Sydney Bonewell - Imperial Camel Corps

 

 

 

The advantages of camels in a desert environment are well known, and the British Army had raised the Somaliland Camel Corps in 1912. However the British Army forces serving in Egypt at the start of the First World War did not possess their own camel formation. The first units of what became the Imperial Camel Corps were four company-sized formations that conducted long-range patrols around the Suez Canal and the Sinai Desert. The companies were raised in Egypt in January 1916, from Australians returning from the failed Gallipoli Campaign. The Indian princely state of Bikaner supplied the first camels as the Bikaner Camel Corps already used camels. These camels were later only used as draught animals and the lighter Egyptian camel became the mount chosen for carrying troops. The camels could cover an average distance of 3 miles (4.8 km) an hour, or 6 miles (9.7 km) an hour trotting, while carrying a soldier, his equipment and supplies.

The camel companies consisted of a small headquarters and four sections, each of seven groups of four men. The establishment of a company was 130 men, all armed with the standard British bolt action rifle of the time, the Lee-Enfield. However the move from patrol to a more combat role in August 1916 led to a re-organisation. Each company added a machine-gun section of fifteen men with three Lewis guns; the company headquarters also received extra staff. All this increased company strength to 184 men. The four companies were expected to operate as independent units that travelled by camel but then dismounted to fight as infantrymen. Following the practise of cavalry and mounted infantry units, one man of each group of four held the camels when the team was in action, which reduced a team's firepower by a quarter. However it was soon discovered that camels were not as nervous as horses when faced with artillery and rifle fire, and one man would look after twelve to sixteen camels once the troopers had dismounted.

The Imperial Camel Brigade was formed on 19 December 1916, under the command of Brigadier General Clement Leslie Smith VC. The brigade originally comprised three battalions, 1st (Australian), 2nd (British), and 3rd (Australian), plus supporting units. Each of the battalions had an authorised strength of 770 men and 922 camels. A battalion comprised four companies and a headquarters. The 4th (ANZAC) Battalion was raised in May 1917, but instead of increasing the brigade fighting strength, it was decided one battalion would always be resting and refitting, while three battalions served at the front.

To complete the brigade structure and supply added firepower, the brigade received some other units: the 265th (Camel) Machine Gun Squadron, with eight Vickers machine guns, and the Hong Kong and Singapore (Mountain) Battery, armed with six BL 2.75 inch Mountain Guns. Despite their title, the battery was formed by men from the British Indian Army. The brigade also had its own Royal Engineers (the 10th (Camel) Field Troop), a signal section, the Australian (Camel) Field Ambulance, and the 97th Australian Dental Unit, which with only four men was the brigade's smallest unit. The brigade included the ICC Mobile Veterinary Section, and the brigade's logistic units were the ICC Brigade Ammunition Column and the ICC Brigade Train, which carried enough supplies for five days. The total brigade strength was around 4,150 men and 4,800 camels.

In March 1916, after two months of training, the first camel patrols left their depot at Abassi on the outskirts of Cairo to patrol the Libyan desert. In 1915 the Senussi had attacked British and Egyptian outposts along the Suez canal and the Mediterranean coast. The resulting Senussi Campaign was largely over by then, but the patrols were to show the Senussi that the British were watching them, and to protect the border areas. 

Around the same time long-range patrols, each of about thirty men, went into the south and south-east of the Sinai desert to detect any Ottoman incursion into the area. When the patrols discovered Ottoman outposts, the brigade organized a company-strength raid against the outposts. The ICC undertook similar patrols in the north to protect the rail and water lines, which were vital for any British attack.

The Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) went over to the offensive in the Sinai Desert in August, winning the Battle of Romani. In support of these operations in December the brigade moved into the Sinai; their first large battle came during the Battle of Magdhaba on 23 December, two days after the brigade was formed

On 9 January 1917 the ICC was involved in another victory during the Battle of Rafa, which forced the Ottomans to withdraw the Sinai outposts towards Gaza. This also reduced the need for independent camel patrols across the Sinai; in May the EEF consolidated the now-surplus companies into a new unit, the 4th (ANZAC) Battalion.

