Like other battalions, the Finsbury Rifles relied heavily on camels during the campaigns in Egypt and Southern Palestine. In desert terrain, camels were one of the most effective ways to move supplies and in some cases, soldiers. The 54th (East Anglian) Division – to which the Finsbury Rifles belonged – according to sources had 1166 camels, as well as mules and horses.
We discovered many photos of camels in the collection of Lt-Colonel S.C.Byrne particularly of Herbert, the officers’ mess camel, who carried their food supplies and was obviously a favourite .
These photos encouraged us to research the role of camels during the Finsbury Rifles’ campaign. We learnt some fascinating and curious facts! We’ve complied these into our top tips for…
How to manage your camel!
According to the Finsbury Rifles’ war diary, Lt Wynn Evans, probably a Transport Officer in the battalion, was detailed to B Company CTC (Camel Transport Corps) for a course in ‘Camel Management’ on 2nd June 1917. We imagined what he might have learnt at this course.
Lesson 1: Why did the Finsbury Rifles need camels?
Soldiers cannot fight without the right food, equipment and ammunition. These reach them through the ‘Supply Lines,’ organised by the Army Supply Corps. Had the Rifles had been based on the Western Front like their sister battalion, the 2/11 London Regiment, the supply lines would have used horses, railways or the new technology of motorised transport, such as lorries.
However, since the Rifles were based at the Suez Canal and around the Sinai Desert these options weren’t available. Engineers were building a railway to transport supplies across the Sinai Desert but it was a huge and challenging project, with only around a mile of track being laid each day. So quicker alternatives had to be found. Supplies were transported by ship and train to a supply depot at the edge of the desert. Camels, the ships of the desert, were then used to take them to the army camps based in and around the Sinai Desert.
Camels are ideally suited to desert terrain as they have:
- a double row of long eyelashes and nostrils that close tightly against dust and sand
- broad, well-padded feet, making it easy for them to walk on soft sand
- woolly hair insulating them against extremes of temperature
- Super-efficient kidneys and a digestive system that conserves every drop of liquid. Their stomach holds some 100 litres of water so they can last 5 days without water (and drink less than horses)
- a hump that contains fat reserves and can carry heavy loads
Lesson 2: Where did they get the camels from?
Camels and camel handlers were recruited by the Egyptian authorities. Camels were already essential in Egypt for farming and transport, so the local population were unhappy about having their camels taken from them.
The Egyptian authorities soon ran out of local supplies of camels, so had to import camels from the Sudan, Somalia, Algeria and India. This was hugely expensive and controversial as many camels died en route to Egypt. .
In December 1915 the Camel Transport Corps (CTC) was created. This was a British Army unit made up of Egyptian camel handlers, British officers and non-commissioned officers. The CTC was organised into companies. Each company had 2000 camels with around 1,100 Egyptian handlers to manage them.
Lesson 3: Who were the camel handlers?
The camel handlers were an often overlooked and little understood component of the Allied Forces in the Middle East.
The camel handlers were recruited from the local Egyptian population. They usually came from extremely poor rural villages. They were paid 6 piastres a day and were given their food and supplies like blankets, equipment and a blue djellaba (long sleeved tunic) uniform.
The handlers were told when they enlisted that they’d serve in the CTC for six months. However, they often ended up serving for considerably longer, against their wishes. As the war continued, it was increasingly difficult to recruit enough new handlers for the Camel Transport Corps.
Egyptian handlers would have served alongside the Finsbury Rifles facing immense danger and unequal treatment. Of the c.170,000 camel handlers who served in the CTC 6,000 were killed or wounded seriously enough to be discharged.
Lesson 4: What were camels used for?
Camels were used by the Finbury Rifles to carry their food and water, as well as all equipment and supplies, except ammunition and guns. As camels are very strong, each camel could carry 2 x 12.5 gallon (57 litre) water tanks. However, soldiers still had to be careful of being too enthusiastic and overloading camels.
Camels were also used to transport injured troops in special ‘litters’ called cacolets. But travelling in the cacolets was a very uncomfortable and unpleasant experience for those wounded soldiers.
The Finsbury Rifles also had a few horses, but only officers rode them. They also used mules for carrying ammunition and guns. Mules are are much better in desert terrain than horses, as they are more adaptable, eat less and need less water. However, these mules would have been troublesome and very stubborn. Mules go at their own pace, and don’t respond to being hurried!
Inevitably the Finsbury Rifles had to learn the hard way, well known in the Middle East that mules and camels do not mix! Mules react badly to the smell of camels and will try to stampede.
Lesson 5: Look after your camels or else!
The Finsbury Rifles would have had to learn quickly how to manage their camels. Camels are tough but not indestructible and need enough water and fodder. They also need to be handled properly. If not groomed properly or kept in insanitary, crowded conditions the Army quickly discovered that the camels would develop ‘sarcoptic mange’, a skin infection spread by parasites. Due to the fact it spread easily, about half the camels in the CTC eventually caught this unpleasant disease.
Camels can also be vicious. Male camels in particular can be violent during the mating season. Soldiers in the Middle East mentioned finding the camels ‘smelly, sweaty beasts’ with an uncertain temper. The CTC reported that 380 Allied officers had been sent to hospital with camel bites in just one year. 70 of these soldiers eventually lost a limb.
Finally, the Finsbury Rifles would have had to learn quickly that a dead camel is a disaster! They are hard to replace and become a health hazard. A dead camel would attract flies who in turn spread disease. In the pre-antibiotic era, insect bites and scratches could easily become infected in unsanitary conditions, which could lead to blood poisoning – often fatal. The Finsbury Rifles, like others in the campaign, learnt to put iodine on scratches and bites immediately.