British Operations Against The mad mullah

A wargamer's Guide 


1902 – The Second Expedition




The Mullah continued spreading his revolt throughout Somalia and throughout  May to September 1902 the Dervish forces increased again to somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 with at least 600 rifles.  The British, similarly, had more forces available following the end of the Boer War.  Swayne now had a force of 2,400 men.  Now promoted to Commissioner, he was to be superseded by Brigadier William Manning and now decided to launch a further expedition against the Mullah before Manning arrived.


By September he had assembled a column comprising five companies of the Second Battalion, King’s African Rifles (KAR), a Sikh unit from Aden, the Somali Levy (now 1,500 strong), two 7pdr guns, Maxims, 2,000 camels carrying water and 2,000 camels for rations.  He set off down the Nogal valley before crossing a hundred miles of the waterless southern Haud to the Mudug Oasis.  The Mullah was reported to be in the oasis with several thousand of his followers including about 1,200 riflemen.  The column was preceded by mounted scouts and patrols.  The advance was made through 70 miles of dense thorn scrub in constant contact with Dervish scouts and outposts. 

On 4 October scouts reported that the Mullah’s forces were about a day’s march ahead.  The column camped on the night of 5 October at Erigo and moved out before dawn on 6 October through dense brush towards their objective.  From positions up in the trees observers from both sides watched each other’s movements.  The Dervish skilfully laid an ambush within the brush and Swayne’s column was only saved by a scout’s warning.  Without the warning they would have been engaged in a battle in dense foliage with visibility often down to a mere 5 yards where few men could see more than half a dozen of their fellows.  In this close terrain Swayne called a halt and formed open square in typical style with the baggage animals in the centre.  This was just completed when the Dervishes attacked from three sides.  They appeared at just 20 yards range from their hiding places in the thick bush.  The left side of the square formed by some recently raised Somali Levy disorganised by the sudden attack and the confusion caused by the stampeding baggage camels fell back fell back on the centre and rear companies.  Major GE Phillips commanding them was killed attempting to rally his men.  The Yaos of the KAR held firm on this side of the square as did the half company of Somalis told off as Headquarters escort and the rest of the square.   The Somalis of the HQ escort mounted a bayonet charge which drove the Dervishes back from the guns, they lost heavily in the fighting and Swayne’s 4 orderlies were killed.  Then the other companies that had fallen back advanced again to resume their original positions and the Dervish attach was repulsed.  Captain Angus had been killed whilst serving his guns in the centre of the front face and despite his death the Somali gunners continued to pour Maxim and artillery fire into the Dervishes.


The climax of the battle came when a fresh wave of Dervish spearmen with supporting fire from riflemen charged the remnants of the left face of the square.  Under Swayne’s personal direction the square reformed and drove the attackers back with concentrated rifle, Maxim and artillery fire.  The front of the square was also heavily engaged in a fierce hand to hand melee and eventually the Dervishes gave up the attack.  When they did so, they had suffered around 1,400 casualties amongst the six Dervish units, the leaders of which were all killed.  In return the column lost 2 officers (Major Phillips RE and Captain Angus RA), 56 Levies and 43 spearmen killed.  They also lost a Maxim and this led to a Court of Inquiry.  The weapon was not recovered until 1920.  One VC was won by Captain (Acting Lt Col) Alexander S Cobbe of the 1st (Central African) KAR for conspicuous bravery in manning the guns assisted by a Somali sergeant.


Swayne, personally led a sweep of 2 companies of the 2/KAR and 2 companies of Levy to clear the ground beyond the left rear of the square.  The transport camels had all stampeded n this direction and because of the noise of the firing some thousands of camels with water tins and ammunition boxes jammed together and rushed into the scrub scattering their loads everywhere.  Almost all of the loads were recovered.  In the evening Swayne again led a sortie of a company of 2/KAR and two companies of Somalis into the scrub and returned with 1,800 of the stampeded camels.  On the evening of the 6 October the column buried their dead and constructed a zeriba.  Scouts were sent out and they located the Dervish scouts 4 miles in front.  The Dervish spent the night probing through the brush where there were several clashes between the patrols of both sides.  The discipline of the sentries in the zeriba was steady and not a shot was fired by them.


The information from prisoners and other sources indicated that Mudug, the only water, was 40 miles away through 30 miles of dense and unexplored bush.  The column’s transport was disorganised having lost many camels, some shot in the action and some lost in the stampede.  The transport camels now proved be a major problem.  The column could not fight through the dense brush with them nor could they be left behind without a substantial guard force.  Even if it remained in position it would be closely watched by the Dervish and when it needed to move to get water it would undoubtedly be attacked.  Faced with this dilemma Swayne decided to retire to a water hole some 6 miles away whilst screening the movement and diverting attention with aggressive patrols and scouts.  When he arrived at Eyl Garaf Pool on the morning of 7 October he ordered a strong entrenchment to be constructed while strong patrols were sent out to contact the Dervish forces.


 It soon became clear that the ferocity of the Dervish soldiers and the casualties were affecting his locally raised troops badly and morale was falling.  Many of the Somalis had brothers or cousins amongst their enemies.  Many believed that the Mullah could not be killed.  He had escaped on previous occasions when his forces had been scattered and had always reappeared stronger than before.  Taking all this into consideration and with no prospect of support from the rear, predicted water difficulties as the pool at Eyl Garaf was already being used up, Swayne decided to retire with his sick and wounded to Bohotle taking his Dervish prisoners along with him.  He arrived there on 17 October.


This near defeat taught several lessons including that the Somali Levies’ morale may not stand in battle.  Also learned was the risk of taking such a large baggage train into dense bush.  The near defeat had another effect in that more regular troops were to be sent.  Swayne, however, argued that the Levy were more mobile and useful than the slow and ponderous regulars.  However, Swayne, said that “owing to Mohammedan and tribal feeling, it became inexpedient to continue to rely on Somalis alone, for they had invariably, with little preparation and very little cost, succeeded, in both years’ work, in driving the Mullah with loss out of our Protectorate across the Haud into Italian territory, whence he did not return until 9 months after our return to Bohotle.”


The Mullah was reported as having withdrawn, once again, into Italian territory at Galadi Wells. The Second Expedition was closed.  The expedition had recovered sufficient livestock to replace all the losses suffered by the loyal tribes and have 1,600 camels left over for baggage and transport.  The Mullah had suffered heavily with at least 2,600 casualties, a considerable number of prisoners as well as 40,000 camels,  200 horses and huge numbers of sheep.



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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