With the Cameliers in Palestine
Chapter III — The Camel
The word "Camel" immediately brings to the minds of most people a picture of sand and Arabs, date-palms, and goat-hair tents, and a feeling of romance always associated with travel in the desert.
Before the Great War young New Zealanders had no more knowledge about camels than what they had gathered from tales of adventure, or from the sight of an occasional one in a travelling circus, and they little dreamt that before the war was ended they would hold themselves up as authorities on these animals, and all things connected with them.
A scientist says gravely that "a camel is a large tylopodous ruminant of the genus Camelus, having a humped back. There are two species, the Arabian or one-humped (Camelus dromedarius), and the Bactrian, or two-humped (Camelus bactrianus)." But this scientific description of a camel was of no use whatever to the colonial troopers when they came to handle the animals. To be of some practical value a treatise on the camel needs to give a detailed analysis of its physical, mental, and moral qualities (if it has any of the two latter).
The Arabs say that at the Creation, when the beasts of the earth were formed, there were left over a lot of remnants out of which was made a camel, and the parts are not hard to identify. The head of a sheep was placed on the neck of a giraffe, which was attached to the body of a cow, and the neck bent itself in shame at being put to such a use. The tail of an ass was appended, and the whole was set on the legs of a horse, which ended in the pads of a dog, on each of which was stuck the claw of an ostrich, and the monstrosity, evidently page 36being considered a failure, was banished to live in the desert where no other quadruped could exist, and where its solitary existence gave it "the hump." The Arabs say that the camel alone of all living things, knows what is the hundredth name of Allah, hence the supercilious expression it puts on its face when it condescends to look on a mere man. Is it to be wondered at that the camel, brooding over its hard fate, should have developed a grudge against all other created things? Thus we find that the animal has no feelings of gratitude for any kindness done to it, and has no feeling of companionship for man or beast. It will accept food from the hand, but will just as likely try to eat the hand that feeds it.
The camel has been hardly dealt with in literature. When it is first mentioned in the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, the camel is said to have formed part of a somewhat shady transaction that Abraham had with Pharaoh regarding Sarai, his wife, and later on it is said to have been afflicted by one of the plagues of Egypt, when a grievous murrain fell on the horses, asses, camels, oxen and sheep of the Egyptians, and the camel does not seem, after more than three thousand years, to have quite recovered from the affliction.
In his New Pilgrim’s Progress, Mark Twain says: "When a camel is down on all his knees, flat on his breast to receive his load, he looks something like a goose swimming, and when he is upright he looks like an ostrich with an extra set of legs. Camels have immense, flat, forked cushions of feet, that make a track in the dust like a pie with a slice cut out of it. They are not particular about their diet. They would eat a tombstone if they could bite it. A thistle grows about here which has needles on it that would pierce through leather, I think; if one touches you, you can find relief in nothing but profanity. The camels eat these. They show by their actions that they enjoy them. I suppose page 37it would be a real treat to a camel to have a keg of nails for supper."
Kipling says of it:
"The ’orse he knows above a bit, the bullock’s but a fool,
The elephant’s a gentleman, the battery mule’s a mule,
But the commissariat cam-u-el, when all is said and done,
’E’s a devil, and a’ ostrich, and a’ orphan child in one."
A later writer, W. W. Gibson, says of them:
"An’ then consider camels; only think Of camels long enough, and you’ld go mad— With all their humps and lumps, their knobbly knees, Splay feet, and straddle legs, their sagging necks, Flat flanks, and scraggy tails, and monstrous teeth."
Even in proverb the camel is maligned: "It is the last straw that breaks the camel’s back," is often quoted. It is a physical impossibility to break a camel’s back. No other quadruped has such a strong one, and if the loads that are imposed on camels were placed on horses’ backs they would immediately collapse.
So it was with prejudiced minds that the New Zealanders and Australian Light Horsemen came to the camels, but after some two years’ intimate experience of them in their native habitat, the men’s views were considerably modified. Trooper Bluegum, in The Cameliers, admits this when he addresses his camel thus:
"In the days when I was younger, when I never knew your worth, When I thought a prancing palfrey was the finest thing on earth, When a ride upon a camel seemed a punishment for sin, And made a man feel fed up with the land we’re living in, It was then my errant fancy lightly turned to thoughts of verse, And I libelled you, old Hoosta, in a wild Iambic curse. I know you now for better, but for you I might be dead, So I recant, old Hoosta, I take back all I said.
"When winter nights were freezing on the hills of old Judaea, You humped my load of blankets and a ton of surplus gear; When summer’s sun was scorching and my head seemed like to burst, You bore a full fantassi, and quenched my raging thirst. I have never yet gone hungry, I have never yet gone dry; That’s something to your credit in a place like Sinai.
You have been my board and lodging, you even humped my bed—
Honest Injun! Oont, I’m grateful; I take back all I said."
