British Operations Against The mad mullah

A wargamer's Guide 


1903 The Third Expedition


The British were now faced with a choice of courses of action; they could mount another expedition or take up a defensive posture and await events.  Brigadier Manning was ordered to take command when he was in Aden and sent forward 3 companies of the 1st Bombay Grenadiers.  The 50 men of the Indian Contingent, British Central Africa were deployed on garrison duty and as signallers along the Lines of Communication.  The Offensive option was decided upon and political negations with the Italians and tribal leaders gave access to their ports and territory allowing a three pronged attack to be planned.  His force would advance from the Italian port of Obbia on the east coast while a column from Bohotle and Berbera would move in from the north.  The third, western, prong made up of 5,000 Abyssinians under Fitawrari Gabri accompanied by three British staff officers would close off the escape route to the west.

Landing places had to be found in Italian Somaliland and beaches around Illig, Obbia and other places were reconnoitred by HMS Pomone and HItMS (His Italian Majesty’s Ship) Volturno.  The Captains of these vessels reported that Obbia was the best landing site.  Captain RWC Blair of the 23rd Bombay Rifles had been present as military liaison officer also reported that Ali Yusuf had promised 6,000 for transport purposes.  This offer considerably influenced the decision as buying the 3,500 camels necessary in Berbera and then shipping them to Obbia would have been both expensive and slow. 


Obbia Force

Punjab Mounted Infantry 150 rifles

1/KAR 350 rifles

3/KAR 100 rifles 

5/KAR 100 rifles

British Mounted Infantry 141 rifles

Boer Mounted Infantry 100 rifles

52nd Sikhs

Bikaner Camel Corps        

1 section Lahore Mountain Battery

1 company Sappers and Miners

Native Field Hospital

The Obbia column was made up of British, Boer and Punjabi mounted infantry, the Bikanir Camel Corps and the 52nd Sikhs.  They were supported by artillery and sappers to give a total of 2,296 men.  Yusuf Ali (father of Ali Yusuf) now prevaricated and seemed most unwilling to provide the promised camels, even at a price above that which would have been paid in Berbera.  Thus 1,000 camels were brought from Berbera.  Although the column landed on 3 January 1903 but did not join up with the Bohotle column until 31 March.  Preparatory to the move of the main body a reconnaissance force of 500 men from the Sikhs and King’s African Rifles searched out routes and water points.  The Sappers and Miners often cleaned and improved the wells for the main column.


No signs of the enemy were found by the reconnaissance forces and they established friendly relations with the Hawiya tribe securing 400 camels by purchase and barter.  The information about the Mullah’s location was unreliable at best though it was suggested that the wells at Galkayu would be contested.  A force of 1,133 men under command of Brigadier Manning set out on 22 February.  The remaining 807 men were to follow on 6 March.

Text Box: Brig Manning’s Column

Galkayu was occupied without opposition on 4 March.   From here Brig Manning called forward a flying column from Bohotle while is forces closed the Mullah’s line of retreat by holding wells with strongly entrenched detachments while the Abyssinians held the wells that closed off the southern escape route.  The advance on Galadi was a slow affair but it was opposed at Dudub by a number of spearmen.  The advance continued and the 2,000 wells at Galadi were taken.    The flying columns operating on the flanks and ahead of the column defeated small forces of spearmen and brought in a considerable amount of livestock. 


The Bohotle Column comprised 1,745 men of the 2nd and 6th battalions of the King’s African Rifles (KAR) and the Somali Levy.  The Mullah had, in the meantime, moved out of Mudug to Galadi and thereafter to the Ogaden desert. 


Manning despatched a force to Galadi under the command of Lt Col AS Cobbe VC DSO to reconnoitre the route from Galadi  to Wardair where the latest intelligence placed the Mullah.  This column set off on 10 April.  While he was on the march he was joined by some Mounted Infantry rText Box: Lt Col Cobbe’s Column:einforcements.  Rain was falling in the west and time was short.


By mid-April Cobbe was short of water and finding it difficult to maintain direction the dense bush so he made camp on the slopes of Gumburu Hill. On 17 April he sent forward a small force under Capt Olivey.  Then later a second force under Lt Col AWV Plunkett a reconnaissance force was sent out with the orders “bring  Olivey back”. 


Plunkett met up with Ollivey about a mile from camp and the combined strength was now 200 men of 2/KAR, 48 men of the 52nd Sikhs and 2 Maxims.  Disobeying his orders Plunkett decided to continue the advance westwards in a loose square into the hills with the Sikhs forming the front face.  The Dervishes followed the movements of the square from thick cover and communicated to the Mullah using signal fires.  Plunkett was not aware that the Dervish used fires in this way.  After about six miles the square came to a clearing in the thick bush.  Here the Mullah, prepared by his scouts and informed by the signal fires, had set his ambush. 


