A posed photograph of Australian, British, New Zealand and Indian camel troops.
Warriors have fiercely charged into battle on horses, on elephants, and on… camels? For the soldiers of the Imperial Camel Corps in the early 1900s, riding camels made much more sense than riding horses.
Palestine Camel Transport
The campaigns of the Imperial Camel Corps took them through the desert, and therefore an animal that did not drain water resources and could tolerate the heat was most practical. Thus, despite its habit of spitting, the stubborn camel made its appearance in human combat.
During World War I, the Allied Powers lost the Gallipoli Campaign in Turkey, forcing the troops to retreat to Egypt. Although Egypt was under British occupation, the land was threatened by an Ottoman invasion in Sinai and an internal rebellion by the Senussi tribes. To help counter these military dangers, and to optimize the desert warfare abilities of the Allies, a group of Australian volunteers, trained as camel jockeys, formed four mounted infantries.
Image: Frank G. Carpenter
The camel-mounted officers proved most useful as guards of water supplies, effectively causing the Senussi population to die of thirst. The Senussi population was further weakened with the help of India’s Bikaner Camel Cavalry. Due to their success, the Allied military leaders pulled four units off horses and had them mount camels. Additionally, they created 6 new camel cavalry units, yielding a total of 14 camel infantries, divided into 4 battalions. These battalions had a reputation for being made up of shady characters, since the Australian military leaders used the creation of new units as an excuse to rid themselves of the more violent, unmanageable soldiers.
The 4 battalions included several hundred all-male camels. Although they made much more noise than the equivalent number of horses, the camels could last up to 5 days without water, as opposed to horses’ two. This meant a greater distance covered with fewer resources expended – critical for military strategy.
Image: Antony McCallum
Though more durable than horses, once in battle, the camel units proved untrained and unsuited for combat. The Allies suffered many casualties in the three battles of Gaza. In the Third Battle, the camels were brought to the Judean Hills, where the cooler and damper climate cancelled out the camels’ greatest strength. The pragmatic reasons for having a camel-riding army were no longer applicable, and thus the cavalry disbanded.
Image: Dawit Rezene
Camels in Eritrea
Other armies have considered the use of camels for military personnel, including the US Army. In the mid-1800s, the military employed camels as a means of transportation to traverse the arid Southwest. However, the camels were not used for long, and were only seriously helpful during surveying projects.
Image: Regina Wiss
Among the disadvantages of camels were that their scent frightened horses and their stubbornness frustrated men, and by the outbreak of the Civil War, all were sold to private owners.