New Zealand Camel Companies

In August 1916 No 15 (New Zealand) Company, Imperial Camel Corps, was formed from men originally intended as reinforcements for the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade.

After extensive training the New Zealand cameliers joined the 1st and 2nd battalions, plus a number of other Imperial Camel Corps companies, at El Mazaar oasis in the Sinai in December 1916. On 19 December they were formally grouped into a single brigade made up of three camel battalions – the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade. In addition to the existing camel battalions, the Brigade included the newly raised 3rd Battalion to which No 15 (New Zealand) Company was initially assigned. The Camel Brigade's baptism of fire came a mere four days later when it took part in the Battle of Magdhaba.

About the same time No 16 (New Zealand) Company – formed only five weeks earlier in November 1916 – began to carry out its first long-range patrols in the Sinai Desert. As the railway and water pipeline that sustained the main body of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force was extended across the northern Sinai, the patrols undertaken by the Camel Corps companies fanned out far to the south and south-east, protecting these vital strategic assets against the possibility of Ottoman raid or attack.

These patrols were mostly carried out at section level (about 30 men) and it was rare for a complete company to go on one, although isolated Ottoman outposts located by these patrols were occasionally the target of company-strength raids.

The withdrawal of all Ottoman outposts from the Sinai Peninsula after the annihilation of their garrison at Rafa in January 1917 removed the main threat to the British lines of communication across the Sinai. In response to this development, and the intensification of fighting around Gaza in southern Palestine, the remaining camel companies patrolling the Sinai, including No 16 (New Zealand) Company, were taken off those duties and formed into the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade's fourth ('Anzac') battalion in May 1917.

The addition of the 4th Battalion allowed the Brigade to have one battalion rotating through the Camel Brigade's Training Depot at Abbassia for rest and refitting while maintaining a strength of three battalions in the field.

For the rest of 1917 the New Zealand, Australian and British cameliers fought against the Ottoman Turks, first in Palestine proper, and then from early 1918 in the Jordan Valley. During a re-organisation of the Brigade in August 1917 No 15 (New Zealand) Company was transferred from the 3rd Battalion to the 4th Battalion, bringing the two New Zealand camel companies together in the same battalion for the first time.

The Battle for Hill 3039

While long-range desert patrol work was what the Imperial Camel Corps was best suited for, they often found themselves taking part in full-scale battles alongside the rest of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, especially during the Palestine campaign. One such action occurred during the raid on Amman by British forces at the end of March 1918. This ended in failure with the British unable to break through the last of the Ottoman defences surrounding the city despite repeated attempts to do so over a three-day period.

In the midst of this fighting the Imperial Camel Corps' 4th Battalion (which by this stage only included one New Zealand company, No 16), together with the Auckland and Canterbury Mounted Rifles regiments, managed to capture the heights of Hill 3039 which overlooked the city below. The capture of this important position invited immediate retribution from the Ottoman Turks who began to target it with heavy artillery fire. Quickly on the heels of this artillery bombardment came a series of ground assaults by Ottoman infantry determined to retake the hilltop.

For the next 24 hours the 4th Camel Battalion repelled these attacks, holding on doggedly until they were ordered to retreat as part of a general withdrawal by the British force.

The brave defiance of the cameliers in this action cost the 4th Battalion dearly. No 16 (New Zealand) Camel Company was particularly hard hit, losing three of its six officers. Two of them, 2nd lieutenants Charles Thorby and Victor Adolph, were killed in action during the battle; the third, Lieutenant Arthur Crawford, died of his wounds in hospital two months later. Thorby, originally a trooper in the Wellington Mounted Rifles, and Adolph, ex-Auckland Mounted Rifles, were both Gallipoli veterans.

How to cite this page: 'New Zealand Camel Companies', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/camel-corps/nz-companies, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 7-Feb-2013