Egyptian Labour Corps in France

The Egyptian Labour Corps is another facet of the British Army that is poorly covered by existing primary evidence, with post-war research and writing suffering from an absence of operational records The corps served at Gallipoli and in the theatres of war in Salonika, Mesopotamia, Eygpt, Palestine and Syria, but this page focuses on its work in France. It appears that discussion about this took place in Egypt as early as March 1916, but it was not for more than a year that elements of the corps finally began to arrive in France.

National Archives. Extracts from the proceedings of a meeting of the War Committee. Signed 11 April 1916. CAB37.

The men of the corps were enlisted for a six month contract. Officers were British.

24 March 1917
Numbers 71 and 72 Companies (total 8 officers, 58 British and 1208 “native” men) arived at Marseilles
71 Company moved from docks to Les Abbatoirs Camp and 72 to Fournier Camp
Depot for Egyptian Labour Corps to be established at La Barrasse Camp and a hospital at Musso Camp
An inspection of 300 men of 71 Company, working under instructions of Bermuda Royal Garrison Artllery, held on 27 March, reported them “smart and intelligent”

29 April 1917
Arrival of 73, 74 and 75 Companies and Egyptian Labour Corps HQ (total 9 officers and 2000 men)

11 May 1917
Arrival of 79 Company (3 officers and 727 men)

12 May 1917
Arrival of 76 Company (3 officers and 605 men)
77 Company (3 officers and 634 men)
78 Company (3 officers and 724 men)

21 May 1917
Directorate of Labour reported that “a large number of NCOS of the Egyptian Labour Companies were found to be useless and that application had been made for authority to repatriate the inefficients“.

A Branch HQ had by now been established at Rouen.

19 June 1917
Numbers 80, 81 and 82 Companies (total 1523 men) arrived at Boulogne on the ship ship “Saxon”
78 Company reported to be working at Boulogne Docks

25 June 1917
Numbers 82, 84 and part of 82 Companies arrived (total 10 officers and 1648 men)
82 and 84 Companies proceeded to join Fourth Army. They arrived “without tents” and were billeted in Peronne on 29 June. [These companies appear to have been put to work on roads and railways but left Fourth Army in early July 1917 when headquarters relocated to Dunkirk]

The above is not entirely consistent with a report at GHQ which said that, by the end of June, just one of the Egyptian Labour Companies had ceased to be under orders of the Lines of Communication and had moved to come under an Army-level command.

1 July 1917
85 Company (total 2 officers and 436 men) arrived at Taranto (Italy). After a brieg journey to Faenza, the company returned to Taranto where it was engaged on dock work ad construction of camps.

10 July 1917
(total 4 officers and 975 men) arrived at Marseilles

By the end of July, five of the companies had ceased to be under orders of the Lines of Communication and had moved to come under an Army-level command. The details are obscure, although given events in early August (see below) it appears that the five included 81 and 83 Companies which went to Third Army. Two other companies are also reoprted as being with Third Army, and all four were on salvage work. One company was said to be with Fourth Army on road and railway work. At this time, total strength in France was 45 officers and 10248 other ranks.

Imperial War Museum photograph Q2702. With thanks. “Men of the Egyptian Labour Corps engaged in the unshipping of stores at Boulogne, 12th August 1917”.

5 August 1917
81 Company, which had been in 50 Labour Group (Third Army), left for Taranto
83 Company, which had been in 9 Labour Group (Third Army), left for Taranto
It appears that part of 80 Company was also sent to Taranto

31 August 1917
75 Company arrives in Third Army area (50 Labour Group)

21 September 1917
GHQ reported that Egyptians at Marseilles [sic – it was actually at Taranto] had been giving trouble, trying to strike on the plea that their contract was over and that they should be repatriated. “The appearance of a body of Indian cavalry settled the strike, without recourse to any use of force“. The men were under the impression that their six-month engagement began from the day they were enlisted, but were informed that it was actually from the day they had left Egypt. It appears that the trouble had been in 81 and 82 Companies.

28 September 1917
74 Company arrives in Third Army Area (69 Labour Group) and is located at La Chapelette, Somme
77 Company arrives in Third Army Area (61 Labour Group) and is located at Eclusier, Somme
79 Company arrives in Third Army Area (50 Labour Group) and is located at Hem, Somme

11 October 1917
79 Company, which had been on salvage work under 50 Labour Group (Third Army), left for Taranto

20 October 1917
84 Company, which had been on salvage work under 69 Labour Group (Third Army), left for Marseilles

25 October 1917
74 Company was reported to be at Colincamps, Somme

10 November 1917
77 Company, which had been on salvage work at Eclusier, Somme (Third Army), left for Marseilles

13 November 1917
74 and 75 Companies, which had been on salvage work at La Chapelette and Maricourt, Somme (Third Army) respectively, left for Marseilles

28 November 1917
83 Company, which had been on salvage work at Maricourt, Somme (Third Army), left for Marseilles

December 1917
85 and 86 Companies leave for home, bringing the service of the Egyptian Labour Corps in France to an end.

Casualties

The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission list the following. The majority of deaths would be due to sickness but there are at least two burial plots that hint of the men being victims of air raids.

  • 82 men buried in France
    • 25 at Meerut Military Cemetery, St. Martin-au-Boulogne. Dates from 5 May to 8 October 1917, mostly 73 Company
    • 18 at Mazargues War Cemetery, Marseilles. Dates 29 March to 10 December 1917, with one given as being with 112 Company on 18 April 1920
    • 17 at Les Baraques Military Cemetery, Sangatte. Dates 31 May to 16 October 1917
    • 7 at Bray Military Cemetery, Somme. Dates 3 August to 4 October 1917
    • 4 at Boulogne Eastern Cemetery. All 73 Company, all 6 September 1917 [air raid?]
    • 4 at Dunkirk Town Cemetery. Dates 27 to 30 May 1917, two – possibly all – 75 Company [air raid?]
    • 3 at La Chapelette British Cemetery. Dates 27 August to 10 September 1917, all 84 Company
    • 2 at St. Sever Cemetery and Extension, Roeun. Dates 16 July and 9 October 1917
    • 1 at Ste. Marie Cemetery, Le Havre. 21 September 1917, 75 Company
    • 1 at Zuydcoote Military Cemetery. 26 July 1917.
  • 12 men buried in Italy
    • All 12 at Taranto Town Cemetery. Dates from 26 July 1917 to 26 December 1917.
  • 1 man buried in Belgium
    • 1 in Adinkerke Military Cemetery. Date 6 September 1917.
Register of Bray Military Cemetery. The only one to include the men’s personal details.
Original burial report. Note the many manual corrections including the deletion of the normally standard details that crosses had been erected at the grave: these men were of the Muslim faith.

Sources

National Archives. War diary GHQ Directorate of Labour WO95/83
National Archives. War diary Third Army WO95/384
National Archives. War diary Fourth Army WO95/454
National Archives. War diary Inspector-General of Lines of Communication WO95/3968

Links

Labour Corps

South African Native Labour Corps