British Operations Against The mad mullah

A wargamer's Guide 


1904 – The Fourth Expedition


Lord Roberts, at Whitehall, regarded the Mullah’s move into British Territory as a threat and ordered another campaign against the Dervishes.  This one would be larger and was to be commanded by Major General Sir Charles Egerton KCB DSO.  Egerton was given almost a Division of troops; two brigades of infantry, a mounted corps and Divisional troops.  These were supported by locally raised units such as the Gadabursi and Tribal Horse and the Illalos, locally raised mounted scouts.  By October, his force of 8,000 men was supplied by a logistic train of baggage animals including 10,000 camels, other baggage animals and vehicles from all over the Empire; buck wagons from South Africa, ekkas (light carriages) from India, 800 mules from South Africa and India and Arab camel carts.  During this time the Mullah and the majority of his karias (tribal encampments) had kept themselves within the Eastern Nogal district of Kobo.  This was a particularly strong position from where it was almost impossible to surprise him.  This was because he commanded all the routes to the south and there was nothing to prevent him moving into the Mudug, to the Hawiya or to the Webi Shebeli if the rains were favourable enough to allow him to cross the Haud.  He had also seized the Italian port of Illig to give him supplies and possibly arms and ammunition.  A British advance from the west left the Mullah with the options of standing and fighting on ground of his own choosing, skirmishing or withdrawing as the situation developed.  Egerton decided to keep the Mullah up north by occupying the wells across the southern Haud from Gerlogubi on the Abyssinian border to Obbia on the sea or by persuading the Mullah that he had occupied them.  The alternative was to have an agreement with the Sultan of Obbia and the Abyssinians to occupy the wells on behalf of the British.  The eventual solution was a compromise of these.  The plan was to occupy Galadi with British troops while the Emperor Menelik’s Abyssinian troops occupied the wells between the border and Wardair.  It was hoped that the Sultan of Obbia would occupy Galkayu wells.  This would leave the Mullah with only one gap through which to escape south and this was an 80 mile wide waterless tract of desert.


On 26 October Brigadier Manning’s 1St Brigade was ordered to concentrate at Bohotle  and the 2nd Brigade at Eil Dab.  At the same time, secret orders were issued to Brigadier Manning for the march to Galadi, all the details had been worked out by the Headquarters staff so that there would be the minimum of delay in mounting the operation and to maintain security of the Brigade’s destination.  The security was so tight that the troops did not know that where they were going until they got there.  Brigadier Manning’s orders were to advance rapidly, seize the wells, establish a strongly entrenched position and the return rapidly to Bohotle.  The rest of the force knew nothing of the plan until the brigade was back in Bohotle. 

1st Brigade (Manning)

3 Companies British Mounted Infantry

1 Company Somali Mounted Infantry

1 Section KAR Mountain Battery




68 Illalo Scouts

At Bohotle

1 Section No28 Mountain Battery

52nd Sikhs

Galadi Garrison (Maj JRM Marsh)

No2 Coy British Mounted Infantry

Somali Mounted Infantry  25 rifles,

KAR                                       250 rifles

Illalo Scouts                          25 rifles

KAR, Mountain Battery    2 guns

Egerton’s Column

Lt Col Kenna’s mounted Force

British Mounted Infantry – 2 coys

Indian Mounted Infantry – 2 coys

Somali Mounted Infantry – 1 coy

Gadabursi Horse – 500 rifles

Tribal Horse – 500 rifles

Bikanir Camel Corps

2nd Brigade: Brigadier Fasken

Dets from 1/KAR, 2/KAR & 3/KAR – 550 men

52nd Sikhs

27th Punjabis- one wing (half Battalion)

Hampshire Regt – one wing (half Battalion)

19th Sappers and Miners – one company

28th Mountain Bty – 1 x Section of 2 guns

Maxims – 9


Brigadier Manning marched on 11 November with his Brigade leaving a small force behind including the 52nd Sikhs and the section of No28 Mountain Battery to simplify supply.  They reached Galadi on 15 November without any Dervish opposition.  The march was very arduous through terrific heat, dense bush, small rations of water which had to be carried for both men and animals and almost no grazing on the route.  Mounted troops patrolled his flanks and he spent 3 days at Galadi preparing a strong position.  He left a garrison there and marched back on the afternoon of 18 November. 

