British Operations Against The mad mullah

A wargamer's Guide 



 Somaliland - Where large armies starved and small ones were swallowed in the bush. (Moyse-Bartlett).

To the British, the territory of Somaliland had little interest in itself.  It had few natural resources to comment it to the investor, industrialist or colonist.  Its importance came from its location and the policy was to deny Somaliland to other European powers or the Abyssinian Empire rather than to take it as a colony.  The reason was that it lay directly over the Red Sea from Aden.  The Treasury was, of course, reluctant to fund an adequate military force of occupation or proper policing of the area.

Negotiations with Abyssinia culminated in the treaty of 1897 which defined the southern boundary of British territory and in 1898 the responsibility for administering the region was transferred from India to the Foreign Office in London.  The Consul, Colonel J Hayes-Sadler and experienced Africa hand was promoted to Consul General of what was known from 1899 as the British Somaliland Coast Protectorate.  It was one of the few regions that might be self-sufficient due to its mineral resources and the traditional trade in frankincense, hides and sheep.

The quiet and prosperity was not to last very long for in 1899 word reached Col Hayes-Sadler of a Mullah (holy man) called Mohammed ibn Abdullah Hassan who was fomenting rebellion amongst the tribes.  He had made the Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca in his teens and returned as an extremist member of the puritanical Islamic Salihiyah tariqa (religious order or brotherhood).  He was in direct opposition to all foreign influence whether British, Italian, French or Abyssinian.  Reports soon linked his name with raids on friendly tribes, collecting arms and ammunition, recruiting warriors and preaching Jihad (Holy Struggle).  It did not take long for the Mullah to be declared an outlaw. 



Mohammed ibn Abdullah Hassan is better known to the British as the Mad Mullah because of the scathing irony and sarcasm contained in his letters, much of which was lost on his readers.  There are many stories about how he came to be called the Mad Mullah.  One popular version relates that when he returned to Berbera in 1895, a British officer demanded customs duty.  The Sayyid (Master), as the Somalis called him, in return asked why he should be paying a foreigner to enter his own country.   Other Somalis asked the officer to ignore him because he was just a crazy mullah.  And the name stuck.  Many Somalis did indeed think he was mad but in the sense that he was “touched by God”.  He was, according to the historian Aw Jama Omer Issa who interviewed many of his followers, “whenever you came to him, he would overwhelm you.  You would lose your senses…To whomever he hated, he was very cruel.  To those he liked, he was very kind.”   

He was born in the interior of Somaliland, possibly at Kirrit, in the late 1860s.  His father was an Ogaden Somali and his mother came from the Dolbahanta tribe. His boyhood was much like that of any other Somali boy, sometimes he spent time with his fellow-tribesmen and their flocks in the interior and sometimes in Berbera.   When he was about seventeen or eighteen, he set out to see the world, and is supposed to have enlisted in Aden as a fireman on one of the passenger liners sailing east and west. In the Egyptian ports and in native caravanserais he would, no doubt, have heard the story of the Mahdi from the refugees from the Sudan.  After some time at sea he made the pilgrimage to Mecca - a journey which is the common ambition of all Muslims. He was very impressed by what he heard and saw.  So much so that he returned several times to the holy city, joining the Mohammed Salih, an insignificant but fanatical Mohammedan fundamentalist sect, with a harsh and uncompromising nature, similar to those put forward by the Wahhabists, compared with those of the Kadariyah, which is the predominant sect in Somaliland. When he returned from the last of these pilgrimages in 1895, he denounced certain practices of the Kadariyah to the somewhat unsympathetic audiences in Berbera.  He was impressively tall at just over six feet.  He was a born orator and agitator and spoke out against luxury, the immorality of chewing "kat," or the gluttony of gorging the fat of sheep's tail. At this time he depended upon the alms of the charitable.  He gained only a very few followers among the comparatively sophisticated and wealthy inhabitants of Berbera.  So in 1899 he went inland, where he lived in the Nogal valley amongst his mother's tribe. Here he started a movement preaching the expulsion of the British infidel from his Muslim country. Some of his followers were fired by his religious and political teaching while others were attracted by promises of the wealth to be gained by raiding the herds of those tribes which had sided with the infidel others again had their own personal motives.  Many saw a great opportunity to lay up treasure in the Islamic paradise for themselves by confiscating other tribes' treasure upon earth. For three years the Mullah disciplined his followers and in doing so he eradicated the tribal feelings, which is normally the chief characteristic of the Somalis, and replacing it with devotion to his own authority rather than that of the elders of the tribes. Then, early in 1899 he made his first attack at Burao, a large native centre some eighty miles from Berbera.  He followed this up in April when he raided the wealthy Habr Yunis tribe and forced a section of the Dolbahanta tribe to join him. After these successful raids, his following had risen to about 3000 fighting men.  His followers wore white turbans and called themselves Dervishes.

He then followed up his raid on the Habr Yunis with another in August during which he reoccupied Burao with a force of about 5000 men. He now styled himself as the Mahdi and ominous rumours spread around him prophesying a blood soaked advance on Berbera. The Consul General asked London for a military expedition but British commitments elsewhere, most particularly the Boer War, precluded any regular forces being committed to Somaliland. For the first seven months of 1900, the Mullah was comparatively quiet until in August he suddenly launched his followers on the Aidegalla tribe and caused all the tribes friendly to the British to evacuate the Haud region in confusion.   Then in September the Habr Awal tribe suffered severely at his hands.  The Mullah’s raids were ruthless driving off all tribal livestock leaving them destitute and slaughtering men, women and children in reign of terror.  The tribes depended upon their camels’ milk and sheep for food.

An expedition sent to arrest him under the command of a young political officer, Haji Musa Farah at the Mullah’s Base in the Golis range 40 miles south of Berbera.   The Mullah, forewarned of the mission, escaped to the Haud Region.  The failure of this mission led to 21 years of operations in Horn of Africa and a struggle that devastated the Somali Peninsula and resulted in the death of an estimated one-third of northern Somalia's population and the near destruction of its economy. 

A series of raids in February 1901 le to some spectacular feats of marching by the infantry of the Levy – 65 miles in one day was recorded on 13 February.  Unfortunately even these almost superhuman efforts were not enough.  Even so Major Phillips with 3 companies of the Levy surprised a raiding party inflicting 25 dead and capturing 455 camels and 5,000 sheep. 

At this time the very success of his raids was having a detrimental effect upon the Mullah’s base at Mudug.  There were just too many animals and people there for the grazing to support.  So parties of his supporters spread out across the Nogal.  Here they found that Yusuf Ali’s tribesmen had not been properly supported and could not take action against the depleted forces in Mudug.  Spies, furthermore, reported that caravans of rifles continued to arrive and also that many Mijjarten tribal riflemen had joined the Mullah because they were hostile to Yusuf Ali. 

 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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