British Operations Against The mad mullah

A wargamer's Guide 


1901 – The First Expedition

Support for the Mullah was not by any means universal.  Some tribes remained loyal to the British and others were alienated from his cause by his cruelty or simply because the promised plunder did not materialise.  These latter defected.  His greatest support came from the Doldbahanta, his own tribe.  The British commander was a dashing chap called Lieutenant Colonel EJE Swayne who had previously been on safari in Somaliland hunting elephant, rhino, kudu and buffalo.   He brought with him an enterprising Somali called Musa Farah who rose from a boot black to wealth and power, giving valuable service and receiving a sword of honour from King Edward VII.  He began his task of dealing with the situation by raising a new properly equipped and trained Somali Levy.  By February 1901 he had raised a camel corps of 100 men and an infantry force of 954 men of whom 160 were mounted on ponies.  This latter force was under strength as the friendly tribes were unwilling to allow their best horsemen to join the Levy. 



Before the tribes could be concentrated at the grazing pastures near Burao for their own protection the Mullah struck on 13 February at Bale Shele Shale, 43 miles to the south.  Men, women and children were slaughtered and their live stock driven off.  Although the Levies marched immediately they could not catch the camel mounted raiders though they did inflict some losses  and recovered most of the sheep.  Having consumed all the water that they had in their tins the Levy had to return from the waterless Haud. 

The bulk of the infantry had, on the 13th, covered some 53 miles, carrying 100 rounds of ammunition, 2 days rations and 2 days water.  On top of this they had just returned from a 12 mile march to reach Burao before being despatched.  Thus the main body covered about 65 miles, the advance parties another 10 and the mounted troops a further 14 miles.  It can be seen that the predominantly infantry force had done all it could and reached the limits of endurance.   Only a fully mounted force could have prevented the Mullah from escaping with the precious camels and sheep that the people depended upon for milk and food. 


Meanwhile, 100 miles to the east, another Dervish raid fell upon the Jama Siad friendly tribes.  Here again they suffered terribly.  Burao and Berbera became filled with the destitute tribesmen.  2,000 a day were being fed daily at Burao alone.


The Mullah’s raiding operations were based at a large standing camp at Bur Dab.  His intention was to continue raiding the largely unarmed tribes until they were destitute and forced through hunger to join him.  So he despatched raiding parties to the east of Berbera in the lands of the Ishak tribesmen.  These raids exerted considerable pressure upon the tribal leaders to go over to the Mullah and thus open the way to Berbera.  The political implications of the defection of the Ishak tribes would be the destabilisation of eastern Somaliland. 


The military necessity of containing the Mullah south of Berbera until he could be dealt with had to be continued while politically motivated operations were mounted to counter the raiding parties in the east and to stop disaffection amongst the friendly tribes in that area.  Levies were concentrated at Burao and the operation interrupted when 700 men were despatched south of the Waggar Mountains to deal with a raid there.  The Dervishes withdrew when they faced this opposition. 


On 13th May the operations resumed and 700 men under Lt Col Swale through Las Doorie to the mountains behind Heis.  They took the Dervishes by surprise in three locations, inflicting heavy casualties and scattering the survivors to the four winds.  All of the livestock that had been stolen was recovered and 70 horses belonging to the raiders were captured.  The Ishak tribes who had begun negotiations with the Mullah had to pay a fine and assist in bringing in the Mullah’s ambassadors.


In order to keep the Mullah’s attention away from the eastern area a reconnaissance in force was mounted from Burao together with tribal irregulars who were sent out to threaten the Mullah’s flocks and herds towards Kurmis to the south west and eastwards to Bur Anod.  He was very effectively distracted and the force returned with large numbers of livestock.  The Ishak tribesmen seeing the Mullah’s forces lose face returned and were, from then, steadfastly opposed the Mullah.  The Mullah’s attempts to subvert this region had failed.


In carrying out their mission the Levy had carried out forced marches of over 40 miles a day, climbed mountains that rose to 7,000 feet, traversed deep valleys between and covered over 420 miles.  The troops were fed on sheep and camels that accompanied the force while the needs of the British were provided on a few pack camels.  Along the coast the Royal Navy co-operated in the form of HMS Cossack so that Heis could be opened as a Customs port.  This port further secured the loyalty of the Dolbahanta tribesmen and even returned a profit of Ł600 in its first year after all expenses for administration had been deducted.  The success was measured by Lt Col Swayne when the Warsangli Sultan, who had never before entered Berbera, came in and agreed to keep out the Mullah’s emissaries. 


Whilst these eastern operations were taking place along with the diversionary operations in front of the Mullah the preparations for the main effort were being made at Burao.  The Mullah main forces were now at Kirrit and Bohotle.  It was estimated that he had a following of 7,000 horsemen of whom 1,500 had rifles and 7,000 infantry who were mainly spearmen.  However, the Dervishes offered the British no target for an attack, they held no city, no fort, no land.  Thus there was no tangible military objective upon which to fix them. 