On the way back the Somali Mounted Infantry intercepted one of the Mullah’s raiding parties.  A skirmish ensued and the British Mounted Infantry advanced to the sound of the guns.  Seeing these troops arrive on the battlefield the Dervishes withdrew leaving behind several dead, 385 camels and a large number of sheep and goats.  It was impossible to mount an effective pursuit through the dense bush.  The brigade returned to Bohotle on 24 November.

Meanwhile, Gen Egerton arranged with the Senior Naval Officers of the Royal Navy and Royal Italian Navy for a demonstration off Obbia between 14 and 18 November to give the impression that a landing was imminent.  The combined force comprised HMS Perseus, HMS Porpoise, HMS Merlin and HIMS Galileo.  The Sultan of Obbia, himself, was well disposed towards the occupation of Galkayu.  However, he said that he did not have enough rifles.  Once these were supplied he took the wells there and Egerton , on the advice of Captain Pears, provided a monthly ration of dates and rice on condition that he continued to hold Galkayu.  Both these operations were effective in achieving their aims.   

At this time plans that had been laid in September came to fruition in a way not anticipated.  Captain RG Munn of the 36th Sikhs had been detached to see if he could persuade the Ogaden tribes to carry out raids in the tribal style of fighting in support of the British against the Mullah’s raiding parties.  He was somewhat hampered in this by the insistence of the Abyssinian Government, who had nominal control of the Ogaden, that the British should not give the tribesmen any arms.  Although Capt Munn, through diplomacy, could never persuade the Ogaden chiefs to make any raids his presence was enough to deter Dervish raids. 

Lt Col Kenna’s Reconnaissance

British Mounted Infantry – 95

Indian Mounted Infantry – 97

Tribal Horse – 200

Bikaner Camel Corps - 50


The Haroun was the headquarters and focal point for the Mullah’s forces.  The term covers the military and political leadership.  It is the emblem of power, the seat of government.  It is, therefore, a movable objective of huge importance.  It included the Mullah’s leading councillors, about 300 of the best riflemen and the wives, children and general domestic organisation of the Mullah, his councillors and bodyguard.  Its destruction or capture would mean the absolute destruction of the Mullah’s prestige and so would probably lead to his surrender.


On 18 December 1903 a reconnaissance in strength discovered the Dervishes at Jidbali, about 80km east of Eil Dab.  The commander, Lt Col PA Kenna VC DSO, had orders to carry out a reconnaissance and, if threatened by a superior force, to fall back on the infantry.  The force observed numerous fires at Jidbali when they arrived before dawn on 19 December indicating that the Dervishes were present in considerable strength.  Kenna deployed his men to threaten the front and flanks of the Dervish position and, at dawn, opened up a heavy fire.  The Dervishes, however, formed a fighting line in a row of bushes in front of their zeriba and returning fire could not be drawn beyond them.  The force was estimated at 1,500 infantry and 200 cavalry.  The majority of them were riflemen.  Even more worrying was that after 3 hours of inconclusive firing it was clear that this camp was receiving a constant stream of reinforcements.  Kenna then fell back on the infantry who were only 9 miles away having covered 28 miles since the previous evening.  This information arrived at Egerton’s HQ at Kirrit on 21 December.  With the other intelligence available that the Mullah had moved up from Adadero to Hasonga where the  Haroun was now situated indicated that he Mullah’s intention was to move north with his karias (tribal camps).  However the bulk of his herd and flocks were known to be in the Southern Haud. 

On receipt of this intelligence Egerton gave orders for a concentration of forces to mount an attack on Dervish camp.  The Garrison at Galadi was recalled to Eil Dab there to meet up the Kenna’s mounted force and the remainder of Fasken’s Brigade. 

While the concentration took place, Jidbali was kept under surveillance and reports showed that the Dervish numbers were increasing.  The force build up seemed, to Egerton, to indicate that this was where the Mullah’s main force was concentrating.

Jidbali was the first battle in which the Dervishes faced regular troops in the open.  It was also the largest fought against the Mullah’s forces.  However, the Dervish troops were not at their most ferocious or fanatical perhaps because the Mullah himself was absent.   Thus showing the effect his personal leadership had on his followers.

