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Thursday, 29 October 2009
Imperial Camel Corps - Brief History
Topic: AIF - 5B - ICC

ICC, AIF

The 1st Brigade, Imperial Camel Corps

Brief History

 

Members of the Camel Corps, Abbassia, Egypt, 1915

 

The following is an article written by Jim Underwood called The organisation of the Imperial Camel Brigade, 1916-1918, which first appeared in the official journal of the Military History Society of Australia, Sabretache, in their edition of 1 December 2003.

Jim Underwood, The organisation of the Imperial Camel Brigade, 1916-1918, Sabretache, 1 December 2003.

 

The 1st Brigade, Imperial Camel Corps - more commonly known as the Imperial Camel Brigade - was raised on 13 December 1916 under the command of Brigadier General Clement Leslie Smith VC MC (17 January 1878-14 December 1927) was an English recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. (1). The Brigade concentrated at Mazar on the north coast of the Sinai Peninsula, north-eastern Egypt. Located between the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba at the northern end of the Red Sea, it covers some 23,500 sq mi (61,000 sq km). 19

December; and on the following day advanced to El Arish where it was attached to the Anzac Mounted Division. The Anzac Mounted Division was a mounted infantry (light horse) division formed in March 1916 in Egypt during World War I following the Battle of Gallipoli when the Australian and New Zealand mounted regiments returned from fighting as infantry. The Imperial Camel Brigade had its baptism of fire as a brigade formation at the Battle of Magdhaba. The Battle of Magdhaba took place near the tiny Egyptian outpost of Magdhaba in the Sinai desert, some 22 miles from El Arish on the Mediterranean coast. In late 1916 the Turkish forces in the Sinai that had been menacing the British-controlled Suez Canal had retreated to the 23 December 1916--only four days after being concentrated and 10 days after being raised. (2)

While the actions of the Imperial Camel Brigade are referred to in official and private accounts of the Sinai and Palestine campaigns, little has been published on its structure. The aim of this paper is to examine the Brigade organisation as it evolved over the period from its raising in December 1916 until its disbandment in June 1918. Part 1 of the paper records the organisational changes that took place in the Brigade during its existence. Part 2 which will appear in the March 2004 Sabretache will take a closer look at the establishments of the units that formed the Brigade.


PART 1

Brigade Organisation--December 1916 The initial organisation of the Brigade was: (3)

Brigade Headquarters

1st (Anzac) Camel Battalion

2nd (Imperial) Camel Battalion

3rd (Anzac) Camel Battalion

No. 1 Mountain Battery, Hong Kong & Singapore, Royal Garrison Artillery

26th (Camel) Machine Gun Squadron,

Machine Gun Corps (MGC) Section,

2/1st (Cheshire) Field Company,

Royal Engineers (TF) Signal Section,

Royal Engineers Wireless Section,

Royal Engineers Section,

1/1st Welsh Field Ambulance (TF) Detachment,

Army Service Corps Detachment,

Camel Transport Corps (4) Detachment,

Egyptian Labour Corps


The two Territorial Force (TF) units were on loan from the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division (TF) which was then garrisoning the Suez Canal Defences. The detachments from the Army Service Corps, the Camel Transport Corps and the Egyptian Labour Corps were ad hoc units for which there were no proper establishments.

The strength of the Brigade was approximately 2,800. It was capable of putting into the firing line, after providing "camel holders": 1,800 rifles, 36 Lewis light machine guns, eight Maxim medium machine guns and six 10 pounder pack mountain guns. (5)

Raising of Independent Camel Companies--1916

The main combat elements of the Brigade--the Camel Battalions—were formed from the independent Camel Companies that had been raised from January 1916 onwards to combat the pro-Turkish Senussi tribesmen who were threatening the Nile Valley from the Libyan Desert. During its existence, the Imperial Camel Corps raised 18 Camel Companies—10 Australian, six British and two New Zealand.

The first four Camel Companies, filled by Australian infantrymen from the First and Second Divisions, Australian Imperial Force (AIF), marched into the British Army's Camel Corps School at Abbassia near Cairo in the last week of January 1916. All four Companies were in the field on operations against the Senussi before the end of March 1916. (6) Also in January 1916, the permanent staff of the former Camel Corps School were absorbed into a new Headquarters, Imperial Camel Corps under command of Major C L Smith VC MC. (7)

In March 1916, it was decided to increase the Camel Corps by six Companies with personnel drawn from various British Territorial Infantry and Yeomanry units then in Egypt. In June, approval was given for five additional Companies. The personnel for the four additional Australian Companies were provided from the Anzac Mounted Division and Light Horse reinforcements in Egypt. The fifth Company was raised from the New Zealand Mounted Rifles. Subsequently, in the first half of 1917 two more Australian Companies and a further New Zealand Company were raised from the same sources.

