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By Land By Sea By Camel? The Royal Marine Detachment of The Camel Corps in Egypt 1884-5

In 1884 the Gladstone Government, after bowing to public pressure, finally authorized a relief force to rescue General Charles Gordon, who was besieged in Khartoum. This expedition was to be commanded by 'Britain's Only General' Sir Garnet Wolseley. The plan Wolseley devised was to send the bulk of his force up the Nile in whalers and to raise a Camel Corps, which would be sent across the desert. This Corps was to be raised in two divisions, the first from the Cavalry Regiments stationed at home, and the second from the Brigade of Guards and the Infantry Regiments already in Egypt.

On the Corps arrival in Egypt, they were joined by a company of Royal Marines (101 men) under the command of Major W H Poe, along with Captain AC Pearson, and Lieutenants CV Townshend and HN White. This detachment was included as the 4th Company Guards Camel Regiment. All of the Corps with the exception of the Royal Sussex Regiment were mounted on camels, with the camels only being used for transport. All fighting carried out by the infantry was on foot.

The Cavalry division of the Camel Corps consisted of two elements the Heavies and the Lights. The Heavies were further broken down into ten detachments and the Lights into nine. Each detachment consisted of two officers, two sergeants, a bugler and thirty eight men.

The Guards Camel Regiment consisted of eight companies, including the one formed by the Marines. The companies were in turn broken down into detachments of a similar strength to the cavalry. The Mounted Infantry Camel Regiment comprised a staff and four companies; each company consisted of four platoons with an officer, five NCOs and twenty five men.

The Guards, Lights and Heavies, wore red serge jumpers (or loose tunics) yellow-ochre cord trousers, dark blue puttees, leather ankle boots and a white pith helmet with goggles. Each man had a rifle, a sword bayonet, a leather bandolier with fifty rounds, a leather belt, pouch, frog, and sling, haversack and water bottle. The officers wore a similar uniform but of superior quality.

The Royal Marines wore a grey/khaki tunic with brass buttons and blue shoulders straps together with silver badges, trousers without puttees, a light brown helmet with pagri, a buff waist cartridge belt, white haversack, black boots and a black bayonet scabbard. Major Poe continued to wear his red Marines Officers tunic.

The Camel Corps left Korti on the 26th December 1884 under the command of Maior General Sir Herbert Stewart, also included in the force was a naval brigade of four Officers and fifty five men under the command of Captain Lord Charles Beresford. Wolseley's plan was for Stewart to cut across the desert to Metemmeh a distance of about two hundred miles and establish a depot there. This would cut across a loop of the Nile, shortening the whaler's journey and avoiding two cataracts. The river column under Wolseley himself was to travel up the Nile and meet up with Stewart's force at Metemmeh.

Once at Metemmeh, it was planned that the combined force would rendezvous with Gordon's four steamers, which had been operating on the Nile. These could be used to send a token force to Khartoum. It was anticipated that the arrival of British troops dressed in scarlet tunics would cause the Mahdi's forces to give up the siege.

Part of Stewart's force, comprising one squadron of the 19tn Hussars, part of the Guards Camel Regiment, some of the Mounted Infantry, a detachment of Royal Engineers together a camel train and supplies initially advanced as far as the wells at Gakdul, without suffering any harassment. As the wells were secure Stewart brought up the remainder of his force consisting of, the naval brigade and a Gardiner Gun, the Heavies, the remainder of the 19th Hussars, Guards Camel Regiment, Mounted Infantry and Engineers. Together with the Royal Sussex Regiment, the Medical Staff Corps and the Commissariat Transport along with its native drivers.

On the 14th January the whole force left Gakdul heading for the wells at Abu Klea stopping for the night in the open desert with one more stop planned before reaching the wells on the 16th. At midday on the 16th, however, scouts from the 19th Hussars reported the enemy was in the hills ahead. Stewart's first thought was to attack immediately, but by the time arrangements had been made it was too late in the day. Consequently the force had to spend another night in the desert. This time a zareba was constructed from thorn bushes and stores carried by the camels. During an uncomfortable night, with little sleep or water, the force came under sporadic fire from Arab riflemen.

On the morning of the 17th, Stewart formed his force into a square with the baggage camels in its centre. He left behind in the zareba all non essential stores and the sick under a guard provided by the Royal Sussex Regiment. Once the force had formed into the square, Stewart was able to advance to the wells.

As the advance began however the enemy kept up a steady rifle fire and Stewart's force began to suffer casualties. Suddenly a large enemy force appeared and charged the front of the square, heavy fire drove the enemy to the left side towards the corner held by the Heavies. At this point Beresford pushed the Gardiner Gun, manned by the Naval Brigade crew, out through the gap that had opened up in the square in order to obtain a better field of fire. This reckless move enlarged the hole in the square and was in vain as the gun almost immediately jammed, the enemy swarmed over the gun killing two of the crew and forcing the remainder back into the square.

Meanwhile Colonel Burnaby, the highly individualistic officer of the Royal Horse Guards had wheeled his Dragoon Guards out to the right making the hole in the square even larger. His men were soon overwhelmed by the charging Arabs and also forced back into the square after suffering heavy casualties. Burnaby himself was mortally wounded by a spear thrust in the throat.

The Arabs who had managed to enter the square now found their way blocked by the baggage camels and the middle of the square became a confused mass of fighting men using sword, spear, bayonet, rifle and fist. All of the Arabs in the square were killed and the discipline and marksmanship of the infantry and marines drove off the attack.

During the attack the British suffered nine officers and sixty five men killed and nine officers and eighty five men wounded, unfortunately many of the wounded subsequently died of their wounds. The Arabs lost at least a thousand killed and an unknown number wounded. The entire action lasted only ten minutes.

