Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Imperial Camel Corps

My apologies to my readers for a brief hiatus over the past couple of weeks. A number of things--vicissitudes and dissertissitudes--have made for little blogging time recently. Today, though, I wanted to share with you a wonderful, unexpected, artifact and some of the fascinating history that came with it. In so doing, we will continue our exploration of service animals in WWI, having previously considered the histories of cats and, to a small extent, horses. Whilst looking through the IWM's collections database for a couple of different blog-worthy items (related to tea-making and souvenir-taking on the front), I came, circuitously, across this magazine:

Barrak: The  Camel Corps Review, 1 Sept 1917. Cairo. © IWM, Item Documents.9964
Not only was there an Imperial Camel Corps during the First World War, but there was also a periodical, entitled Barrak, dedicated thereto, as you can see from the example above. The Corps was started in January, 1916, and served on fronts in the Middle East. It was not, you may be surprised to find, the first camel-mounted British military unit. The Imperial's predecessor, the Somaliland Camel Corps, was initiated in 1912, and endured until 1944. A colonial protectorate with ties to their imperial holdings in India, British Somaliland, part of present-day Somalia, was under British rule from the 1880s to 1960, except for a brief period of occupation by Italy in the 1940s. The Somaliland Camel Corps enforced British governance of the protectorate. Its numbers were largest during its earlier phase, with up to 700 riders fighting rebels in the area during the Great War years.

Though the Somaliland Camel Corps bears its own fascinating history, we are here today to explore the Imperial Camel Corps, founded specifically for service in the Middle East during the First World War. Pro-Turkish tribespeople began to revolt in Egypt in 1916, and the Corps (known as the ICC) was organized to quell this rebellion, according to the Australian War Memorial's excellent web page on the ICC. ICC troops were enlisted primarily from Australia, New Zealand, and Britain, with Indian soldiers later joining their ranks. With the shift from patrol to combat in Egypt, the ICC was reorganized into the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade by the close of 1916. Four battalions within the brigade were established by 1917, and with the addition of the Hong Kong and Singapore Mountain Battery, as well as a machine gun squadron, Field Ambulances and medical support for soldiers and camels, and a Royal Engineer Troop, among other supports, the ICC Brigade became a formidable military force. For those who want to know more, New Zealand History Online has a great article on the organization of the ICC.

Hong Kong and Singapore Mountain Battery troops training. Australian War Memorial, Item B01465.

Australian Camel Company, ca 1914-18.

Camels were considered an ideal service animal for the Middle Eastern front, as they were naturally adapted for the terrain and climate. The camels who served in the ICC were initially brought in from the north Indian district of Bikaner. This princely state had its own camel-mounted unit, known as the Bikaner Camel Corps, whose Imperial Service Troops also fought for the British Army in Egypt.

Bikaner Camel Corps in Egypt, ca 1914-18.
Camels are sturdy animals, and both the Indian and the Egyptian camels who also served in the Corps were able to carry soldiers and their equipment at an impressive clip in the desert sands. They also managed to remain calmer in combat situations than their equine counterparts. Typically, camels would transport men, sometimes known as cameliers or cameleers, and goods, with troops dismounting to engage in artillery combat.  The Australian War Memorial's collection database has an extraordinary assortment of objects and media representing life in the ICC.

George Lambert. Camel, Abbassia, full marching order. 1918. © Australian War Memorial. Item ART02744
The ICC Brigade served gallantly in Egypt and Palestine through to Armistice. Combat in Palestine began to necessitate transition for Australian and New Zealand troops of the ICC, who were moved into horse-mounted battalions. Notably, near the end of the war, two of the British battalions who had remained in the Brigade played an important role in the Arab Revolt, alongside T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"). By the time of the ICC's complete disbanding in May, 1919, nearly two hundred fifty casualties had been sustained among its British, New Zealander, Australian, and Indian members. A memorial to the Imperial Camel Corps was installed at Victoria Gardens, London, in 1921.

ICC Memorial, © New Zealand History
The mounted soldier and his camel are startling and somewhat poignantly situated in the verdant park, especially against the backdrop of modern skyscrapers as shown above. They seem to pause amid a long and arduous journey from a world far away, reminding us that the ghosts of 1914 hail from many reaches of the globe and represent a much stranger, more curious, set of histories than we may initially assume.

© Fiona Robinson


  1. How interesting -- I've seen "Lawrence of Arabia," I saw Peter O'Toole on a camel, but it never occurred to me that they were used in real life!

  2. Yes, the story of the ICC was news to me too! Thanks for reading!

  3. I learned about the Camel corps that developed in the US around the time of the civil war starting in 1836.

  4. My grandfather served with the Camel Corps and the experience remained with him for the rest of his life. He saw Lawrence and told us some wonderful stories about the many places he visited and the things he saw (like so many others, he was a young man and this was his first time away from a small English town - imagine the effect this would have had on him). He also told us about the different types of camels and the variety of jobs they did!

    1. Caroline, thank you for this fascinating comment! I would love to hear more about your grandfather's experience, which sounds extraordinary. Kindly let me know if you would be willing to follow up with more details via email, or perhaps a guest post (I will have to check on how to arrange this)? I'd be delighted to know more.
      All the best,

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