Provisional Camel Battalion

In late July 1916, as part of the British preparations for the forthcoming Battle of Romani, four Camel Companies that had been operating in the Western Desert of Egypt against the Senussi threat, were formed into a provisional Camel Battalion for operations east of the Suez Canal. This provisional Battalion formed part of now Lieutenant Colonel C L Smith's "Mobile Column" which operated on the extreme right flank of the British advance eastwards after the Battle of Romani (4-5 August 1916). The Column was engaged in several clashes with the Turkish Left flank guard as it tried to envelop the open desert flank of the withdrawing Turkish force. The main combat elements of the "Mobile Column" were the 11th Australian Light Horse Regiment, the City of London Yeomanry Rough Riders and the provisional Camel Battalion. (8) During these operations the Camel Battalion consisted of three British Companies and one Australian Company.

An ever-changing provisional Camel Battalion saw action during the early months of the British advance from Romani to El Arish. Imperial Camel Corps operations included participation in the raid on Mazar (15-17 September 1916), the attack on Maghara (13-15 October 1916) and wide-ranging patrols in the Sinai Desert on the southern flank of the British advance towards Palestine.

Raising of Regular Camel Battalions

In September 1916, approval was given to form regular Camel Battalions and most of the independent Companies were redeployed from the Western Desert to the Sinai to man these units. The 1st Battalion was raised on 9 September; the 2nd Battalion on 4 November and the 3rd Battalion in early December. Although the Imperial Camel Brigade was formally established on 13 December 1916, the allocation of Companies to Battalions remained flexible for some months. This may be illustrated by reference to the changing composition of the 1st Camel Battalion in Table 1 below.

Table 1. CHANGING COMPOSITION OF THE 1st CAMEL BATTALION

Aug 1916--Provisional Camel Battalion--Smith's Mobile Column

No.4 Camel Company (Australian)
No.5 Camel Company (British)
No.9 Camel Company (British)
No.10 Camel Company (British)

09 Sep 1916--1st Camel Battalion formed

No.4 Camel Company (Australian)
No.5 Camel Company (British)
No.6 Camel Company (British)
No.7 Camel Company (British)

13 Dec 1916--Formation of the Imperial Camel Brigade

No.3 Camel Company (Australian)
No.4 Camel Company (Australian)
No.7 Camel Company (British)
No.12 Camel Company (Australian)

26 Dec 1916--After Battle of Magdhaba

No.1 Camel Company (Australian)
No.3 Camel Company (Australian)
No.4 Camel Company (Australian)
No.15 Camel Company (New Zealand)

Late Mar 1917--Final Organisation--After First Battle of Gaza

No.1 Camel Company (Australian)
No.2 Camel Company (Australian)
No.3 Camel Company (Australian)
No.4 Camel Company (Australian)

 

 

Brigade Augmentation

In the first half of 1917, the Imperial Camel Brigade took on a more formal structure and the ad hoc and "on loan" units initially included in the formation were replaced by units with authorised establishments.

In January 1917, the 1/1st Scottish Horse Mounted Field Ambulance replaced the section of the 1/1st Welsh Field Ambulance that was on loan from the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division. This was an improvement in medical support to the Imperial Camel Brigade. The Welsh Field Ambulance was an Infantry Division Field Ambulance and its stretcher bearers were not mounted. Furthermore, only one section of the Welsh Field Ambulance had been allotted to the Brigade. This had proved inadequate during the attack on Magdhaba when the Brigade had suffered 27 wounded. The Scottish Horse Field Ambulance was at least a mounted unit; but its organisation was designed to support a Cavalry Brigade of about 2,000 personnel not a Camel Infantry Brigade of some 3,000 personnel capable of operating away from established lines of communication. 

In February 1917, the Imperial Camel Corps Mobile Veterinary Section joined the Brigade. This was a purpose designed veterinary section catering for sick, injured and wounded camels. Prior to its arrival, veterinary support in the Brigade was very basic consisting of a single Veterinary Sergeant in each Camel Company.

