British Operations Against The mad mullah

A wargamer's Guide 


1913 - 1919 – The Great War


In the immediate prelude to the Great War the Somaliland Camel Corps continued to skirmish with the Dervish raiders while the British considered withdrawing from the region completely but decided on a half-measure and withdrew to the coast.  In doing so the British lost face with the tribes and increased the credibility of the Mullah.  For a time there was quite a lot of movement with little fighting.  The Dervishes were able to secure fresh supplies of ammunition and weapons from Abyssinia and Djibuti and this allowed the Mullah to rebuild his forces over the next few years to a following of about 6,000 well armed warriors, most of them riflemen with plenty of ammunition.   

By 1913 he was, once again, at Shimber Beris threatening Burao 50 miles away at the mouth of the Ain Valley.  Here his Yemeni masons built a series of two storey stone forts which he proclaimed as the boundary between his state and the British territory.  On 9 August 1913 a company of the Somaliland Camel Constabulary commanded by Richard Corfield, which was reduced from its starting strength of 110 rifles to 85 by the time action commenced, was engaged by some 2,750 well armed Dervishes at Dul Madoba. Of the Constabulary 36, including Richard Corfield, were killed and 21 were wounded. Dervish losses were over 450 killed or wounded. As a result of the action the British withdrew their protection of the local tribes in the interior and withdrew to the area around the port of Berbera.  The heavy losses suffered by the Mullah meant that he was unable to follow up his advantage immediately.  He did, however, send his Dervishes to occupy the area and from there they could dominate the main grazing grounds of the friendly tribes.  Dervish raids against the friendly tribes increased.

With the outbreak of the World War in 1914 the British focus moved elsewhere and it fell to three companies of Somali Camel Constabulary, each of 100 men to maintain the rule of law.  They were backed up by garrisons of Indian infantry and a Camel Corps of 150 men. 

Shimber Berris is a natural fortress in the Burdab Range rising 1,100 feet sheer from the plain and is intersected by deep, steep ravines and is covered everywhere with boulders and thick scrub.  The forts were constructed of stone and mud plaster with walls about 16 to 20 feet high.  They were 9 to 12 feet thick at the base, 6 feet thick at the top and 24 feet wide provided with well made machicouli galleries but badly constructed loopholes.  Each fort could hold a garrison of 60 – 70 men.  Considerable military engineering skill had gone into their construction and selecting each site so that they could dominate the area nearby.  The bush surrounding the forts was cleared to give substantial fields of fire.  Inside the sides of the ravine itself were caves that gave the defenders a secure hideaway once they were driven from the forts.  Some of these caves could accommodate over 100 men and animals.

Machicoulis were, basically, specially arranged loopholes along the outer edge of the second storey of the fort that allowed fire to be delivered downward from a covered position. They were especially useful in bringing defensive fire to bear on points along the base of walls that could not otherwise be reached by fire from the loopholes. A machicouli gallery was a bullet-proof structure attached to the exterior of a fort that allowed defenders to fire downward onto the base of the building's exterior walls and were particularly useful when placed above doorways that might become the objectives of an assault to gain entry into the building

Lt Col Cubitt’s Column (Feb 1915)

15 Officers

570 Rank and File (23 Pioneers, Indian Contingent and Somali Camel Constabulary)

6 x Machine guns

2 x 7pdr guns

280 x baggage camels

Lt Col Cubitt’s Column (Nov 1914)

14 Officers

520 Rank and File (Indian Contingent and Somali Camel Constabulary)

4 x Machine guns

Indian Troops participating

at various times

73rd Carnatic Infantry

1/5th Light Infantry

58th Vaughan’s Rifles

101st Grenadiers

  The first attempt at ousting the Dervishes was made when Lieutenant Colonel TA Cubitt marched with a self contained mounted column on 17 November 1914 from Burao and arriving at Shimber Berris on 19 November without the Dervishes being aware of the approach.   The Dervishes were found to be in three forts on the heights above the hill.  The attack on the nearest two forts began at 1100.  One was rushed by a party of the Indian Contingent led by Lieutenant Howard but the other resisted the assault of a company of the Camel Corps who charged three times right up to the walls.  In this they were supported by short range machine gun fire.  The company was praised and its conduct reflected admirably on the morale and discipline of the unit.  While the officers led storming parties to batter down the door the main body fired on the dervishes inside the fort through the loopholes.  But the fort was too strong and the Camel Corps broke off the action at 1500 and withdrew.  The column camped eight miles south of the Burdab. 