The intensity of operations grew and the ICC were next involved in the capture of the Turkish force at Bir el Hassana, the defeats during the First Battle of Gaza in March, and the Second Battle of Gaza in April and a raid on the Sana redoubt in August. They then had a break to refit. Subsequently they participated in the victories in the Battle of Beersheba, the Third Battle of Gaza, and at Battle of Mughar Ridge during October and November. By the end of the year the advance had crossed the Sinai and entered Palestine.

Early in 1918, the ICC moved to the area of the Jordan valley and took part in the attack in March and April. The First Battle of Amman was unsuccessful; after three days of battle the British were unable to break through the Ottoman defences around the city and had to withdraw. The 4th (Anzac) Battalion did succeed in capturing Hill 3039 overlooking the city and managed to hold out for twenty-four hours in the face of artillery and infantry attacks, until ordered to withdraw.

During the Second Transjordan attack on Shunet Nimrin and Es Salt, the camel brigade were assigned the western defence of the Jordan River ford at Umm esh Shert defending the left flank of the 4th Light Horse Brigade. The camel brigade was unable to support the light horsemen, which were attacked on the left flank and forced to withdraw.

When the EEF advanced out of the Sinai and into Palestine, the change in terrain led to the disbandment of the ICC. In June 1918, the Australian troops were used to form the 14th and 15th Light Horse Regiments. The New Zealand troops formed the 2nd New Zealand Machine Gun Squadron. All three units became part of the 5th Light Horse Brigade. The six British companies remained part of the ICC for a while longer. Two of them fought with T.E. Lawrence in the Arab Revolt, and in July 1918 carried out operations sabotaging the Hejaz railway line. However, no reinforcements were assigned and the six remaining companies were reduced in strength to two before they were eventually disbanded in May 1919.

Over two years of service cost the ICC 246 deaths: 106 British, 84 Australians, 41 New Zealanders, and nine men from India

A memorial to the Imperial Camel Corps was unveiled on the 22 July 1921, on the Thames Embankment in London. On one side it is inscribed with the names of all the members of the corps who died during the war, while on the front is the sentiment;

To the Glorious and Immortal Memory of the Officers, N.C.O's and Men of the Imperial Camel Corps – British, Australian, New Zealand, Indian – who fell in action or died of wounds and disease in Egypt, Sinai, and Palestine, 1916, 1917, 1918

The monument also lists all the battles and engagements fought by the corps;

•             1916: Romani, Baharia, Mazar, Dakhla, Maghara, El. Arish, Maghdaba

•             1917: Rafa, Hassana, Gaza 1, Gaza 2, Sana Redoubt, Beersheba, Bir Khu Weilfe, Hill 265

•             1918: Amman, Jordan Valley, Mudawar (Hedjaz)

The strength of the brigade/corps in the field was around 3,380 men and 3,880 camels, with one battalion resting.

•             Brigade Headquarters (40 men)

•             1st (Australian) Battalion (770 men)

•             2nd (British) Camel Battalion (770 men)

•             3rd (Australian) Camel Battalion (770 men)

•             4th (ANZAC) Camel Battalion (770 men)

•             Hong Kong and Singapore (Mountain) Battery (255 men)

•             265th (Camel) Machine Gun Squadron (115 men)

•             10th (Camel) Field Troop, Royal Engineers (71 men)

•             Signal Section, ICC Brigade (30 men)

•             Australian (Camel) Field Ambulance (185 men)

•             97th Australian Dental Unit (4 men)

•             ICC Mobile Veterinary Section (42 men)

•             ICC Brigade Ammunition Column (75 men)

•             ICC Brigade Train (245 men)

 

 

Sydney Bonewell was born in Hull in 1890 to Walter J Bonewell and Jane E Bonewell.

