliopolis. A small but competent staff under Captain Barber, initiated the newcomers into the mysteries surrounding the camel, and soon the Colonials were handling their new chargers like natives of the country.

A Camel Remount Depot and a Camel Hospital were also established in Egypt. Camels have diseases peculiar to themselves, mange being very common amongst the animals that were procured locally. This disease, if unchecked, will destroy a camel force in the field in from three to six months. During the late War a special branch of the Veterinary Corps was trained in the treatment of camels, and so well did this department function, that an average of forty thousand camels, riding and transport, was maintained in the field during the war, seventy per cent of the animals sent to the camel hospitals being returned to the Remount Department as fit for further service.

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During the British advance in November and December of 1917, the camels of the Brigade had a rough time. The Cameliers were linked up with the front line for five weeks on end, and during that time advanced about one hundred miles. Sometimes the animals had only one feed a day, and for days at a time their loaded saddles were not removed from their backs. As a consequence the camels became worn out, and badly infected with mange. The force was withdrawn to Rafa, a sandy area in the south where the animals were all put under treatment by the Veterinary Service. In nine weeks men and camels were once more ready for action, and in March moved north once more, to take part in the most strenuous experience that the Brigade ever went through—the advance over the Jordan River, and the ascent of the muddy goat-tracks on the slopes of the Mountains of Moab, east of the Dead Sea.

In one of General Skobeleff’s Russian campaigns in Central Asia, his force returned after some months with only one camel surviving out of a transport force of twelve thousand such animals.

In the British Afghan campaign of 1879-80 seventy thousand transport animals were lost, most of them being camels.

The Imperial Camel Brigade has the distinction of being represented by various detachments in more areas of the Middle East than any other body of troops taking part in the Eastern campaign. Some companies took part in the operations against the Senussi in the Western Desert of Egypt at the end of 1915, and beginning of 1916. It was during this campaign that Siwa was captured—a town situated in an oasis two hundred miles south from Sollum on the Mediterranean coast, near the border line between Egypt and Tripoli. Siwa, like an isolated island in an ocean of desert sand, was a ten days’ march over a waterless and quite uninhabited page break
Ready to march

Ready to march

Marching Order

Marching Order

page break
Vet. Sergeant at work

Vet. Sergeant at work

Watering from Well, Lahfan

Watering from Well, Lahfan

page 33waste. Its history goes back some fifteen hundred years before the beginning of the Christian era; it was the seat of a famous oracle which was held in such great veneration by the Greeks that it was visited by Alexander the Great in the year 331 b.c. in order to get a pronouncement that he was of divine origin. In the late war the oasis was captured by an armoured car raid in 1916. Shortly afterwards a force of armoured cars, under the Duke of Westminster, made a brilliant rescue of ninety-one sailors from the torpedoed vessels, the Tara and Moorina, who had been handed over by the Germans as prisoners to the Senussi. The force dashed across one hundred and twenty miles of barren desert, attacked an unknown force of the enemy, rescued the prisoners, and returned to its base in safety without a casualty.

During a part of 1916 and 1917, an Australian detachment of the I.C.C. patrolled the Oases of Baharia, Dakhla, and Kharga, which are situated west of the River Nile, and some two hundred, and three hundred and seventy miles from its mouth. They are a part of the Great Sahara Desert that extends across the whole of Africa to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. It was across this country that Cambyses, the Persian conqueror of Egypt, in 525 b.c. sent an army of fifty thousand men to try to capture Siwa. The whole force disappeared into the desert waste, and from that day to this no trace of it has ever been discovered. The desert as well as the ocean can keep its secrets. The Persians were either overwhelmed by a violent sandstorm, or lost their way and died of hunger and thirst in the desert.

Some of the Australians came up to the I.C.C. Detail Camp at Abbassia in March, 1917, after having been on desert patrols for some months, during which time they had very few opportunities of drawing or spending their pay. Their clothes and equipment were faded and worn page 34out; they were dying with thirst, and the joys of Cairo awaited them. The camp wet canteen ran dry in an hour or two, and then they adjourned to the city. A double guard had to be put on the guardroom that night in the camp, and the accommodation was taxed to its utmost before morning. In a short time the camp authorities decided it would be best for all concerned if these troops once more adjourned to the silent wastes, and the Cameliers moved off into the unknown.

Another detachment of the I.C.C., consisting of fifty Australians with two machine-guns, made an interesting reconnaissance to Jebel Musa (Mount Sinai) in the south of the Sinai Peninsula, while in July, 1918, two British companies, three hundred strong under Colonel Buxton, marched across the Sinai Peninsula to Akaba on the eastern branch of the end of the Red Sea. There they joined up with Colonel Lawrence and his Arab forces, and trekked north parallel with the Hedjaz railway to the neighbourhood of Amman, and from there made their way back to Beersheba in the south of Palestine.

In addition to all these expeditions, various units of the I.C.C. patrolled the whole of the northern portion of the Sinai Peninsula during 1917, the Brigade took an active part in Allenby’s advance through Palestine, and in the raid across the Jordan to Amman, and the Australians and New Zealanders, as members of the Fifth Light Horse Brigade, later on in 1918 took part in the great cavalry sweep north to Damascus and beyond, almost to Aleppo.