The Imperial Camel Corps

Page 5 – Cameliers and camels at war

How the cameliers fought

The cameliers of the Imperial Camel Corps would ride their mounts to the scene of the action but once there they were expected to dismount and fight on foot – as infantrymen.

The four-man group was the smallest level of organisation in the camel companies. At first, when in battle one trooper from this group was expected to stay behind and guard the four camels while the other three went into action. This was the drill used in the horse-mounted infantry units then in Egypt.

However in practice the troopers found the camels were a lot easier to control than horses once they were barraked (made to kneel down). They were also much less prone to panicking when exposed to enemy artillery and small-arms fire. Therefore it soon became normal procedure for one man to look after 12 or even 16 camels once they were barraked. 

This meant that the actual fighting strength of an Imperial Camel Corps company was usually only a few troopers short of the total strength of the company (184 officers and men).

The camels

At full frontline strength the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade required approximately 3,880 camels. This was enough to carry enough supplies and equipment to keep the Brigade in the field for five days as well as providing mounts for the men.

Camel play

'Wrestling bareback on camels produced some unexpected results, as those taking part never knew what their mounts would do. A camel never got excited, but in the middle of a contest would calmly begin to stalk off on its own, carrying its protesting rider with it, or would walk away from under its owner while the latter was held in the grip of his opponent, as he vainly attempted to stop the camel by holding on to its bare hump.' From With the Cameliers in Palestine (1938)

In the desert a camel can routinely go up to five days without water whereas horses need to be watered daily.

The walking pace of the camels used by the Imperial Camel Corps was on average calculated to be 4.8 km (3 miles) an hour. At a trot they could make 9.5 km (6 miles) an hour. Each camel was expected to carry a load of at least 145 kg (the average weight of a camelier, his equipment and supplies – which included 300 rounds of .303 inch ammunition for his rifle).

The Corps was supported by a Camel Remount Depot and a Camel Veterinary Hospital alongside the camelier's training depot at Abbassia, near Cairo, Egypt.

At first the Imperial Camel Corps used Bikanir camels supplied from India. Later, lighter Egyptian camels were used for mounts while Bikanir camels continued to be used for carrying supplies and heavy equipment. In accordance with local Egyptian practice only un-neutered male camels were used in the Imperial Camel Corps. This could often make them very difficult to control:

Sometimes in the syming [rutting] season a bull camel will go mad, and attempt to run amok through the lines, attacking anyone in its path. In this condition the brute lurches straight forward with neck outstretched, bared teeth, and foaming mouth, towards the object of his attack, and blindly stumbles over rope-lines or other obstacles in his path in his attempts to reach his victim. When a camel attacks a man he uses his teeth first, and then attempts to crush the life out of him by kneeling on him and pounding him with his hard horny knees.

Trooper John Robertson, No 16 (New Zealand) Company, 4th Battalion, Imperial Camel Corps

How to cite this page

'Cameliers and camels at war', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/camel-corps/camels-and-cameliers, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 7-Feb-2013