Creation of the Cavalry

As mentioned earlier in this blog, one major use for domesticated camels have been in battle, both for the transportation of battle equipment and of warriors. One of the most famous instances of camels being used in battle was their role in the Imperial Camel Corps (ICC). The ICC was a British founded brigade of soldiers mounted on strong and resilient dromedary camels created in 1916 with an initial goal of subduing the revolts of the Turkish supported Senussi tribes in the Western Desert of Egypt. The ICC was eventually comprised of four battalions, containing mostly Australians, British and some New Zealanders. The Senussi was a political organization with strong religious motives, based in Libya and Sudan. The organization was founded in Mecca in 1837 by Muhammad bin Ali al-Senussi. The Senussi faced the ICC during a long guerrilla war with the British Army during WWI. The group cost the British Army stationed in Egypt many resources and man power throughout many campaigns (“Imperial Camel Corps”).

The Imperial Camel Corps was first proposed by Lieutenant-Colonel Leslie Smith, who sought aid in endless patrols and visits to distant outposts carrying loads of supplies in the desert west of the Nile Valley and north of the Sudan. The vast Egyptian desert was hot and brutal to the British troops, and offered few water resources. With the endless guerrilla attacks by the Senussi, the British troops stationed in Egypt were struggling to find the strength to fight off the aggressive attacks and maintain their patrols of the expansive desert. Lieutenant-Colonel Smith’s proposal was for a self sustained corps of British and Australian officers that would created a mounted unit on dromedary camels. The mounted camel corps would become an independent fighting force that would have greater abilities to patrol the vast desert without exhausting the man power of the troops, and also have the ability to confront the Senussi advances with greater ease. The proposal was initially rejected, due to concern that white men would be unable to control the camels. Additionally, British and Australian men viewed camels as far insignificant to traditional horses. However, the Imperial Camel Corps was eventually created. There many doubt within the British Army that the camels would serve any greater purpose than transporting supplies to the outposts and acting as labor animals. However, the camels were, in time, able to prove their use to the British efforts (Inchbald 9-14).

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Camels in Battle

The Imperial Camel Corps eventually proved their advantage when facing not only the Senussi guerrilla attacks, but also in battle in the Middle Eastern region throughout WWI. The ICC played a particularly vital role in the Sinai and Palestine campaigns during WWI, and their absence from these events would likely have greatly altered the course of history. The Sinai campaign, which took place in 1916-17, was the initial goal in the eventual Allied victory in the Middle East over the Ottoman Turks. The campaign involved securing the Suez Canal from Turkish attacks, given that the canal was a key point in which Allied supplies and ships could travel from the Indian Ocean directly into the Mediterranean Sea, thereby allowing shipping directly into Europe as opposed to all the way around Africa. The ICC were eventually able to force the Ottoman Army to retreat through a series of battles in the Sinai desert (“Sinai Campaign”). Without the resilience of the camels that were able to survive for long periods of time without water, it is likely that the British Army could have succeeded in this campaign. The camels allowed the British troops to relentless stave off the Ottoman Army, securing the Suez Canal. It is disconcerting to imagine what the fate of the Allied efforts in Europe would have been without direct shipments through the Suez Canal. What is certain is that camels were able to fill a vital role in a key victory of WWI.

The Palestine campaign of 1917-18 was not as straightforward of a victory, however the Imperial Camel Corps certainly maintained a vital role in the lengthy campaign. The Palestine Campaign would result in three Battles of Gaza, the first of two which were a failure, and the last of which resulting in a key victory for WWI in the Middle East. Fresh from their victory in the Sinai Campaign, the ICC aided the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) in an attack on Gaza, which was a gateway into Palestine. The loss was devastating, however a third battle of Gaza, with the ICC playing a vital role in the EEF once again, would lead to a brilliant victory for the British forces. Following the victory, the ICC would then aid the EEF in the capture of Jaffa, and eventually in a series of raids in Jordan. For some time in 1918, the EEF began to weaken, given the need for reinforcements on the Western Front. With the absence of many soldiers, the ICC maintained the strength of the efforts in the Middle East. Without the persistent camels maintaining defenses, it’s likely that the Allied advances in the Middle East would have been reversed, losing a strong British foothold in WWI. Finally, in September 1918, the EEF, including the ICC, entered into the Battle of Megiddo, demolishing three Ottoman armies and capturing 76,000 prisoners. This victory ended the war in the Middle East, giving the Allied powers a strong advantage in WWI (“Palestine Campaign”).


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Lasting Effects of the Camel Corps

It is clear that the victory in the Middle East was vital to the Allied efforts in WWI, and it is also clear that this victory would have been impossible without the role of camels in the Imperial Camel Corps. The British troops found themselves in unfamiliar terrain, in a harsh and devastating climate that was difficult to survive, let alone allow the troops to retain enough power to patrol the massive desert while also fighting off enemy advances and charging with full power into battle. The only way this was possible was with the aid of the powerful dromedary camel, that gave British troops the ability to cover long expanses on the back of an animal that requires very little regeneration or nourishment. The presence of the camels in the British efforts made the Allied forces in the Middle East an unstoppable power. Unfortunately, the only casualty count you will find is 200 dead and 598 wounded (“Imperial Camel Corps”). These numbers only account for human causalities, which is, of course, a common measure of loss of life for wars, however in this particular instance, it must be noted what a vital difference camels made to the British efforts. Geoffrey Inchbald writes fondly on the men in the Imperial Camel Corps. Inchbald lists the awards given to the officers of the ICC, and goes on to name the ICC as an underrated and unrecognized brave efforts of the men in the corps (Inchbald 145-147). A quote described in the closing thought of Inchbald’s work by Wing Commander Ashlin, a camelier in the ICC, speaking of the honor ceremony dedicated to the efforts of the men in the ICC says, “The simple ceremony and the General’s address brought back vividly to the minds of those who had been there, the scorching days in the desert, weary forced marches, lack of sleep, food and especially water, sweating smelly camels and the remembrance of those gallant men whose memory was being honored on that bright cold November day…” (Inchbald 148). It is made very clear by this quote that the memories of the British people, even those who served in the ICC, remember the men fondly, and the camels barely at all. Despite the fact that the efforts of the ICC would have simply been nonexistent without the driving force of the camels, even a Commander of one of the battalions only remembers the animals as “sweating smelly camels.” The role of the camels could probably be assigned as one of the single greatest assets in the Middle Eastern victory of the Allied powers in WWI, additionally aiding in efforts to ship supplies to troops on the Western front. Given this role, it’s safe to say camels were a driving force in the Allied victory of WWI. A change in the outcome of WWI would have significantly altered global culture, significantly changing government organizations, country boundary lines in Europe, and likely even America’s role in global affairs. But people remain ungrateful to this noble creature, proving yet another exploitation of the camel. How many camel deaths resulted in the ICC’s efforts? That number is unknown. Their sacrifice and their efforts are of no consequence, even to those in direct contact, and what should be direct gratitude, to animals that saved their lives and likely the fate of their people.

EGYPT AND PALESTINE 1914 - 1918Source: Click Here