 Four days later, the company was supported by an old 7pdr mountain gun from Burao and successfully stormed the first fort again.  The defenders were dislodged from the second fort in short order.  Two companies of the camel corps and the gun under Captain Dobbs were sent off to attack a third fort about 1,100 yards distant.  They had, however, to march four miles because of the precipitous ravines between them and the fort.    The attack was well executed and between 60 and 70 Dervishes fled downhill more from the effect of the shelling from 60 yards range on their morale than by its physical effect.  As the Dervishes fled down the slopes to the caves they came under Maxim fire and suffered casualties.  A fourth fort, 800 feet below on the valley and near the wells, was shelled forcing the defenders to evacuate the forts, caves and the valley fleeing eastwards.  The number of wounded with the column led Cubitt to decide to withdraw especially as the lack of explosives meant that the formidable forts could not be properly demolished.  The Dervishes later reoccupied them.   This time the Mullah was careful to send an entirely new force of Dervishes to replace the garrisons whose morale had been severely shaken. 

Further military operations were, therefore, necessary and when reinforcements in the form of a small detachment of the 23rd Pioneers (1 officer and 13 men) with explosives from Aden arrived, a column of mixed mounted and foot troops was despatched under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Cubitt.  The column marched out of Burao on 1 February 1915.  The mobility of the force was hampered by 280 baggage camels, most of which were carrying water. The force advanced in two columns the first arriving at the Burdab on 3 February.  The hill top was unoccupied even though the Dervishes had started work on new forts and the forts were blown up by the Pioneers.  The following morning the force concentrated on the on the plain in front of Shimber Berris about noon after moving through a pass 7 miles to the west.  Here the Dervishes were holding two forts overlooking and flanking a deep nullah (dried water course) and a fort at the far end of the nullah with more riflemen in the caves in the hillsides.

One company was deployed against each of the flanking forts while the middle fort was engaged at long range.  The two flanking forts were captured in two hours fighting but the Dervishes put down a heavy fire from the caves, the fort and the vicinity of the fort.  The artillery and machine guns were brought forward and engaged the middle fort and the caves at short range.  The Dervish fire slackened and Dervishes were seen evacuating the fort and retiring southwards up the ravine.  A company was sent against it but could not force its way in.  Even so they were able to suppress the defenders long enough for the Pioneers to lay a charge of guncotton against the door under fire from the garrison.  The fort and its defenders were blown up.  The column then cleared the caves with hand grenades and the two flanking forts were blown up.  The column withdrew to its zeriba overnight and when it returned in the morning the caves were empty.  The column left a tribal force in the area and then returned to Burao. 

In the 5 hour action the Dervishes had put up a formidable resistance. Each Dervish warrior fought desperately to the bitter end and was every bit as formidable as he was when Kipling described him as “a first class fighting man”.  From over 70 Dervish dead left behind 32 lay in the caves alone.  The British, the two operations, lost 1 Officer killed and 5 wounded, 4 Rank and File killed and 25 wounded and 4 tribal auxiliaries killed and 10 wounded.  The low casualty rate on the British side was attributed to the capable handling by Lieutenant Colonel Cubitt and the excellent leadership by the company officers.  It is difficult to determine how many Dervishes opposed the column but information at the time suggested that in November there were about 400 to 500 of whom at least 40 were killed and many more died of wounds later.  In the action in February the estimate is that about 100 to 120 Dervishes held the area and most were killed in the centre fort and in the caves. 

The Great War had its effect in Somaliland as the Turkish forces advanced on Aden, the Turko-German propaganda in Abyssinia culminated in the massacre of Somalis in Harrar by Christian Abyssinian troops – these, and other events, led to an increase in the following of the Mullah from the generally more fanatical tribes of Somaliland.  The local Somalis generally judged the course of events by the way in which the British dealt with the Dervish menace.  The policy of concentrating on holding the coastal region had shaken the British position and its recent abandonment in early 1914 meant that British credibility had to built up once more.  The prospects for any offensive operations were not good as the prospect of any reinforcement was not high.  Of necessity a generally defensive policy was adopted while the Dervishes could raid almost at will all along the 300 miles of the frontier. 

The number, disposition and composition of the troops within the Protectorate varied from time to time but the forces available to meet all contingencies from repelling Dervish raiders to maintain internal security was usually around 500 Somaliland Camel Corps, 400 Indian Contingent (150 mounted men were detached to the Somaliland Camel Corps) and 400 Temporary Garrison (Indian Infantry).  In addition were the 320 Somali Illalos (Irregulars) who were employed in scouting duties and occupying posts in outlying areas as a tribal police force.  The mounted troops were organised as 2 Somali and 1 Indian Camel Companies and one Somali Pony Company and were concentrated at Ber and Burao to form a mobile strike force, while the Indian Infantry provided garrisons at Las Khorai, Las Dureh, Burao and Hargeisa.