Rissaldar Major Musa Farah had also been busy assembling a force of 5,000 tribesmen in the western part of the protectorate.  He crossed into the Haud at the head of his tribesmen to attack the western encampments of the Mullah’s followers and prevent them from moving southwest.  He had a novel way of acquiring the 2,000 baggage camels that he needed.  To just buy them would have forced prices up so he persuaded the tribes to lend the camels on the basis that repayment would be made from any livestock captured from the enemy.


On 26 May the bulk of the infantry marched out from Burao and by marching 67 miles in 2˝ days marching they arrived at Wadamago.  The Mullah’s scouts and advanced partes retired to Lasa-Dar and Bohotle.  The concentration of forces was completed there.  Strong fighting patrols drove in the Mullah’s outposts in the direction of Lasa-Gar while the main body advanced on the Mullah’s forces at Jilib, near Bohotle.  This was the left of the Mullah’s positions.  Meanwhile Rissaldar Major Musa Farah was ordered to bring his tribesmen wide around the left of the Mullah’s forces to concentrate with the main force at Bohotle after driving in the enemy’s left rear.


The plug in the operation was a difficult one to achieve.  It was important to prevent the Mullah from escaping to Mudug in Italian Somaliland.  Attempt were made to induce Yusuf Ali, a friendly Mijjarten Chief under Italian protection, to occupy the wells there in force.  Unfortunately, he did not leave Aden and left only a weak garrison in a fort at Galkayu in the southern part of the oasis.


The supply dump at Samala was defended by 370 rifle armed infantry, 70 spearmen, a handful of horsemen and a Maxim gun commanded by Captain  M McNeil of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was attacked by a force of 5,000 Somali Dervishes with about 80 riflemen.  In a two day action in which the Dervishes made repeated rushes and attempts at infiltration, McNeil’s men inflicted several hundred casualties in return for 9 killed and 9 wounded one of whom later died of his wounds. 


In retaliation for the attack at Samala, Swayne made a night march against a Dervish camp at Erigo with a column of 75 cavalry, 500 infantry 16 camels carrying 4 Maxims, water and supplies.  At dawn the column reached a bush filled valley.  Concealed within the cover, Dervish riflemen directed heavy fire against the mounted men who formed the advance guard.  Swayne fell back into the open to form square from where his rifles and Maxims would be most effective.   The Mullah, knowing the effect of massed rifle and Maxim fire, would not be drawn into the open and withdrew deeper into the scrub.


The advancing Levies were faced by groups of Dervishes who fell back in front of them through Bohotle to Damo while on the right they also fell back skirmishing while maintaining contact with the left at Damo.  At the same time he detached a mounted force to Halin in eastern Nogal to raid the Bohotle – Burao line of communications.  The Levies took Bohotle on 4 June with strong patrols continuing the pursuit and maintaining contact with the enemy while the main body halted long enough to build a stone fort and join up with Rissaldar Major Musah Farah’s tribesmen.  From here a detachment was sent out on 7 June to meet the tribesmen and on 10 June the main body, leaving a garrison at the wells, marched out. 


Musah Farrah’s tribesmen met the force on 11 June 20 miles south of Bohotle.  The Rissaldar Major’s force had been completely successful.  They had driven in the encampments inflicting casualties and capturing 1,630 camels, 200 cows and 2,000 sheep.  As the force returned to Bohotle for water news came in that a native caravan with some Government camels had been attacked on the Line of Communication by a mounted Dervish force.  Parties sent to the scene brought in some of the baggage and some wounded men.   

Lt Col Cobbe's Column

1/KAR 5 officers and 116 men

2/KAR 10 officers and 254 men

6/KAR 1 officer and 10 men (mounted infantry)

4 x Maxims

KAR Camel Battery 2 x 7pdr

After despatching strong patrols to secure the line of communication from these mounted raiders the main column resumed its march on Damo.  The Dervish horsemen were driven off on 18 June and the pursuit continued for 2 days into the Haud.  However, the water supplies at Damo were insufficient to maintain the force and fill the water tins.  The information to hand was that the Mullah with most of his remaining forces had already passed through Erigo to the Mudug Oasis while a force had swung around to the north and re-entered the Protectorate in eastern Nogal.  Swayne decided to attack the northern force while the remainder secured sufficient camels and water vessels to allow the whole force to advance on the Mullah at Mudug. 


On 20 June with little water left they entered Las Anod and refilled their water supplies.  In a series of spirited actions over the next few days he pursued the raiders.   Lt Col Cobbe was detached with the mounted corps supported by spearmen to attack the Mullah’s camps at night.  He covered over 35 miles a day in pursuit inflicting losses on the enemy and caught up with them at Yiwehil.  Here his force killed 150 men and captured 3,900 camels and 12,000 sheep.  In these actions he lost 7 men killed and one severely wounded.