The 1891 census shows him living at 51 Day Street

1901 Census

1911 census

 

On the 21st November 1915 Sydney joined the East Riding Yorkshire Yeomanry.

The Camel Corps was made up from soldiers selected from Yeomanry divisions, which is probably how Sydney ended up with the Camel Corps. He served in the 10Company 2Battalion ICC.

This is Sydney’s medal card.

This is an extract of a diary taken from the commanding officer dated 27th March 1918, this involves Sydney’s company:

"The only artillery to arrive to support the Anzac Mounted Division’s attack was six guns of the Hong Kong and Singapore Mountain Battery of which four pieces moved into position to cover the attack and to give what little support they could with their light guns and limited ammunition supply while the two remaining guns were in reserve to conserve ammunition. The 2nd British Battalion formed up on the open ground to assault using the old roman road as a centre line with the 7th company on the left and the 10th company on the right under the direct command of Lieutenant Colonel Buxton, the 8th and 9th company were in support under Captain Arthur Newsam and the 4th company was held as Brigade reserve. 

At 3 pm the Cameleers began their attack advancing in artillery formation spread at intervals of three lines over the exposed ground, led by Captain James Leadbetter of the Brigade Machine gun Squadron who carried out a reconnaissance ahead of the attacking troops and provided fire support with the guns of his Squadron from the flanks during which Private John Pearson was killed.

The companies advanced slowly along the ridge line moving by section rushes as the Turks withheld their fire until the last minute when the men had become fully exposed. Drawing near they came under a heavy concentrated enfilade fire from three sides as this bare crest was open to the Turks on Hill 3039 where they had their trenches arrayed in tiers at different heights, from the Amman Citadel in front and from to the caves to the north on the 2828 ridge. The 10th company was the hardest hit and quickly lost the company commander Lieutenant Joseph Lyall along with Lieutenant Alfred Wallbank and the Company Sergeant Major wounded, while Sergeant George Clarke along with a number of men were killed. The Hong Kong and Singapore Mountain Battery also came under fire from a number of enemy 77mm guns which soon caused much concern as they struggled to maintain the support of the advance by firing at a slow rate.

Meanwhile the attack was progressing in rushes as the assault endeavoured too across the open plateau cut by bare fields and small stone fences where the men were constantly falling after being hit. As the fierce firestorm increased, the 7th and 10th company were soon shattered as they reached to within 600 yards of the city however the fire was too strong and soon the troops became bogged down and forced to find cover as the men struggled to survive on the exposed slope of the ridge. The attack now died away with Privates Norman Oliver, Arthur Bennett, Philip Evans, Leslie Lyons, Victor Blackwell and Sid Howard among the many fallen.

As the Camel Brigade fought in front of Amman the 2nd Light Horse Brigade had attacked to the north, yet they to found the enemy well entrenched and supported by machine guns and artillery forcing them to break off the attempt with heavy losses".

"Once darkness had fallen, the soldiers of the medical corps came into their own risking their lives rescuing injured men trapped in no mans land. Corporal Ernest Eatock of the Camel Field Ambulance attached to the 1st Battalion went out with his stretcher bearers recovering wounded almost up to the enemy trenches and under heavy fire, while Captain Reginald Andrews the 2nd Battalion RMO was wounded during the day from shell fire. The 4th company was also used as stretcher bearers to help recover the wounded during the night and as many as three officers and 70 men from the 2nd Battalion and one officer and 11 men of the 18th company were brought in before morning."

Judging by the soldiers effects record, Sydney was demobbed in 1919. Unfortunately Sydney died in Hull in the same year. The record below shows how much his family were paid.

His death was reported in the Hull Daily Mail 3rd April 1919

 

 

It seems 2 of his brothers also lost their lives in the same War.

 

 

 

 

 

 With very special thanks to Jan for her research and for passing on this wondeful story.