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Saturday, 29 October 2011


Most of my paternal ancestors are elsewhere – if not actually overseas, then certainly in corners of the United Kingdom not immediately accessible to me. Like me, they wouldn’t stay put, always moving on to new opportunities – in fact, I live in Scotland because my London father took a job here and relocated, eventually meeting my Scottish mother.

Her roots are therefore much closer to what for the time being I call home. Many generations of them, the Piper family, lived and died in a small area of Ayrshire. Many lie buried in a quiet country churchyard in the tiny village of Sorn there, just a morning’s drive away from me. Amongst the graves is a memorial to “Pte William Piper, Imperial Camel Corps.”

William Piper (1891-1919)
c1914 in the uniform of the Ayrshire Yeomanry

Sorn’s population may have fluctuated over the years, but today it is no larger than it was in the 1790s – around 300. Everybody has always known everybody else. When war broke out in 1914, many young men who had grown up together at Sorn School queued together to enlist with the Ayrshire Yeomanry – among them my Piper-born grandmother’s cousin William Piper.

The Ayrshire Yeomanry on manoeuvres at Sorn, c1914

After some basic training, the still-raw Yeomanry recruits were shipped off, literally, to one of the worst theatres of the war. They were attached, as the 1/1st Lowland Mounted Brigade, to the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division, fighting at Gallipoli.

The Gallipoli campaign was a disastrously unsuccessful attempt by the Allied Powers to capture the Ottoman capital Constantinople and secure a sea route through the Bosphorus to the Black Sea and Russia. Casualty rates on both sides ran to around 60%, nearly half a million men in total. Although only two further Allied soldiers were wounded by enemy action in the mass evacuation which followed in December 1915, many more died in the rain and snow which accompanied it. Disease in the unsanitary trenches also took its toll. Will Piper survived.

The evacuated Allies were ferried south to British-occupied Egypt, where they regrouped. Will, who had spent all his life working with horses, volunteered to join the new camel mounted units being formed to deal with local rebellion and the threat of Ottoman attacks. These units eventually coalesced as the Imperial Camel Corps. Three of the Corps’ four battalions were drawn from Australian and New Zealand light horse, which had suffered very high attrition at Gallipoli. The 2nd Batt. however was composed from the remnants of the various British Yeomanry regiments who had fought there.

Members of the 2nd Battalion, Imperial Camel Corps, c1917

As a force composed largely of antipodeans the Corps had a reputation from the start for disrespect for authority, an attitude derived also in part from its exclusively male camels. Male camels were used because they were cheaper than the female of the species; and they were cheaper because they were noisier and less docile. The roaring from a large group of male camels could apparently be heard for miles. What they presumably lost in the element of surprise by this behaviour, they made up with their ability to go nearly three times as long as a horse without water.

Although losses were still high, the Camel Corps were successful in their role throughout 1917, particularly at the battle of Maghdaba and the third battle of Gaza. In May 1918 many troops were redeployed from Palestine to the Western Front, including what was left of the Ayrshire Yeomanry, now part of the 12th (Ayr and Lanark) Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Their redundant camels were given to Maj T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia.

Winston Churchill (left) challenged T.E. Lawrence (3rd left) to a camel race in Egypt in 1921, perhaps on surplus camels of the Imperial Camel Corps. Lawrence won.

Will however remained in the Middle East, serving in the Cavalry Branch of the Machine Gun Corps. Machine guns had proved their value on the Western Front earlier in the war, and by now a machine gun squadron was attached to every brigade of cavalry including those of the Imperial Camel Corps. The Machine Gun Corps had a reputation for heroism, and being often deployed in advance of front lines suffered such high casualty rates that it was known as the Suicide Club. By 1918 however, Egypt and Palestine were relatively stable, and Will Piper saw the war out in Cairo.

Four camel ambulances of the Imperial Camel Corps

Having survived Gallipoli and seen further front line service in Palestine with the Imperial Camel Corps and the Suicide Club, it is a cruel twist of fate that Will caught a cold after the end of the war, while on patrol in the cold desert air of Winter 1918. He died of pneumonia in an Egyptian field hospital in February 1919, so very far from his family and his Ayrshire home.

 Sorn members of the Ayrshire Yeomanry at training camp c1914
(for the record, back row: Smith of Smeathston, Hugh Sloan of Blairmulloch, S Ferguson, A Thomson, Templeton, S Kennedy; front row: W Mair, R Strathearn, J Alston (Visitor), J Eccles)

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