The British advanced into the midst of an estimated 4,000 cavalry and 10,000 spearmen.  The Dervish attacked three sides of the square simultaneously with their legendary fanaticism.  The horsemen led the way followed by riflemen an then waves of spearmen.  The attackers drove home seemingly without regard to the losses inflicted by the rifle and Maxim fire and broke into the square.  Plunkett was on of the first officers to go down hit by a bullet and a spear.  The Medical Officer was wounded and continued to tend to the casualties until he was shot through the head and killed.  The desperate fighting continued until, with ammunition running low, many officers dead and casualties mounting, Plunkett gave the order to disable the Maxims and to break out eastwards.  The surviving troops then charged into the mass of Dervishes.


At about 1145 some of the Somalis in Cobbe’s force reported hearing firing in the distance and he sent mounted infantry patrols to investigate.  At this stage Plunkett had been out for nearly 3 hours.  About an hour later the patrols came back with a wounded man.  It was Plunkett’s guide who said that Plunkett’s force had been cut up by a strong force of Dervishes.  Cobbe sent out more mounted patrols but no more infantry.  He also sent a messenger to Manning informing him of the defeat.  Just after 1300 the survivors of Plunkett’s force made it back to the camp with the Dervish cavalry in close pursuit.  The pursuing Dervishes were driven off by shrapnel fire though the scouts continued to hover near the camp.


The action at Gumburu was a complete disaster for the British. Plunkett and 8 other British officers, 2 Indian officers and 187 men killed.  A and C companies of 2/KAR had been destroyed as a fighting force.  Only 47 men had returned from the ambush and a mere 6 were not wounded.  The Mullah’s dead lay piled in heaps and his casualties amounted to over 2,000 men.  It was, indeed, a Pyrrhic victory.


This defeat caused Manning to call off the operations and, realising that a much larger force with better logistic support was needed, he sent a despatch to the War Office in which he wrote that the Dervish “were the sort of men who would come right up to the troops and take the rifles out of their hands” and that “the service ammunition, with the present rifle, has little stopping power, and in a fanatical rush of savages, a heavier bullet, or one with greater stopping power, is very requisite.”    


In an action at Daratoleh, fought on 22 April by the Bohotle flying column under Major JE Gough, several Dervishes were seen wearing British khaki topees or black KAR fezzes.  This confirmed the rumours that the column had already heard of the defeat at Gumburu.  Gough therefore ordered his column back to Bohotle. 


Leaving garrisons at Galadi, Dudub, Galkayu and Bera to limit the Mullah’s movement, Manning withdrew all his forces.  Nearly 1,500 men made up these garrisons. Each garrison was given enough camels to carry 4 days water rations.  However, in a fierce thunderstorm, the Mullah bypassed them and made his escape into the Nogal valley inside British territory.  He had a force of 1,200 riflemen, 4,000 ponies and a large number of spearmen.  During May and June there were numerous skirmishes with the Mullah’s forces in the Nogal where the Illalo (locally raised police scouts) proved to be of great value.  Meanwhile Dervish scouts approached Galadi on 6 June and fled after being challenged and did not return. 


The Abyssinian army of 5,000 mentioned earlier had been more successful.  On 4 April they were attacked by and defeated a Dervish force under Sheikh Ali Sheeneelah inflicting over 300 casualties for a loss of 21 killed and 10 wounded.  A second engagement took place on 30 May and again the Dervish suffered heavy loss.  When, in early June, they heard that the Mullah had withdrawn from the Ogaden, the Abyssinians also withdrew.


During the operations the wireless telegraphy sections did not perform well.  Unfortunately the visual signalling by heliograph and flags was not any better owing to the flat terrain and dense brush.  This expedition made use of large canvas water bags.  These portable reservoirs were a great improvement over the traditional water tins used earlier when supplying large numbers of men and animals.  The wounded and sick were carried on camels using a new type of litter.  The most severely wounded, however, still had to be carried in the traditional Indian way using dhoolis. 


The Boer Mounted Infantry and the Bikaner Camel Corps were singled out for particular praise.  On the other hand, Manning wrote that “the press correspondents were a source of some embarrassment, owing to the difficulty of maintaining a censorship over telegrams sent to and despatched from Aden.”  Much of the content of these telegrams found its way to the Mullah through his spy network giving him vital information.  The expedition was over.

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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