Owing to the peculiar cellular formation of its stomach a camel is able to retain sufficient water in it and to draw on its store at will so as to make it satisfy its requirements for four or five days. Even when camped beside a water supply the animals were watered only every third or fourth day. On one occasion, at Sheikh Nuran, a pack camel, through oversight, was missed on the regular watering day, and went for eight days without a drink—and lived. It was a sight to watch camels drinking. The saddle girths had first to be let out for two or three feet, before the animals approached the watering troughs, or the straps would have burst. The animal’s body visibly swelled in all directions until it resembled a teapot on a stand, with the neck for a spout, the tail for a handle, and the hump for a lid. What sighs of contentment were uttered and how they lingered over their drinks as if in utter enjoyment, as the water trickled slowly along the whole lengths of their throats. The camel is a true toper, and was the envy of many a thirsty Camelier. When it had the opportunity to indulge, it "made it a welter." No wonder Trooper Bluegum apostrophized his mount:
"You thirst a week unblinking,
And when I see you drinking,
You always set me thinking:
Lord, I wish I had your neck."
Horses in the Eastern campaign had to be watered daily, if possible. The longest time that the horses of the New Zealand Mounted Brigade went without water was for seventy-two hours, but this was most exceptional, and was not in the hottest season, being in the month of November in 1917. It will thus be seen that in its own country the camel has a decided advantage over the horse, especially in the desert where supplies of water are few and far between.
Kinglake, in Eothan, in the description of his crossing the Sinai Desert about the year 1860, saya: "The camel, page 39like the elephant, is one of the old-fashioned sort of animals that still walk along the (now nearly exploded) plan of the ancient animals that lived before the Flood. It moves forward both its near legs at the same time, and then awkwardly swings round its off shoulder and haunch, so as to repeat the manoeuvre on that side; its pace therefore is an odd, disjointed, and disjoining sort of movement that is rather disagreeable at first, but you soon grow reconciled to it. The height to which you are raised is of great advantage to you in passing the burning sands of the desert, for the air at such a distance from the ground is much cooler and more lively than that which circulates beneath."
The foot of a camel is composed of two soft, broad pads somewhat like those on the foot of a dog, and these spread out when the animal is walking, and prevent it from sinking in the soft sand. The ordinary walking pace of the animal is about three miles an hour; at a jolting trot it can travel at the rate of five or six miles an hour, but if urged it can move at a much more rapid speed. I have seen a horseman trying to round up a runaway camel in the sand, but the horse, when pushed to its utmost speed, was quite unable to compete with the runaway. The utmost speed of a camel was a most uncomfortable one for its rider, but this was seldom called for on active service, except when necessity demanded. If it had been, many of the Camelier’s personal possessions and "household" utensils would have strewn the desert sands.
For food for the camel each Camelier had issued to him fifty pounds of durra, a kind of millet, which was supposed to serve the animal as food for five days. When the unit was in reserve a supply of tibbin was usually issued in addition, to be mixed with the durra. Tibbin might be described as broken straw, it was too coarse to be called chaff. The camel, however, could add to his page 40rations by cropping the stunted scrub and scattered herbage occasionally found in the wilderness.
For his own use each trooper was supplied with a fantassi containing five gallons of water. The fantassi was a zinc vessel, oval in cross-section and about thirty inches long. This supply of water was supposed to serve him for all purposes for five days. In addition he was supposed to keep five days’ supply of rations (in the form of bully-beef or Machonachy rations, and army biscuits) in his saddle-bags.
The riding-saddle had a stout wooden peg at front and rear, and from these were hung horizontally the bag of durra on one side, and the fantassi of water on the other. Across the saddle were hung the two stout canvas saddle-bags containing the rider’s rations, and his spare clothing and personal equipment. Above these were spread his blankets, usually four in number (two issued, the other two commandeered) neatly folded to make a comfortable seat in the hollow of the saddle. A rubber ground-sheet covered these and kept off the rain, and above all his worldly goods sat the rider, cross-legged, with his calves and feet resting on a leather apron hung from the front of the saddle over the camel’s shoulders.
On one occasion when we were training to go on a longer and more arduous stunt than usual, we were ordered to cut down our loads as severely as possible. "You know, boys," said Colonel Mills, "you can’t take your drawing-room furniture with you this time."
The night before the 16th Company (New Zealanders) crossed over to the Sinai side of the Suez Canal at Ferdan, supplies of fodder had to be carted over the canal by means of pack-camels which had to balance themselves and their bulky loads on a swaying pontoon bridge whilst crossing. When the last camel of the party was loaded up with sacks of grain there was still a quantity left, but sooner than make another trip over in the gathering darkness, the packmen decided to try out the theory of "the last straw." The remaining sacks were securely lashed on top of the load of a sturdy pack-camel, and with the assistance of four men the valiant animal succeeded in getting into a standing position. There was a slight slope down to the bridge, and then the bridge itself had to be negotiated. Having no four-wheel brakes, the camel took the grade at a run on to the bridge, which swayed and groaned ominously. The pontoons dipped as the procession progressed across the canal, and rose again as the load passed safely across. Up the other side toiled the camel, and safely "barracked" at its destination, when one thousand and forty (1,040) pounds weight of grain was removed from its back. Half a ton carried under such circumstances is an achievement which surely entitled the noble animal to the name he was afterwards always known by, "Samson."