On 10 January 1904 Egerton marched out from his zeriba with his column deployed in double echelon in open squares.  The front and flanks were covered by the Somali Mounted Infantry and the Gadabursi and Tribal Horse.  The baggage, rations and water were left in the camp.

At about 0830 the scouts reported a force of about 8,000 Dervishes faced them in front of Jidbali.  They were disposed in a semicircular depression on a frontage of about 4km.  Egerton sent Lt Col Kenna out with the mounted troops to threaten the Dervish right flank.  This done the main force advanced to about 800 yards from the Dervish position where it formed square.  The 52nd Sikhs and the mountain guns formed the front wall with the 1/KAR and 3/KAR on the right, the Hampshires, 5/KAR and half the 27th Punjabis on the left and the remainder of the Punjabis and 2/KAR closed the rear.  The Maxims were distributed with their battalions.  It should be noted that although they were not normally deployed at the corners as they once were because, should they jam, they would create a weak point, at least one was placed in a corner position in this action.  The transport and ambulance camels were hobbled in the centre.

About 3,000 Dervishes could be seen lying in the grass or occupying the line of bushes to the north and heavy firing could be heard from the mounted troops as they tried to outflank the Dervish position.  The Dervish line was of considerable size and the force there probably was around 6,000 strong. 

Then just before 0900 the guns of the mountain battery came into action, shelling the Dervish forts protected by zeribas.  There were several of these well concealed small forts disposed along the front.  The guns also fired case-shot into the bushes on the left front.  In return the Dervishes opened a heavy but poorly directed rifle fire.  This was largely ineffective as Egerton had ordered his men to kneel or lie down and this simple tactic reduced casualties dramatically.  The Hampshires and Punjabis went forward to thicken the fire pouring into the Dervishes.  They withstood the bombardment from the artillery and machine guns for about 40 minutes.  Then at about 0935 with a “wild and terrible shout”, probably “Alahu Akbar” or “La Ilaha ila”, they charged through the long grass towards the left face of the square.  They came on in skirmish order making short rushes from cover to cover and then lying down to return fire.   The Hampshires and Punjabis opened up with steady volleys of rifle fire.  The combined fire of the Maxims, artillery and rifles stopped the spearmen at about 400 yards.  The Somali Mounted infantry and the Gadabursi Horse were charged while dismounted and a confused melée broke out.  This charge was followed by two more charges in quick succession directed in turn at the front and right of  the square.  The Sikhs and KAR matched the fire discipline of the Hampshires and Punjabis.   Sgt Gibb of 1/KAR had a Maxim at the front right corner of the square and he directed the fire of his gun at the Dervishes taking cover in the bushes preventing them from closing.  The rear face was not engaged.  They did however suffer casualties from shots that passed over the other faces.  Not one of the charges succeeded and by 1000 the survivors broke and fled.  They were pursued by heavy fire until the mounted troops masked the fire of the infantry. 

For two hours the Bikanir Camel Corps and the mounted troops chased the broken Dervishes until their ammunition ran out.  About 700 Dervishes were killed, 200 were taken prisoner and 400 rifles of a variety of types captured on the battlefield and the pursuit accounted for many more.  Egerton lamented the lack of “proper” cavalry with sword and lance as he was of the opinion that they would have completed the destruction of the enemy force.  As it was, his column had suffered 27 killed, including 3 British officers and 37 wounded.  One of these was the courier carrying orders to the mounted troops.

It was impossible to follow up the Dervishes the day after the battle and it looked, for a while, that the water position would prevent any effective follow up.  The wells that existed were choked with Dervish dead and other rubbish.  The countryside into which the Dervish army had dispersed was reported as being waterless for many miles.  The Sappers and Miners, through Herculean effort, opened 5 wells during the day at Jidbali and Adur.  So that by midnight all the horses and ponies had had a drink.   

The Mullah himself was absent during the battle: he was a few miles away in the Buranod Hills.  When he heard of the defeat at Jidbali, he withdrew the remnants of his army northwards through the northeast of British territory. From there he crossed into Italian Somaliland.  The pursuing British reached the frontier on 27 March but had to wait until 7 April for political clearance to continue the pursuit.