In March 1917, the 10th Field Troop, Royal Engineers replaced the section of the 2/1st (Cheshire) Field Company on loan from the 53rd (Welsh) Division. This, too, was a significant enhancement. The section of Cheshire engineers had been drawn from an Infantry Division and it lacked the mobility to support the Camel Brigade. The 10st Field Troop was specifically raised and equipped to support the Imperial Camel Brigade. Importantly, the new Troop had a significant capacity to develop water supplies; a capability lacking in the Cheshire's section.

In May 1917, the newly raised 4th (Anzac) Camel Battalion joined the Brigade. From this time onwards, it was usual for three Camel Battalions to operate forward with the Brigade while the fourth Battalion was rested in the Suez Canal Defences. At the same time, four of the six British Camel Companies formed the 2nd (Imperial) Camel Battalion while two Companies were rested or patrolled in the Western Desert where the restless Senussi remained a dormant threat.

Also in the first half of 1917, the ad hoc administrative detachments were replaced by properly established units raised specifically to support the Imperial Camel Brigade. The Imperial Camel Corps Brigade Train replaced the Army Service Corps detachment. The Imperial Camel Corps Brigade Ammunition Column replaced the temporary Ammunition Column provided by the Camel Transport Corps. The Imperial Camel Brigade Signal Section replaced the wireless and cable sections at Brigade Headquarters. The Imperial Camel Brigade Ordnance Section was also formed. At the same time there were significant changes to No. 1 Mountain Battery and the 26th Machine Gun Squadron.

No. 1 Mountain Battery, Hong Kong & Singapore, Royal Garrison Artillery. This Battery was manned by British and Indian officers and Sikh and Indian Muslim other ranks. The other ranks were recruited in Hong Kong and Singapore mainly from ex-Indian Army regulars residing in these two colonies. Despite its title, there were no Chinese in the unit. The Battery was equipped with horses and mules when it fought in the Western Desert against the Senussi in the first half of 1916; but in June 1916 it was converted to camel transport. It was initially equipped with six 10-pounder BL pack mountain guns. This gun had been introduced into the British inventory in 1901 but it was obsolete by European standards. It used an old-fashioned three-piece breech mechanism. There was no recoil system. The gun leaped and bucked when it fired. It was even known to topple over when fired on uneven ground. The gun's calibre was 2.75 inches and the standard projectile weighed 10 pounds. Its maximum range was 6,000 yards with percussion or 3,700 yards with time fuse. In early 1917, the Battery was re-equipped with an improved gun--the Ordnance BL Mark I calibre 2.75 inches. This new gun bad a maximum range of 5,600 yards for shrapnel and 5,800 yards for high explosive. Two of the older 10-pounder mountain guns were retained as rudimentary anti-aircraft guns although the gun detachments relied on the expediency of throwing their greatcoats over the guns to camouflage them from prying German aircraft. (9) No camouflage nets were provided.

With the limited range of its guns, the Battery bad to fight from a position well forward in both attack and defence. Its personnel were highly regarded for their bravery in action and professionalism. Within the Brigade, the Battery was affectionately known as the "Bing Boys" on account of the high pitched plaintive noise made by the discharge of the mountain gun.

26th (Camel) Machine Gun Squadron. The history of the Machine Gun Squadron is somewhat obscure. No unit War Diaries have been located in Australia or the United Kingdom. There are also discrepancies between various published works and official records regarding the title of the Brigade's machine gun unit and its parent unit. During its existence this unit apparently underwent a number of name changes. The Brigade machine gun unit appears to have been established initially in Egypt as the 26th (Scottish Horse) Squadron, Machine Gun Corps in October 1916. The parent unit was the 1/3rd Scottish Horse--a Yeomanry regiment that had fought dismounted at Gallipoli as part of the 2nd Mounted Division. After the evacuation of Gallipoli, the Regiment was sent to Egypt where it became part of the 1st Dismounted Brigade. (10)

Whether the Scottish Horse machine gun unit was originally a horsed unit or camel mounted has not been determined. No record has been located of the unit undertaking camel training at Abbassia in October 1916 or at any other time. However, the 26th (Camel) Machine Gun Squadron was on the Imperial Camel Brigade's order of battle when it was raised in December 1916. To add another wrinkle to the problem, the history of the New Zealand Camel Companies--With the Cameliers in Palestine by John Robertsun--states that the 26th (Camel) Machine Gun Squadron was formed from the machine gun sections of three Scottish Yeomanry regiments that had fought at Gallipoli--the Scottish Horse plus the Lanarkshire Yeomanry and the Ayrshire Yeomanry. (11)

