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The Fighting Cameliers

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The Fighting Cameliers
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Author(s): by Frank Reid
Date Published: 01/2006
Page Count: 200
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-025-8
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-035-7

The war in Sinai & Palestine from the irrepressible viewpoint of the Camel Soldiers There are few accounts of the exploits of the Imperial Camel Corps but ‘The Fighting Cameliers’ has the distinction of being written in an easy going immediate style full of incident, dialogue and action that brings the soldiers that comprised this unique fighting force into sharp relief. Written primarily from an Australian perspective with all its resilience & wit, this highly readable account often sweeps the reader up like a novel. A must for everyone interested in the First World War in the desert & Palestine.

We had only moved forward a few yards when the first Camelier fell. He just lurched forward and crumbled in a heap on the ground. Soon others fell. The enemy machine-gunners were sweeping the ground in front of us, and already it looked as if our casualties were going to be heavy.

It cheered us when we noticed that shells from the Royal Horse Artillery, and the Bing Boys’ guns appeared to be doing considerable damage to the enemy trenches. The English and Scottish yeomanry had dismounted, and linking up with us on the left, were advancing as confidently as if they were walking down a city street. A shell burst in the centre of their lines; they halted for a few seconds; then went on again.

When we were half a mile from their trenches the Turks and Germans greeted us with a deadly shell and machine-gun fire. Many more men fell. Seeing it was madness to continue the advance just then, our officers ordered us to lie prone on the ground and take advantage of what cover we could find. With our hands we scraped heaps of sand in front of us and lay behind them. In front, and somewhat to the right of us, stood a solitary tree with dense foliage. That tree was responsible for many of our casualties. A man fourth to the right of me fell forward on his face. Soon afterwards the third man from me tried to raise himself from the ground, then toppled sideways; a moment later the Camelier lying next to me rolled on his back, and a red smudge showed on the front of his tunic.

“There’s a sniper at work,” said Lieutenant Moylan, who was lying on the ground to the left of me.

“Yes,” I answered, “and I’ll be the next to go.”

I lay there, expecting any moment to fall a victim to the concealed sniper’s skilful marksmanship, but nothing happened to me. Later we were told that the sniper had been shot by a light horseman.Another hour passed. Suddenly there was wild cheering all along the camel lines. Behind, the 2nd Light Horse Brigade Machine Gun Squadron were racing towards us. The machine-gunners got their guns up a rise to within fifty yards of the enemy’s first-line trenches, but paid a heavy toll. Here they remained all day, and their presence on the ridge gave us considerable relief as they now drew much of the Turks’ machine-gun fire.

Considerable activity in the Turkish trenches set us on the alert for a counter-attack. Then Sergeant Dan Pollard shouted: “Cripes, they are all off to Constantinople with hats in their hands.” Those were his last words. A bullet went through his head. Almost at the same moment Sergeant Arthur Oxford, while raising his rifle to fire, fell forward on his face. A bullet had entered the side of his nose, and he died without a murmur. Frank Matzonas pushed his head up from behind the little shelter in front of him, and got a bullet through his brain.

The machine-gunners on the rise were getting in some good work, but we sadly watched them dropping round their guns. Hell! It was hard to lie there and see them being slowly wiped out. A doctor on a camel came slowly towards us, holding his medical pannier in front of him.

Down went the camel, shot in the hindquarters, but the doctor jumped from its back before it stumbled to the ground. Then picking up his pannier he came towards us. Without a word he began to attend to the wounded.

A string of water-laden camels led by Gyppos came over a rise. The Turks began to shoot them down, and terror-stricken and screaming the Gyppos fled in all directions.

The Turkish snipers above us were evidently picked marksmen. A Camelier’s hat hopped in the air as a bullet ploughed a glancing furrow in his scalp. Another man had the stocks of three rifles shattered in his hands, yet was not injured.When dawn broke camels were still carrying away the wounded, and the Turks began to, snipe them. It made us boil to see camels, cacolets, and the wounded inside them crash to the ground. In one cacolet were “Yank” Bell, and a trooper from the 2nd Light Horse Machine Gun Squadron. Bell had been awarded a Military Medal for bravery during the second attack on Gaza, and the decoration had been handed to him just before we went to Khuweilfe. It was in his upper tunic pocket when he was on the ridge the previous day, and a bullet went through it, then entered his body under the armpit.

Trooper Stubbs of No. 13 Company, was urging the camel ahead by hitting it with his hat, when it was shot. He managed to get the two wounded men out of the cacolet, but could do no more.

Back on the ridge we watched Stubbs’s plight. Someone had to go to his assistance. Trooper McGillivery dashed across the open ground, but just as he reached the dead camel he spun round and fell. We thought he was dead; but ten minutes later he began to crawl slowly towards the other side of the camel, where he was concealed from the Turkish snipers. Later when stretcher-bearers picked him up they found that a bullet had fractured one of his legs.

Most of the second day we still lay out on the slope of the ridge. Suddenly Lieutenant E. W. Dixon jumped up and cried, “If you are Australians follow me.” Away he went with the Cameliers close behind. When we reached the summit of the ridge we found that the main body of Turks had retired. Their snipers had sacrificed themselves by keeping up a rapid fire to make the retirement a success. All were killed. Two of them lay behind each sangar. Remembering how they had fired on our wounded earlier in the day we gave no mercy, and I doubt if they expected it.The Turks were now close to where the machine-gunners were concealed. Jackson raised his rifle to fire at one, but the Turk was too quick for him. Raising his own rifle he shot Jackson through the head. Lying beside the damaged gun O’Rourke shot the Turk who had killed Jackson. Just about this time the two men who had been sent to reinforce the gunners the previous night were also killed, and O’Rourke was the only man left out of the team of seven. A Gallipoli sergeant, a corporal from No. 2 Company, and a bomb-thrower named McGrath now rushed forward to assist the lone machine-gunner. The sergeant, who had brought spare parts with him, now began to work the gun, but several Turks rushed forward to put it out of action. O‘Rourke shot one of them, and McGrath killed the others with bombs.

O’Rourke’s wound was troubling him, but he refused to leave his gun. He crawled beside the sergeant to relieve him when he wanted a rest. Several more Turks now rushed the gun, but, turning it in their direction, the sergeant killed four of them, while McGrath stopped the others with a few bombs. The three men with the gun now found themselves in a tight corner. The Turks were determined to put the gun out of action. One of them crawled forward, then hurled a stick bomb, but it did no harm, and the sergeant killed him. The other Turks now hesitated.

Somewhere behind the advanced line of Turks a sniper had been busy all morning; he was a splendid marksman, and had killed or wounded several Cameliers. Trooper A. Searle, of No. 4 Company, was now observing for the machine-gunners, and, seeing another Camelier creeping towards them, he warned him not to look over the top of the sangar. The Camelier ignored the warning, and the sniper shot him through the head. Another man now crept forward, and the sniper killed him. With several dead men lying round him, the sergeant still worked the gun, and laughed softly each time he dropped a Turk who tried to creep forward.

At this stage of the fighting some of the Cameliers stood in the open and rolled boulders down on the enemy.