Stewart was now able to finally advance to the wells at Abu Klea, as his men were now desperate for water, the Arabs meanwhile kept up their sniping and succeeded in causing further casualties. On reaching the wells, the force stopped for the night and the following day the dead were buried and the stores were brought up from the zareba, thus reuniting the force.

On the 19th the advance to Metemmeh was resumed, the wounded however were left at the wells once again guarded by the Royal Sussex. After some twenty hours marching the force came under long range enemy fire from the enemy, four miles from the village of Metemmeh which was held by the enemy. In consequence a zareba was constructed with the intention of repulsing the anticipated attack. It was at this point that Stewart was wounded in the groin and the command of the force passed to Sir Charles Wilson of the Royal Engineer, Wilson although a skilled engineer had no infantry training and had not seen active service before. After discussing the situation with Stewart, it was decided a square comprising the Guards, Marines and Mounted Infantry under the command of Colonel Boscowen of the Coldstream Guards would advance to Metemmeh.

The square was immediately attacked, but this time the square held its shape and the well timed volley fire ensured that the Arabs were mown down and not one managed to get within eighty yards of it. The square then resumed the march and as night fell they arrived at the Nile, where having slaked their thirst, most of the men lay down and slept till morning. The next day the remainder of Stewart's Force advanced to the Nile and contact was made with Gordon's four steamers, which had also arrived off Metemmeh.

Lord Beresford was given command of them and after a discussion by Wilson and Stewart two of the steamers, together with Wilson and a hand picked detachment from the Royal Sussex under Lieutenant Todd-Thornton, were sent on to Khartoum. For no apparent reason the steamers waited for three days before finally leaving on the 23rd.

The following day the Steamer Bordein struck a rock and was stuck fast for six hours until refloated after much hard work by the crews. Finally on the 28tn January 1885 both steamers reached Khartoum, after having run the gauntlet of shore batteries, only to find the Mahdi's flag flying over the town. Khartoum had fallen two days previously on the 26tn and Gordon was dead. The delay before the steamers set off probably cost Gordon his last chance of being saved.

On the return journey the steamer Telanaweih struck a rock and sank, the crew though were able to transfer to the Bordein, however two days later the Bordein in turn had to be beached after striking another submerged rock. Wilson and his men managed to reach a small island where they entrenched themselves. Meanwhile Captain Stuart Wortley, together with two men from the Royal Sussex, volunteered to go for help and the three men succeeded in reaching Metemmeh by using a small native boat .

On their arrival Lord Beresford promptly went to Wilson's rescue in the steamer Safieh, he too came under fire from shore batteries and a shell holed the boiler forcing Beresford to anchor in mid stream. The Safieh came under sustained fire from the banks of the river, but Chief Engineer Henry Benbow managed to patch the boiler. Beresford was therefore able to carry on and rescue Wilson's party, which had been under constant attack on the island.

While Beresford was rescuing Wilson a column had returned to Gakdul for reinforcements and stores. It returned with the Royal Irish Regiment and General Sir Revers Buller who was to take over command from Wilson. His orders were to retire to Korti via Abu Klea and the retreat started on the 14th February. On the 17th at Abu Klea a further engagement was fought. By this time the men's uniforms and boots were in tatters, and the column had to walk as two thirds of the camels had died. Eventually on the 9th March the column arrived back at Korti having travelled some four hundred miles through the desert. The Camel Corps finally reached Wadi Haifa on the 1st June 1885 and was disbanded.

Of the Royal Marines six men had been killed and Captain Poe together with thirteen men wounded. Colour Sargent Drew was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions during the campaign. For their services with the Camel Corps the marines received the Egypt Medal with the clasps Abu Klea and the Nile 1884-8, and the Khedives Bronze Star dated 1884-85.

Notes

C/Sgt Drew DCM. The recommendation for the DCM was passed to the Queen on the 7th November 1885 and he was presented with his award by the Queen at Windsor Castle on the 25th November. The details of the award were published in The Times of London on the 26th November, which stated that C/Sgt John Drew Royal Marine Light Infantry and Sgt G Symons 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards. Had "on the occasion of the attack on the sick convoy on the 13th of February 1885, being with the advance guard, and ordered to fall back at once under fire, these two non-commissioned officers showed the greatest coolness in assisting to get camels back to the column, and it was mainly owing to their exertions that they were brought in safely".

Captain William H Poe, with reference to his wound the following is an extract from 'With The Camel Corps up the Nile' by Count Gleichen.

"A company of the Guards Camel Regiment was ordered to support the guns at the two huts aforesaid to reply to the enemy's fire, which had been concentrated on them. And just there Major Poe of the Marines was hit by a bullet, which smashed his thigh. He would persist in wearing a red coat, saying his grey one was not fit to be seen, and this naturally attracted the Arab marksman."

Poe had his leg amputated on the 19th January and was subsequently Mentioned in Despatches and awarded a CB for his part in the campaign.

Sergeant Henry Eagle wrote a song about the campaign titled "The Song of the Camel Corps"

Lt Townshend transferred to the Indian Army and took part in the defence of Chitral on 1895. During the First World War he found fame or infamy, when he surrendered the garrison of Kut to the Turks.

Sources

Abbot PE, Recipients of the Distinguished Conduct Medal 1855-1900, Hayward Press (1975)

Gleichen Count, With the Camel Corps up the Nile, Chapman and Hall (1888)

Keown-Boyd Henry, A Good Dusting, The Sudan Campaigns 1883-89 ,Leo Cooper (1986)

Webb Jack, The Abu-Klea Medal Rolls, The Author (1981)

Reproduced from ‘Soldiers of the Queen, issue 104

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