Initially, the 26th Machine Gun Squadron was armed with eight Maxim machine guns that had apparently seen hard service at Gallipoli. (The normal allotment of guns to a machine gun squadron was 12 guns.) In the first quarter of 1917, the Machine Gun Squadron was reequipped with eight Vickers medium machine guns and about the same time the unit was retitled the 265th Machine Gun Company. In some contemporary documents the unit is also referred to simply as the Imperial Camel Brigade Machine Gun Company. (12)

Australian Camel Field Ambulance. When the Imperial Camel Brigade was raised in December 1916, Headquarters Egyptian Expeditionary Force approached the Australian Government, through AIF headquarters in Egypt, to provide the personnel for a camel-mounted Field Ambulance to support the Brigade. (13) The Australian Government approved the request but advised that it would be several months before the unit became operational. It was agreed that the officers and senior NCOs would be drawn from Australian medical units then serving in Egypt; while the bulk of the other ranks personnel would be sent to Egypt after completing their initial military and medical training in Australia. The officers and NCOs would join the Australian contingent when it arrived in Egypt. Until the Australian Camel Field Ambulance became operational, medical support was provided by the two British Army Territorial Force units indicated above--the 1/1st Welsh Field Ambulance and later the 1/1st Scottish Horse Mounted Field Ambulance.

Meanwhile in Australia, in late January 1917, 93 other ranks commenced their military and medical training at Seymour, Victoria. This contingent departed Australia on l0 May 1917 on HMAT Boorara and arrived in Egypt on 19 June. Here they were joined by six officers, one warrant officer and 13 senior NCOs. The Ambulance commenced camel training on 29 July 1917 and this was completed within three weeks. On 18 August, the unit entrained at Cairo and moved to the Palestine front that was then facing the Turkish Gaza-Beersheba defensive line. On 20 August 1917, the Australian Camel Field Ambulance replaced the 1/1st Scottish Horse Mounted Field Ambulance in the Imperial Camel Brigade. However, for a period, 30 members of the Scottish Horse Field Ambulance remained attached to the Camel Field Ambulance as the Australian establishment did not initially include the necessary drivers and artificers--saddler, farrier, wheelwright--to man the wheeled vehicles issued to the Ambulance. The original Australian concept was that the whole Ambulance would rely solely on camels for transport and medical evacuation. With the advance of the British force into southern Palestine, the terrain proved more suitable for the use of wheeled vehicles and those held by the Scottish Horse Field Ambulance were taken over and retained by the Australian Camel Field Ambulance.

97th Australian Dental Unit. This unit, consisting of one officer, two sergeants and one private, was attached to the Australian Camel Field Ambulance from 1 September 1917. Prior to the attachment of this dental unit, there had been no dental support in the Imperial Camel Brigade since its raising in December 1916. The only dental equipment carried in the Brigade was a set of forceps carried by the Battalion and Field Ambulance medical officers. Extractions were done without any local or general anaesthetic. Considerable dental work was required prior to the third Battle of Gaza to make the Brigade dentally fit. (14) (It is interesting to note that dentures were only provided if the soldier had insufficient teeth to masticate the Army ration.)

Brigade Organisation--December 1917

By the end of 1917 the order of battle of the Imperial Camel Brigade had settled down into the organisation that it was to retain until its disbandment in June 1918:

Brigade Headquarters

1st (Anzac) Camel Battalion

2nd (Imperial) Camel Battalion

3rd (Anzac) Camel Battalion

4th (Anzac) Camel Battalion

No. 1 Mountain Battery, Hong Kong & Singapore, Royal Artillery

265th Machine Gun Company, Machine Gun Corps

10th (Camel) Field Troop, Royal Engineers

Brigade Signal Section, Royal Engineers

Imperial Camel Corps Brigade Train

Imperial Camel Corps Brigade Ammunition Column

Imperial Camel Corps Brigade Ordnance Section

Australian Camel Field Ambulance

97th Australian Dental Unit

Imperial Camel Corps Mobile Veterinary Section



Disbandment of the Imperial Camel Brigade

By mid-1918 the British advance into Palestine had moved into country which was increasingly unsuitable for camel operations. The rugged nature of the Judean Hills and the cold, wet winter of 1917-1918 caused an excessive number of camel casualties. In early June, the decision was made to convert the Australian and New Zealand Camel Companies to horsed units. (15) Personnel from the 1st Camel Battalion were used to form the 14th Australian Light Horse Regiment; while the 3rd Camel Battalion formed the 15th Australian Light Horse Regiment. These two Regiments, together with a French Colonial cavalry regiment--Regiment Mixte de Marche de Cavalarie--formed the main combat units of the newly raised 5th Australian Light Horse Brigade. (The French cavalry regiment consisted of North African troops--two squadrons of Spahis and two squadrons of Chasseurs d'Afrique.)

