British Operations Against The mad mullah

A wargamer's Guide 


The Dervish Army

The Mullah’s warriors, like those of the Mahdi in the Sudan, were called “Dervish” from the Turkish dervis or Persian darvesh and referred to those warriors fighting for Islam who had devoted themselves to life of poverty.   The Mullah could field a maximum of 5,000 of these hard-core warriors made up of a disciplined force of 1,000 riflemen in 10 companies named after one of the Mullah’s ten wives and some 20,000 tribal spearmen.  As the campaigns progressed his following varied in strength, increasing, dwindling and reforming according to the Mullah’s successes or defeats though it never quite disappeared until the very end.

Each of the tribes fought under its own war leader who was not usually the tribal chieftain.  Below this were several commanders in charge of tribal detachments.  The commanders were advised by a master of ritual on how favourable any proposed actions might be.  The warriors of the mullah came from the Irir, whose clans were the Dir, the Issak and the Hawiye and the Darod made up of the Mijjerten and Ogadeni clans.  In the south the Saab had the Digil and Rahanwein clans.     The tribes of Somalis claimed descent from a common ancestor and were subject to the decisions of the tribal council, the Shir, consisting of tribal chiefs and elders chosen by the tribes and sub-tribes.  A Great Chief, like the Mullah, might inherit their status but their leadership had to be approved by the tribes through the Shir.  The Mullah was so successful militarily that he faced no challenges to his leadership but this very lack of a contender meant that there was no successor.

As warriors, the Somalis were harsh and uncompromising capable of travelling 40-50 miles a day with only their weapons, a little water and some dried meat.  Their tactics were simple, cavalry and camel scouts operated 50 to 70 miles ahead of the main body.  They preferred sniping, raiding, ambushes and close fighting in the bush to charges across open ground.  Using their small shields of giraffe hide they worked in pairs with spears and daggers to defeat their enemies.  While one held or occupied the opponent the other would close in with his spear for the kill. 

In the bush visibility was rarely above 400 yards and often 100 yards or less.  The low visibility gave the Somalis the advantage in the skirmishes and raids.  When they did launch a massed charge they would form up with a single line of spearmen a pace apart followed at a distance by a second line of spearmen and archers while the riflemen, slingers and cavalry providing covering fire from the flanks.  The tribal elders were mounted on horses.  These tactics bore more than a passing resemblance to those employed by the Mahdist forces in the Sudan a few years before. 

In defence, the Mullah’s Dervishes made good use of cover and natural barriers.  Often a wadi would be used to conceal the spearmen from enemy view and fire.  The wadi itself may have several small forts to form rifle bastions.  These were built from stone and mud and blended into the terrain making them difficult to spot until the riflemen inside opened fire.  In 1913 the Mullah supervised the construction of a well protected headquarters at Taleh.  The main enclosure had 13 stone forts connected by walls around it.  These walls were 12 to 14 feet thick at the base and the forts added an extra 6 feet to their height.  Overlooking the perimeter at a distance of 200 yards were three 50-60 feet tall forts.   These were also strongly built and included granaries and space for livestock. His medical services were rudimentary but, apparently, quite effective even if they were of the “kill or cure” variety!  Any wounds inflicted were plastered with camel dung so that they putrefied and healed.

Tribal dress consisted of a robe or tobe made from two pieces of cloth and worn like a Roman toga though some of the isolated tribes wore animal skins.  Some warriors wore the half-tobe a shorter version which was folded to leave the wearer naked from the waist up.  The normal colour was white but some were dyed red, grey or yellow ochre occasionally with a coloured or patterned border along the bottom edge.   The cloth could be soaked in butter to make it wind, damp and cold resistant.  Some warriors carried a small leather case around his neck in which was a verse from the Koran.  Few tribesmen wore hats and so their distinctive hairstyle was easily seen.  A pair of leather sandals completed his outfit.  Those who had completed the Hajj to Mecca wore a green sash. 

The Mullah himself was distinguished by the stark whiteness of his robes and turban as well as the red wool decorations on his horse harness.    His horse was a light bay.   He is often described as wearing a green turban instead of the white one. 

A typical warrior carried a spear or two in one hand and in the other a small round shield, gashan, made of giraffe, rhinoceros, bullock or oryx hide with a central boss and handle.  The gashan when not in use could be pushed up the arm to the elbow and was proof against arrows and spears.  The main weapon was a heavy bladed stabbing spear about 6 foot long with a broad steel blade. This was a thrusting spear that was particularly effective against horses.  The throwing spears were shorter and lighter with long thin steel tips.  Some also carried a two foot long double edged bilawa (sword) in a leather scabbard.   Both infantry and cavalry carried ebo (javelins) and some hard wood throwing clubs. The horsemen carried both long and short spears.  The range of a small, light throwing spear with a thin blade thrown by a foot warrior was about 25 – 30 yards and 37 – 42 yards from horseback. 

From 1890 an increasing number of firearms were imported through Djibouti in French held territory.  These were mainly of French manufacture, Lebel and Le Gras 1874 model rifles as well as older Martini-Henry and Remington rifles. 

The regular army (Maara-weyn) of the Dervish state was organised into seven regiments: Shiikh-yaale, Gola-weyne, Taar-gooye, Indha-badan, Miinanle, Dharbash and Rag-xun. Each regiment had its commander (muqaddim) and varied from between 1000 to 4000 men. A large para-military orce was also drawn from the npmad population. The bodyguards (Gaarhaye) of Muhammad Abdullah Hassan and other senior members of the state were either freed slaves whom he had adopted as sons or riverine groups such as the Reer Baarre. The cavalry, for its part, numbered between 5000 and 10000 mounted horsemen, and the standing army was supplied with modern weapons such as rifles and maxim guns.

The Midgan (Mijjarten) tribesmen from the east and north east of Italian Somaliland were mainly archers who shot poison tipped arrows and who carried a sling for launching arrows.  The quiver had a grindstone attached to it for sharpening arrow tips.  Typically they wore the half-tobe.

The Mullah, against the fifth expedition could deploy a hard core of 1,000 riflemen in 10 companies named after one of the Mullah’s wives.  In addition he had between 3,000 and 5,000 tribal spearmen. 

Modelling the Forces

The Waterloo 1815 Dervish set provided my foot soldiers for the Mullah’s infantry.  The flag bearer needs the flag removed and any number of swordsmen can have their swords removed and replaced with spears made from pins.  Really their clothing should be the tobe and not as the figures are depicted.  The cavalry man in the set needs a pony or a horse from some other set while the donkey can have ammunition boxes, stores, casualties and so on for both armies.







 Italeri provide commanders from their Saracen Warriors set and also assorted useful infantry from their Muslim Warriors set.


Caesar has three sets in particular that are useful.  The first two are the Bedouins with Camels and the Hebrew Warriors from their Ancients range.  These provide the basis of the Mijjarten tribesmen and archers and also reinforce the Waterloo 1815 and Italeri infantry.   The third set is the Farm Animals and this provides the highly important goats, sheep and cattle. 

HaT Industrie has the forthcoming Taaishi and Hadendowah which look very useful as well as their baggage camels and El Cid Moorish Command.

Airfix/HaT Bedouins are a useful source of troops to provide models in Arab Dress.

The civilian females can be provided by converting suitable figures from various sets – I had some Airfix Wagon Train figures, some American Pioneers and some Atlantic Ancients sets that I converted or painted to suit.  There are also a few makers of metal 20mm Arab Civilians that can also be used.

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 

Back to top

Back to Home page