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Animals of the Great War, Part 1: The Camel Corps

2014 marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I. In addition to humans, the war involved millions of animals - from horses to pigeons to slugs! In this special year, our Laura Brown, Auxiliary Veterinary Nurse writes a series of articles remembering animal helpers, heroes and victims of the war.

 

Everyone has heard of War Horse. But if Michael Morpugo had set his bestseller in the Middle Eastern theatre of the war instead of in Europe, it would have been called War Camel.

At the beginning of the war, Ganga Singh, the Maharaja of Bikaner in India, sent his camel corps to support the British in Egypt. British soldiers soon came to appreciate the advantages that camels had over horses in a desert. Not only could a single camel carry a soldier and six weeks’ worth of supplies for days at a time without water, but camels proved to be much calmer than horses under fire.  In cavalry units, one man out of four had to hold the team’s horses while his companions fought; but with camels, just one man was needed to look after 12 to 16 animals. So the “cameliers” had much greater firepower than their horse-riding equivalents.  

Camel Corps in the Desert

It wasn’t long before the British were using Egyptian camels as well as Indian ones. The Imperial Camel Corps (ICC) was created in 1916 and included troops from Britain, New Zealand, Australia and India. It fought in Egypt, Sudan, the Sinai Peninsula and Palestine. While the soldiers were all male, almost all the camels they rode were female -- they were quieter than males and had more endurance.

The ICC had its own mobile veterinary section, but many camels received decidedly old-fashioned care. Mange was dressed with butter, and camels ate the soldiers’ table scraps when there was no grass for grazing. Likewise, an old or injured camel would sometimes serve as a source of meat when the soldiers had nothing else.

Of course, when we think of camels in World War I today, the first thing that comes to mind is the Arab Revolt and its special liaison T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence said that one of his reasons for adopting Arab clothing was that it was easier to ride a camel in robes than in an Army uniform. In his classic war memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he described a typical scene in camp:

 "So many camels in company made a mess indescribable, couched as they were or tied down all over the camping ground, with more ever coming in, and the old ones leaping up on three legs to join them, roaring with hunger and agitation."

 

Camel Transport 

Up to forty camels a day died or were wounded in the Arab Revolt.

With the advantages that Western forces had discovered in camels during the war, it seems possible that camels could have been used more widely in future conflicts. Fortunately for animals -- if not for humans -- by the time World War II came around, both horses and camels had largely been replaced by motorised transport. Today, just one camel cavalry still exists in the world - the Ganga Jaisalmer battalion of the Indian Army, descended from the Bikaner Camel Corps founded by Ganga Singh.

Camel Corps at Beersheba

 Images courtesy of Library of Congress (http://memory.loc.gov/)

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