The first recorded use of camels in battle occurred more than two and a half thousand years ago when the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great used them in his victory over the Lydians at the Battle of Thymbra in 547 BC.
Camel Transport Corps
Although not used for fighting, the Camel Transport Corps, formed in December 1915, was a regular British Army unit made up of locally recruited Egyptian camel handlers who were subject to military discipline and commanded by British officers and NCOs. The initial force was about 11,000 cameliers and 20,000 camels split into ten companies; more were added later. The camel transport companies were the final link of a supply chain that moved supplies from ship to railway to depot and delivery to troops in the field. They played a vital part in the ultimately successful British campaigns against the Ottoman Turks in both the Sinai and Palestine.
Since then camels have often fulfilled the role of cavalry on the battlefields of the Middle East and adjacent regions, including during the Sinai and Palestine campaigns of the First World War.
Formation of the Imperial Camel Corps
The Imperial Camel Corps was formed in early 1916 to assist with fighting against the Senussi, an Islamist movement supported by many of the Arab and Berber tribes of the Libyan-Egyptian border area.
In late 1915 the Senussi, with Ottoman backing, had attacked British and Egyptian border outposts and threatened nearby coastal towns. By March 1916 the British had successfully crushed the bulk of the Senussi forces, but it was clear that ongoing monitoring of this largely neglected frontier desert region would be required. This was to be the task of the Imperial Camel Corps.
The Corps had been established in January 1916. After two months of training at the Camel Training Depot at Abassia, the first four camel companies were sent out to patrol the Libyan Desert to re-assert British control of the border and watch for any signs of renewed unrest.
These camel companies were intended to be fighting units and their ranks were filled via drafts of Australian infantrymen; some were Gallipoli veterans, others reinforcements yet to see action. Camels were used to transport the soldiers to the scene of the action, but once there they would dismount and fight on foot as infantrymen.
Expansion of the Corps
The manner in which the Imperial Camel Corps was intended to fight was very similar to that of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, Australian Light Horse and British Yeomanry regiments already in the Middle East. More reinforcements for these horse-mounted units arrived in the first part of 1916 than could readily be absorbed. The British commander of the newly named 'Egyptian Expeditionary Force', General Sir Archibald Murray, took advantage of the situation by sanctioning the transfer of these excess reinforcements to strengthen and expand the Imperial Camel Corps.
In March 1916 six new camel companies were raised from British Yeomanry regiments and in June a further four companies made up of Australian Light Horse reinforcements were added to the Corps.
Formation of the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade
The reason for this expansion was the British decision to launch a major offensive that year to drive the Ottoman Turks out of the Sinai Peninsula - in other words the British Army now intended to fight its way across the Sinai Desert.
The original Imperial Camel Corps companies had already proven their worth in the Libyan Desert against the Senussi so there was every reason to think that they would be just as useful in a similar role in the Sinai against the Turks.
In addition to their normal tasks of carrying out long-range desert patrols, the fighting in the Sinai occasionally required the Imperial Camel Corps to take part in major battles and actions. In the course of this fighting the camel companies were sometimes formed into ad hoc battalions by grouping four companies together.
This experience led to a decision to formally re-organise the Imperial Camel Corps into a brigade formation with standing battalions in December 1916. By this time the campaign in the Sinai was drawing to a close and the campaign in Palestine was beginning in earnest.
It was at this point that the two New Zealand camel companies took their place in the Imperial Camel Corps.