Intelligence reports from deserters and prisoners indicated that the Mullah was now concentrating his karias at Halin.  This gave him three options; going north, retreating into the Southern Haud or heading for the port of Illig in eastern Italian Somaliland where he had left a garrison of 500 spearmen and 200 riflemen.  Orders were sent out to position the force so that it was in a position between the three options open.  Additionally, the telegraph cable was to be rolled up and brought to headquarters with all the spare cable that could be found to link the components of the force.  The Telegraph Section earned high praise for their work. 

The Illalos and mounted troops brought in large herds of livestock and this was most welcome as meat rations were getting short because of losses on the march.  It was hoped to bring the Mullah to battle once more but he had already moved the Haroun  because he had been unable to persuade his people to fight after the losses at Jidbali. 

Rear Admiral GL Atkinson-Willes Squadron

HMS Hyacinth – Cruiser: 5,600 tons; 11x6”; 9x12pdr; 6x3pdr; 2xMaxim

HMS Fox – Cruiser: 4,360 tons; 2x6”; 8x4.7”; 8x6pdr; 1x3pdr

HMS Mohawk – Cruiser: 1,770 tons; 6x6”, 8xNordenfeldt

On the coast of Italian Somaliland, Illig was a strongly fortified town with the landward side being very difficult indeed.  The solution for a maritime power seemed obvious: an attack from the seaward side.  In the early morning of 21 May a squadron of three vessels under command of Rear Admiral GL Atkinson-Willes began the attack with a diversion staged by HMS Mohawk at Illig village while steam launches towed a landing party ashore further up the coast.  This party was made up of 100 sailors and marines with Maxim and field gun support from HMS Hyacinth under Captain the Honourable H Hood.  After climbing up Gullule Gorge they seized the heights allowing 125 men of the Hamphires to be landed over the next 2 hours along with another 375 sailors and marines from the cruisers.  Turning south they advanced on Illig itself.  The Hampshires were on the left, marines in the centre and sailors on the right.  The sailors carried 3 tripod mounted Maxims on poles and the Hampshires carried another in a similar fashion.  The whole force was deployed in the usual fashion of firing line with supports and reserve.  The whole frontage was about ¾ of a mile and the ground in front was fairly level but hard and rocky.   The day was very hot but not a man fell out. 


The landing party advanced, driving in the Dervish scouts with ease.  When the force was about 600 yards from Illig the Dervish opened fire with canister from their two ancient muzzle-loading 3pdr ship’s cannon mounted in their defence works.  The British advanced in a series of short fire and manoeuvre rushes supported by rifle and Maxim fire until when they reached 80 yards the whole line charged.  The Naval Brigade enveloped Illig to the right advancing by short rushes and they were able to offer enfilade fire in support of the advancing line.  The combined assault closed in to outflank the defence works and the defenders fled.  The position was cleared in 10 minutes and the Dervishes were pursued by 2 companies of seamen.  Any Dervishes who reached the cliffs were engaged by the ships.  Those who fled south were caught in the fire of a company of sailors detached onto a ridge,  In rapid order the stone forts were cleared using a combination of artillery, Maxim and rifle fire.  The first rush against the fort was held up for a short while until Petty Officer First Class John Murphy battered down the door under fire from loopholes and from inside.  Several Dervishes made a stand in some caves on the cliff 100 yards from the southern end of the main defensive position where they had taken one of the 3pdr cannon.  Raiding parties had to clear these caves with rifle and bayonet. During this, Captain Hood, Midshipman Onslow and Corporal Flowers RMLI cleared a cave in a fierce hand-to-hand fight.  Onslow went on to force his way into a cave killing the three riflemen in it with his sword.  The British and Italian flags were raised on the captured positions. By1200 the landing party had stormed and burned the village of Illig and the operation was over. 

Text Box: HItMS Volturno:  Gunboat; 1155 tons; 4x4.7”; 4 x 6pdr; 2 x 1pdrOver the following days landing parties cleared the other caves and blew up the fortifications.  They were assisted by sailors from the Italian Volturno which had arrived on 22 April.  The surviving Dervishes fled southwards.  The British lost 3 seamen killed and 10 seamen and one marine wounded.  The British dead were buried at sea from HMS Mohawk.  Some 58 Dervish bodies were found on the battlefield and 2 cannon, 27 rifles and 2 banners captured. 

