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The Imperial Camel Corps

Imperial Camel Corps: Australians

Australian soldiers

So, what do the words conjure: Imperial Camel Corps?

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Do  you envision the magi crossing the desert sand bearing gifts for the Christ Child?

Do you see a camel wearing a crown and a uniform?

How about marines riding camels?

The third choice would be closer to the truth.

I wrote recently about my need to investigate camels. You can read about them and their salivary problems (they’re not spitting, they’re throwing up on you) here.

I’d encountered them fairly early in my WWI research when I investigated Lawrence of Arabia and others out in the desert. It was a cute idea and some of the photos (which you can view on my Pinterest board World War I Egypt) were adorable with soldiers riding one-humped dromedaries.

Imperial Camel Corps memorial in London

ICC memorial, London

But their need was genuine and they served an important role in the Middle Eastern Theater of World War I. So important a role to Great Britain, that a monument to them stands in London, not far from Cleopatra’s Needle on the banks of the Thames River.

The British army first used camels in 1912 in Somaliland. Once World War I began, however, they realized their importance in both the Libyan and Sinai desert. The camels could travel three- to six miles every hour while loaded with soldiers, provisions and ammunition, and only needed to be watered every five days.

Originally stationed near Heliopolis, just north of Cairo, they were able to go either east or west as the need arose for fighting.

The corps traveled in groups of about 130 men and were expected to operate as independent units. They raced to their location and the soldiers dismounted to fight as infantrymen. As an added bonus over horses (who never would have lasted in the sand), camels weren’t particularly nervous around artillery and shooting.

Preferring to chew their cud, as it were.

One camelier could look after a dozen camels while the other soldiers fought.

New Zealand Imperial Camel Corps hat badge

NZ ICC hat badge

The cameliers originally were local Egyptian camel handlers, basically recruited into the British Army and commanded by British officers. After Gallipoli, soldiers from the Australian and New Zealand army became cameliers. Eventually more than 20,000 camels were used in driving the Ottoman Turks out of the Sinai.

The Imperial Camel Corps first entered the fighting units in the Sinai in March, 1916. They fought all the way up into Palestine, as sub-units of the Australian Light Horse Brigade. By 1918, two units had joined Lawrence of Arabia in the transjordan area east of Jerusalem for the Arab Revolt.

They disbanded after the close of the war, in 1919, with most of the camels going to the Arab army at the behest of British officer  T.E. Lawrence of Arabia.

New Zealand History on line quoted one soldier about selling off the Imperial Camel Corps animals:

“We were sorry for the camels. Although we often cursed them, when they were to be taken away from us, we found that we had become quite attached to our ugly, ungainly mounts. The Arabs would not treat them as kindly as we had done, and we reckoned they were entitled to a long spell in country that suited them better than the rough and slippery mountain tracks of Palestine.”  ~Trooper Frank Reid, No 12 (Australian) Company, 3rd Battalion, Imperial Camel Corps

In my novel, the camels were a novelty item for my heroine to visit, though while out in the desert, the camels were put to non-military use. When coming upon a downed airplane, an “ambulance” camel was called for–a cacolet–one that could carry injured people on either side of its hump.

The camels were strong enough, they could carry parts of the airplane back to base camp.

They really did act as ships of the desert, an imperial fighter, if you please.

Gun carriers
Imperial Camel Corps

Camel Cacolet for carrying wounded

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(For further information, see  With the Cameliers in Palestine.)

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks, Michelle, for a very informative post. I never would have suspected how important a camel was during war. But thinking about it now, it make a lot of sense.

    Now, if only we can utilize them in America, maybe gasoline prices will come down. 🙂

    Reply
  2. lisabetz88

     /  July 22, 2014

    There actually was a camel corps in the US (very briefly) This link seems to have the most accurate account of the camel experiment. http://www.forttejon.org/camel.html

    Reply
    • Michelle Ule

       /  July 22, 2014

      Thanks for pointing out this piece of US history. It seems to me there was a silly movie made in the 1970’s about an American army unit with camels, too!

      Reply
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