A caravan carrying rifles for the Mullah narrowly escaped with one camel being captured.  Next day a detachment of 3 companies led by Major Phillips ambushed another caravan coming up from Mudug.  The Dervishes lost 25 men and 455 camels and 5,000 sheep were captured.  The prisoners said that the Mullah was having difficulty maintaining his force at Mudug because of a lack of grazing and water and so he was being forced to send sizeable parties up to the Nogal.  Unfortunately Yusuf Ali’s forces were not strong enough to intervene.  They also told that caravans of arms were reaching the Mullah and that a number of tribesmen who were hostile to Yusuf Ali had joined the Mullah bringing their rifles. 


The Nogal Valley seemed to be the focus of the Mullah’s efforts and so the line of communication was reinforced and further operations planned.  The Mijjarten tribesmen were warned about supporting the Mullah but they ignored the warnings.  They also allowed caravans of rifles to pass through their territory.  These rifles were very important as the Royal Navy had cut off the supply line through the Warsangli ports with their own warships and two armed dhows purchased for the purpose.  The Nogal was very dry and the tribes coming up from Mudug, the Nur Ahmed and the Hassan Urghaz, were driven back into Italian territory suffering considerable casualties and losing 2,000 camels and 20,000 sheep.  Hadi Sudi escaped with the cattle and was brought to battle on the high waterless Aya Plateau.  Some 1,600 camels and 15,000 sheep were captured and the raiders virtually wiped out.  The few survivors fled northwards.  The rapid pursuit, forced marches harsh terrain and the lack of water had cost the pursuers over 1,000 camels but the deficiency was made up from the captured stock.  Not only that 10 men died and 150 had to be carried on camels because of poor water at Kalis.


Caught on the move the Nur Ahmed and Naleya Ahmed were attacked on the high waterless Sorl Plain.  Again much livestock was captured and over 300 killed.  The Dervish fort at Halin was destroyed.  By 31 July the camp held 12,000 camels, 35,000 sheep and 600 cattle, exclusive of the 2,000 transport camels of the column and 1,000 captured camels used to replace losses and 1,500 camels and 15,000 sheep in rations.


Many detachments were sent out to intercept the Mullah’s tribesmen driven out of the Mudug by lack of water.  Caravans of arms were captured or driven back. These detachments drove the Mullah’s followers out of the Nogal with heavy loss trapping many against the sea.  Even the Mijjarten, so long recalcitrant, came in to sue for peace.  On 24 August a sizeable section of the mullah’s followers including 200 riflemen were attacked on the Sorl Plain.  In the action over 200 Dervish were killed and 1,450 camels, 437 cattle, 30 horses and 1,000 sheep were captured as was a caravan containing 29 French rifles with1,000 rounds of ammunition.   The 200 riflemen shot wildly and inflicted only 14 casualties.  Thus with the Nogal cleared and his line of communications Swayne turned his attention southwards and the organisation of a large water caravan.  Meanwhile the Mullah’s tribesmen still attempted to reach grazing in the north and the Alligherri, Khaiyat, Ba Ararsama as well as others were driven back into the Haud by columns operating from Beretable in the east to De-Jeuno in the west.  At the same time the tribes on the road south from Bohotle were also driven back.  Once again casualties were inflicted and numbers of camels, sheep and horses captured. 


News came that Yusuf Ali’s small garrison had, as expected, been killed or captured when the fort fell.  This allowed him to make use of the water and grazing in the southern part of the Mudug and start to rebuild his scattered forces.  Thus he found some relief from the problems that were causing his disorganised force from disintegrating completely.  The scouts and Levy columns were capturing prisoners who told that the forces with the Mullah were reduced to 1,200 horsemen and 6,000 spearmen and though many ponies had died he still had 9,000 left.  He was reported to be at Galkayu.  His pursuers also had difficulties caused by the lack of water.


These actions brought home the fact that the courage and fanaticism of the Dervish was every bit as great as it had been under the Mahdi in the 1880s and the Khalifa Abdullah a few years before.  This gave Swayne and his superiors considerable cause for concern.  On the other hand it also showed that the new Somali Levy was a reliable and solid fighting force.  During this expedition the Dervishes sustained some 1,400 casualties, lost a large number of prisoners and some 25,000 camels, in addition to many sheep, cattle, and horses. But disorganized transport and the falling morale of the Somali levies prevented the pursuit of the Mullah to his retreat in the Mudug district. 


Mad Mullah Introduction


First Expedition

Second Expedition

Third Expedition

Fourth Expedition

First World War

Fifth Expedition

Air Operations 

The Mad Mullah's Dervish Army

The British Empire Army 

Inch High Page 

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