The campaign in Somaliland drew to a close with a number of skirmishes with Dervish raiding parties.  Some of these were very close to the Haroun and the Mullah narrowly escaped on a few occasions.  The Mullah’s trail was marked by the bodies of dead men, women, children and animals together with abandoned water vessels and household utensils.  All this was eloquent testimony to the desperation of his flight.  The pursuers caught up with several Karias killing the spearmen and capturing tribal livestock and camels.  The promised aid from the Mijjarten and Warsangeli to complete the blockade did not materialise.   This continued until the emaciated condition of the transport camels, an outbreak of disease amongst the sheep and goats and the rains meant that nothing more could be done by the Regular troops.  However, the Illalo Scouts and the Somali Mounted infantry continued to clash with raiding parties bringing in more livestock and accounting for more than 200 Dervishes.

Now that the rains allowed the Mullah free movement away from the wells Lt Col Kenna was despatched on 3 April with a mixed force of 500 mounted troops, 500 infantry and 150 Somali Irregulars with a month’s rations.  His orders were “to endeavour by every means to locate the position of the Haroun, and having done so, to try and surprise it by long distance marching with his mounted troops”.   After following some false leads and with supplies running low he came upon a few stragglers on 30 April.  He set off in pursuit with 240 Mounted Infantry, 160 Bikaner Camel Corps and 40 Irregulars.  The Mullah was reported to be heading for Illig by an easterly route.  Unfortunately the waterholes were all dried up and he was forced to give up pursuit.  Meanwhile the Tribal Horse rounded up some Dervish deserters who turned out to be Warsangeli tribesmen and 800 camels.   

At the end of April the Mullah had moved to Gerrowi in the mountains in Italian territory and established a base there.  The Mullah had escaped again and Egerton recalled his forces on 2 May ending the fourth expedition.  That said, the expedition had inflicted a major tactical defeat on the Mullah inflicting heavy loss of life and livestock and demoralising the Dervishes and denting the prestige of the Mullah himself. 

The Abyssinian Emperor Menelik II despatched a force of 5,000 mainly mounted men in support of the British operations in February 1903.  They had no communications with the British because of the intervening terrain and the nearest telegraph was over 400 miles away.  The British senior officer with the force was Colonel AN Rochfort had to rely on information gleaned from local sources about the British and the Dervish movements.  So he headed for the Mullah’s last known position at Mudug and also deny the wells and watering places he needed to manoeuvre.  In this district the wells are deep and the water is difficult to find often being a hundred feet or more below the surface.  The available water was sufficient for small bodies of Somalis but not a mounted army.  He had to follow the river line with the main force sending raiding parties to all of the wells in range to the north. 

The Abyssinians carried out these raids with considerable panache and some success.  They could cover 100 miles in 48 hours but had no means of carrying large amounts of water.  On 4 April 1903 the main body was attacked as they stopped to bivouac by a large force of Dervishes from the Hawiya, Rer O Hassan and Hawadle tribes.  The attack was delivered before the zeriba was built.  The Dervishes suddenly appeared from thick brush.  The fighting was fierce and the Dervishes were repulsed with loss while more were killed in the ruthless pursuit.  Over 300 Dervish bodies were counted against a loss of 31 Abyssinian killed and wounded.

With food running low the Abyssinians took the town of Mekunna and captured enough grain to feed them and also create a reserve for a month.  It was not until the rains came on 14 May that the main body could leave the river valley.  On 24 May Rochfort received word from Brigadier Manning about the action at Gumburu and the occupation of the wells.  A few days later prisoners told him the whereabouts of the Mullah, 120 miles away. 

On the way they caught the Habr Suliman clan of the Bagheri tribe and inflicted heavy casualties.  All the livestock and camels were captured.  The Mullah who also belongs to the Habr Suliman was not far away and, on hearing the news, retreated into the Nogul Valley.  The Abyssinians pursued him but could not maintain the chase for lack of water.

A second Abyssinian force of 4,000 was despatched in September 1903.  Supplying this force presented great difficulties as they had no logistic support.  Once in the field they were able to deny the Mullah free movement though no significant actions were fought.

The Italians negotiated with the Mullah and on 5 March 1905 with the result that the Mullah was allowed his own state within the Italian sphere of influence.  The Mullah now became, temporarily at least, an Italian problem. 

However, the Mullah was only resting and building up again after the defeats for the future. 


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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