At first the Camel Corps was supplied with Bikanir camels from India—big, strong animals of a dark, tawny colour, but later on lighter Egyptian camels were used page 42for riding purposes. Early in the war the Maharajah of Bikanir is said to have made a princely gift of five hundred Bikanir camels to the British Government for the use of the army in Egypt.
The Camel Transport Corps, a different body altogether from the Imperial Camel Corps, was supplied with heavy draught camels for the purpose of carrying stores of all kinds from the base dumps to the various parts of the front line. In the advance up the coastal plain in Palestine, in November, 1917, General Allenby used thirty thousand (30,000) camels for carrying food, water and ammunition to the troops of one portion of the eastern force of his army. If all these animals were strung out in single file, head to tail, allowing twelve feet for each, they would form a column sixty-eight miles long.
Only male camels were used in the Camel Brigade. It would have been an unworkable system to have mixed the sexes, as in the East no mutilation of male animals, either horses, donkeys or camels for sterilisation purposes, is ever practised by the Mohammedans. The male camel, like the stag in its rutting season, is sexually excited at certain seasons of the year. When it is in this state, called "syming," it is bad-tempered and has to be handled carefully. Sometimes in the syming season a bull camel will go mad, and attempt to run amok through the lines, attacking anyone in its path. In this condition the brute lurches straight forward with neck outstretched, bared teeth, and foaming mouth, towards the object of his attack, and blindly stumbles over rope-lines or other obstacles in his path in his attempts to reach his victim. When a camel attacks a man he uses his teeth first, and then attempts to crush the life out of him by kneeling on him and pounding him with his hard horny knees. The Gypos say "Huwa magnun," (he is mad), and seizing a long rope attempt page 43to trip him up by running the rope round his legs, which they then tie together to prevent the animal from rising. They then belabour the beast unmercifully with sticks "to drive the evil spirit out of him"—the treatment is usually quite effective, and the animal can then be led back to its place in the lines in a chastened spirit.
On one occasion, at Rafa, a camel suddenly saw "red," pulled the halter off its head, and started along the lines looking for a victim. A trooper caught hold of a pick-handle, and planted himself right in the middle of the track down which the animal was lurching with head outstretched and mouth foaming. Everyone else bolted behind whatever shelter was nearest, but Jim stood his ground, and as the infuriated brute came at him with bared teeth, he hit it hard on one side of the soft end of its nose which caused the animal to stop and throw’ its head up in the air. Again Jim hit it on the other side of its jaw, and then drove home the attack with a blow on the end of its nose. This was too much for the "gamal" which turned tail with its intended victim laying on with his cudgel to whatever part of the beast’s anatomy was handiest. Many a military decoration was bestowed for a less meritorious act. On more than one occasion a "magnun" camel was shot dead just as it was overtaking a victim, sometimes an officer, sometimes a trooper, who was the object of its wrath.
Horses generally have a strong dislike for camels, but this dislike can be overcome by daily contact. Some of the officers of higher rank of each battalion used horses during part of the campaign, and these soon grew quite accustomed to the company of their more ungainly associates. This feeling of antipathy on the part of the horse was made use of in war in olden times, as for example, when Cyrus, the king of Persia, attacked Croesus, the fabulously rich king of Lydia, over five page 44hundred years before the Christian era. Herodotus, in his History, states, "When Cyrus beheld the Lydians arranging themselves in order of battle on the plain (near Sardis, the Lydian capital) in Asia Minor, fearful of the strength of their cavalry, he adopted a device which Harpagus, one of the Medes, suggested to him. He collected together all the camels that had come in the train of his army to carry the provisions and the baggage, and taking off their loads, he mounted riders upon them accoutred as horsemen. These he commanded to advance in front of his other troops against the Lydian horse; behind them were to follow the foot soldiers, and last of all the cavalry. The reasons why Cyrus opposed his camels to the enemy’s horse was because the horse has a natural dread of the camel, and cannot abide either the sight or the smell of that animal. By this stratagem he hoped to make Croesus’s horse useless to him, the horse being what he chiefly depended on for victory. The two armies then joined battle, and immediately the Lydian war-horses, seeing and smelling the camels, turned round and galloped off, and so it came to pass that all Croesus’s hopes withered away."Evidently a camel corps had its advantages over horsemen even in those far-off days.
On one occasion in 1918, when our Battalion was moving down the Jordan Valley towards Jericho, on coming round a corner in a depression, we suddenly met a troop of Indian Lancers mounted on well-groomed, high-spirited horses, the riders with their picturesque Eastern dresses and lances at the carry looking very dignified as they kept their regular formation. As soon as the horses saw and smelt our mounts they reared and plunged, and upset the beautiful regularity of their ranks. The Indian cavalrymen looked anything but dignified as we lurched past them with audible remarks, not altogether complimentary, as to their horsemanship.