Camel Corps During Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign

The great general Napoleon Bonaparte employed a camel corps during his Egyptian Campaign between 1798 and 1799. He formed this “Corps of the Dromedaries” after suffering Bedouin incursions and raids into Egypt proper. The creation of Napoleon’s camel corps happened in 20 Nivôse Year VII (9 January 1799) and existed for about three years until they were disbanded when French troops left Egypt.

Camel corps

Napoleon’s camel corps. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Napoleon formed the camel corps with Bactrian camels (two-humped camels) for several reasons. One reason was that the Bedouins would conduct raids and easily escape from the French cavalry because of their swift horses. However, Bactrian camels were quick having been clocked as fast as 40 miles per hour for short periods, which meant at times they were even swifter than the Bedouin’s horses and able to run them down. The Bactrian camels were also effectual against horses because despite the horses eventually becoming accustomed to them, they hated the sight of the camels. In addition, the camels could carry ammunition and several days’ worth of provisions, which meant “the dromedaries could easily march 24 hours on the stretch without food, [and] they never failed to catch the thieves, whose horses could not last so long.”[1] In relation to the camels’ ability to go with food and water, it was noted:

“Camels are loaded according to the length of the journey and the number of wells on the route. The common load for an Arabian camel is up to 500 pounds for short journeys, and more for local work, but a hundredweight less for longer journeys. Burckhardt observed that a camel in Egypt could endure four days’ thirst in summer, but no traveler should expect to go more than five without being watered; yet the camels of Darfur (Sudan) had to travel up to ten days to reach Egypt, though many died on the way. Egypt-bred camels, accustomed to verdure, often expired on the Mecca pilgrimage across the desert. The Bedouin boasted to Burckhardt of amazing journeys, but he deemed them fanciful. The best record known to him was 130 miles (with two crossings of the Nile) in 11 hours, after which the animal collapsed. Doughty found that in a caravan the pace is little more than two miles an hour. Once set, the pace can be so regular that travelers used to measure distance by the hours ridden.”[2]

Bactrian Camel, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Bactrian camel. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When the idea was broached about Napoleon establishing a camel corps there were concerns. Although the idea was bold, the execution appeared to be difficult and there were many issued to be solved:

“How to break the dromedaries for manoeuvring, how to accustom them to the noise of musketry, to the sound of the trumpet, and, above all, how to habituate Frenchmen to this novel kind of equitation? How to construct the gear for the animal, how to guide him on the march, how to get him to obey all the military commands?”[3]

The concerns were quickly solved. For instance, the camel corps involved men from a variety of regiments and the men chosen were “the most determined and most intelligent. … The regiment was composed of two squadrons, each of four companies, and each company and fifty dromedaries.[4]. The French soldiers also learned the “Arab ‘camel language'” to work with the camels. It took about a month’s worth of training to make a solider skillful in the art of camel driving and maneuvering. In addition, each soldier was armed with a musket and lance. When the French camel corps caught their enemy, they would surround them, and the camels would kneel down to allow the French soldiers to dismount. This then allowed the fighting to be pursued on foot and it terrified the Frenchman’s enemies and they were “compelled to give up their brigandage and to sue for a truce which they afterwards almost always kept.”[5]

As to how Napoleon’s camel corps were outfitted for these pursuits and battles against their enemies is as follows:

“A large saddle with stirrups was fitted over the hump. At first two men back to back were seated on this saddle, one being employed in guiding the animal, whilst the other in this position was supposed to enjoy more freedom in his movements. The inconveniences of this system, however, were quickly discovered, and it was soon abandoned, both men being made to face the same way. One of the nostrils of the animal – the right one – was pierced and a ring was passed through it, to which was attached a thin cord, single or double, to stop and caution the animal; a halter served to guide him. A portion of the baggage and supplies were placed in the bags of the saddle cloth, the musket being attached to the right side of the saddle in the ordinary way.”[6]

camel corps - Napoleon on a camel.

Napoleon on a camel. Public domain.

Napoleon supposedly outfitted all of his men with camels and it was reported that at one point Napoleon met his “generals Menou, Berthier, Androssy, and Letureq, all mounted like him on dromedaries.”[7] Moreover, after his camel corps were established there were several remarkable excursions reported. These excursions proved that fewer French soldiers could be highly effective against their enemies. An example of how this was achieved is demonstrated as follows:

“In eight days a detachment of the corps went from Cairo to El Arich, from El Arich to Suez, from Suez to Cairo, from Cairo to Peluse, and at the end returned from Peluse to Cairo, as a rule making thirty leagues in each journey. The rapidity of movement of these troops made them extremely feared by the hostile tribes. A small detachment of these soldier obtained results which would have otherwise necessitated the employment of several battalions of infantry. “[8]

Although the idea of a camel corps seemed to have many advantages, there was also one major drawback some soldiers experienced. It was nausea, and it even affected Napoleon at times. As noted in the Vestibular Contributions of Health and Diseases:

“Soldiers who were susceptible to motion sickness could become ‘seasick’ on this ‘ship of the desert’ and not be able to engage in battle.”[9]

camel corps - Napoleon in Egypt, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Napoleon in Egypt. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

However, despite the drawback of motion sickness, most of the time the camel corps were successful such as was reported in “Marmont’s Mémoires”:

“There were 600 men mounted on 600 camels; each soldier carried his ammunition and food for himself and his beast (a week’s rations), and they were able to make several days’ excursion in the desert without suffering. As soon as this corps arrived in the neighbourhood of the enemy the men dismounted and fought on foot. Never was a force more appropriate to the country whether it was employed and it rendered great service. It alone was able to keep the Arabs in check.”[10]

The camel corps and their tactics also terrified the Bedouins and they were therefore likely to quickly negotiate a truce rather than fight. Moreover, Napoleon’s camel corps proved effective against the Bedouins for a variety of other reasons. They helped to quickly relay communications to outlying posts and enabled supplies to be rapidly delivered during emergencies. But the real reason the camel corps proved so effective was because they were able to strike blows unexpectedly at great distances, perform long tedious marches in a few days, and over the long run, the camel proved highly effective because the Bedouin’s horses could not out last or outrun the amazing camel corps.

References:

  • [1] Journal of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, 1885, Volume 29, p. 535.
  • [2] Speake, J., Literature of Travel and Exploration: A to F, 2003, p. 171.
  • [3] Furse, George Armand, Mobilisation and Embarkation of an Army Corps, 1883, p. 240.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Journal of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, p. 535. 
  • [6] Furse, George Armand, p. 240-241.
  • [7] Ibid. p. 242.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Lopez-Escamez, Antonio, Vestibular Contributions to Health and Disease, 2017, p. 232.
  • [10] Journal of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, p. 535.

Oh hi there 👋
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, every month.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Leave a Comment