Mario Ruiz: The Egyptian Labor Corps

This photo, entitled “Egyptian Labor On Dock In France,” comes from the George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress (Prints and Photographs Division) and is available at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ggbain.25773/?co=ggbain. Because the Bain Collection contains photographs taken around the world during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is an especially rich archive for scholars interested in visual representations of World War I in the Middle East. While this particular 5 x 7 photo has no date, the standardized boots, caps, and uniforms worn by the Egyptians unloading the cargo in this image, as well as the French locale, strongly suggest that these men were members of the Egyptian Labor Corps (ELC). At the outset of the war, the British, French, and Ottoman empires created various labor corps and battalions to support the logistical needs of their respective armies. The ELC, similar to the other labor corps that served in different theaters of the war, consisted primarily of specially formed units that worked primarily in transport and military construction.

The total number of Egyptians that the British employed during the war remains subject to dispute. Historians disagree about the exact number of men who worked in the various labor units that the British Army organized, but it is clear that thousands of Egyptian peasants provided labor and supplies for the 1915 Gallipoli campaign and the 1916-1917 campaigns in Palestine. The German historian Reinhard Schulze, for example, maintains that from 1916 to 1919 about one in three male peasants between the ages of seventeen and thirty-five performed compulsory labor either as transport workers or in the construction of fortifications for British and Australian military units. Official British figures from the war point to half a million workers whereas nationalist Egyptian historians cite figures twice or three times that number. Regardless, as the war progressed, securing large numbers of volunteers proved difficult. Local Egyptian collaborators utilized a host of coercive methods to meet the established quota of workers that the British Army required.

With regard to recruitment, Egyptian peasants first arrived in Cairo and then moved to base depots in the Canal Zone, where military officials disinfected, clothed, equipped, and organized them into different gangs and companies of laborers. The martial law regime that the British established in Egypt during the war sent most members of the ELC to Palestine, but others also went to Mesopotamia, France, Italy, Salonika, and the Dardanelles to perform jobs such as railway construction, laying pipelines, and digging trenches. Although Egyptians who served in the ELC were not technically frontline soldiers and were paid a daily wage, a large number of these men suffered from wartime injuries, disease, and death.

The labor and camel corps that the British Army created played a critical role in the material success of the Allied war effort in the Middle East. Yet these corps, and the ELC in particular, remain understudied. However, both the Imperial War Museum (http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/17980) and the Australian War Memorial (http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/H00301) contain drawings and photographic collections documenting the hard work performed by ELC members. Examining these visual collections in conjunction with the letters, diaries, and autobiographical memoirs that soldiers wrote during the war not only raises questions about the transnational nature of labor, but also about the collective experience of the war for Egyptian workers, their families, and the military officials who depended heavily on their subaltern recruits.

Sources

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