The two New Zealand Camel Companies were used to raise the 2nd New Zealand Machine Gun Squadron that supported the 5th Light Horse Brigade. (16) At the same time, the Australian Camel Field Ambulance was converted to a mounted brigade field ambulance and re-titled 5th Australian Light Horse Field Ambulance, also supporting the 5th Light Horse Brigade. Personnel from the 4th Camel Battalion were used to bolster the number of troops in the 14th and 15th Light Horse Regiments as a number of personnel in the 1st and 3rd Camel Battalions returned to their original units.

The six British Camel Companies were retained until 1919; mainly for patrolling the lines of communication and the Sinai Desert. The last two British Companies were not disbanded until June 1919 but personnel strengths were progressively run down. There was one last hurrah for the Imperial Camel Corps. No.7 and No.10 (British) Camel Companies were detached to the Hejaz from July to September 1918 to assist Colonel T E Lawrence and his Arab army in its attacks against the Damascus-Mediua railway east of Aqaba. The majority of the camels of the Imperial Camel Corps also found their way to the Hejaz. Some 2,000 riding camels and 1,000 baggage camels were transferred to Lawrence for use by his Arab army in its advance to Damascus.

Notes:

(1) Australian War Memorial - AWM4 Item 11/12/1 - War Diary Headquarters Imperial Camel Brigade 13 December 1916. The dates of specific events in some published accounts of the Imperial Camel Corps are at variance with the dates used in this papst. (and with one another). Where possible, dates used in the paper are taken from contemporary Official Records.

(2) Australian War Memorial - AWM224 Item MSS42 - Imperial Camel Brigade--Short History compiled by Captain R Hall in 1919, p. 1. Captain Hail was the Staff Captain on Headquarters, Imperial Camel Brigade when the Brigade was disbanded in July 1918. He also wrote a book on his experience in the Imperial Camel Corps: The Desert Hath Pearls, Melbourne: The Hawthorn Press, 1975.

(3) Australian War Memorial - AWM4 Items 11/12/1 and 11/12/2 - War Diary Headquarters Imperial Camel Brigade December 1916 and January 1917.

(4) Attached to the Brigade as a temporary smallarms Ammunition Column. It consisted of 59 camels and 23 Egyptian drivers. Australian War Memorial - AWM4 Item 11/12/2 - War Diary Headquarters Imperial Camel Brigade January 1917.

(5) Hall, op.cit, p. 1.

(6) Australian War Memorial - AWM45 Item 12/36 PART 1 - Report on Organisation and Formation of the Imperial Camel Corps, 1916 dated 31 December 1916.

(7) Ibid.


(8) Sir Archibald Murray's Despatches (June 1916-June 1917) - Second Despatch. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1920; pp. 60-61.

(9) Order of Battle of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, 26 July
1917, p. 7.

(10) Correspondence with the Machine Gun Corps Old Comrades Association, United Kingdom, 22 February 2002.

(11) John Robertson, With the Cameliers in Palestine, Dunedin, NZ: A H & A W Reed, 1938; p. 26. On page 25 there is a photograph of the Scottish machine gunners on parade with their camels.

(12) For example, see Australian Imperial Force Order No 874 dated 27 September 1917.

(13) Colonel R M Downes, The Australian Army Medical Services in the World War of 1914-1918, Volume 1 Part II The Campaign in Sinai and Palestine, Melbourne: Australian War Memorial, 1930; p. 269 and National Archives of Australia A11803/1 Item 1817/89/151.

(14) Australian War Memorial - AWM224 MSS279: Australian Camel Field Ambulance. Narrative by Major G S Shipway dated 26 May 1919.

(15) Australian War Memorial - AWM25 Item 157/1 - Headquarters Imperial Camel Brigade Preliminary Instruction dated 10 June 1918 and Headquarters Imperial Camel Brigade Re-organisation Order No 1 dated 16 June 1918.

(16) Major J H Luxford, With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine. The Official History of the New Zealand Machine Gun Corps in the Great World War 1914-1918, Auckland: Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd, 1923, p. 225.

 

Further Reading:

Imperial Camel Corps, AIF

Imperial Camel Corps, Roll of Honour 

Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920

Double Squadrons  

 


Citation: Imperial Camel Corps - Brief History

Posted by Project Leader at 12:01 AM EADT
Updated: Monday, 5 April 2010 9:49 AM EADT

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