Following the destruction of the Dervish force and the demolition of their forts at Shimber Berris the Dervishes were driven out of the Ain Valley and withdrew to their main positions at Taleh and Jidali and the small forts and blockhouses covering these positions and their grazing lands.  The British policy was to contain them there and so provide a measure of protection to the friendly tribes behind a line drawn roughly from Ankhor on the coast through Eil Dur Elan to Badwein at the eastern end of the Ain Valley and from there south west to the frontier about the 46th degree of longitude.  This gave a front of about 200 miles that was constantly patrolled by the mounted troops to some depth.  They sometimes carried out reconnaissance patrols into the Mullah’s territory.  The Dervishes were impressed by the mobility, range and stamina of the mounted troops that many raids were abandoned at the first sight of the patrols.  Of particular value were the Illalos whose resilience to the hardships and privations of Somaliland and their gallantry and dashing action soon established a moral ascendancy over the Dervishes in many small skirmishes and raids.  However fine the troops and their operations, a defensive policy as was forced upon the British by the wartime circumstances surrendered the initiative to the Dervishes.  With this advantage they were sometimes able to achieve surprise and manage successful raids against the friendly tribes and drive off the flocks and herds.  That said, the number of successful raids was reduced and on several occasions the raiders suffered quite severe punishment.   

A number of marches, skirmishes and two significant engagements took place following this and showed the tenacity, efficiency and endurance of the officers and men.  In April 1915 the pony company under Captain J Kingdom covered a distance of 120 miles in forty hours without water in pursuit of a Dervish raiding party. 

Moving from Burao on 10 June 1915, the mounted troops under lieutenant Colonel Cubitt went out on a long reconnaissance patrol into the country along the main Dervish raiding routes.  At Las Adey on 24 June they met a party of Dervish cavalry driving them back towards Jidali.  This patrol covered 344 miles.

Again on 2 August 1915 Cubitt led another reconnaissance to Bohotle returning through the Ain Valley to Badwein.  Along the way three Dervish parties were encountered by the Illalos and each was defeated with considerable loss.  The patrol returned to Burao via Shimber Berris having covered 316 miles.

In May 1916 a strong Dervish force attacked Las Khorai on the coast inflicting over 300 casualties on the Warsangli tribe.  They were eventually dispersed and driven off by gunfire from HMS Northbrook.  Shortly afterwards a strong fortified post was established and garrisoned by 200 rifles of the 58th Vaughan’s Rifles, Indian Army to protect the town.

On 23 April 1917, the tenth day of the patrol, Lieutenant Colonel Summers with the mounted column was camped at Ainabo when he was informed that a Dervish force was at Durdur Dalbeit preparing for a large raid.  The column moved rapidly to Badwein and thence across some very heavy country that was waterlogged by the recent heavy rain to Daba Dalon by way of Adad and Bihen.  Here they ran into the Dervish cavalry who galloped off towards El Afweina.  The column arrived there that afternoon to find the town deserted.  The Dervishes had abandoned the raid and dispersed to Taleh and Jidali.  When the patrol came in Burao they had covered 335 miles.

On 6 October 1917, intelligence was received that a force of 400 – 500 Dervishes had raided the friendly tribes around Las Dureh.  The Camel Corps rode out with a strength of 10 Officers and 347 rifles and 6 machine guns, under the command of Major GR Breading DSO and reached Eil Dur Elan on the morning of 8 October and pressed on to pick up the raiders’ trail 27 miles east by sunset the same day.  The column was on the move again at 0130 as the Dervishes were reported to be in their zeriba only 20 miles away.  Captain HL Ismay, with 150 pony rifles and 2 machine guns was ordered to push ahead rapidly and was given orders to “act as circumstances demanded”.  The remaining camel mounted troops and machine guns followed along at best speed. 

When Ismay caught up with the Dervishes he found that they had driven the captured camels through two very difficult passes and were defending the way through. He ordered the tribal levy to make a diversion against the Aglub (western) pass while he attacked the strongly held Endow (eastern) pass. The defenders here numbered about 300 riflemen who had occupied a strong position on the crest and in the caves to cover the withdrawal of the raiders and the stolen camels.  The action started at 0900 on 9 October and at 1000 Captain Ismay was joined by Major Breading and the main body.  In five hours of fighting the caves were cleared and a heavy loss inflicted on the Dervish defenders, mainly by the machine guns.  However, there was still plenty of fight left in them and it was clear that the Camel Corps would not be able to reach the summit of the plateau in time to catch the fleeing Dervishes.  The column had only 2 days rations and was already 140 miles from its supply base at Burao.  So Major Breading reluctantly decided that further pursuit was not practicable because the stolen beasts would already have been driven a considerable distance away.  The Dervish losses were heavy with over 70 dead and more wounded and a good many rifles.  The British casualties were 1 officer and 9 Other ranks wounded.  Lieutenant Colonel GH Summers commanding the troops in the Protectorate remarked:

“Although the stock was not recaptured, severe loss far in excess of the value of the raid was inflicted.  The moral effect of the long sustained, successful pursuit subsequently proved to be great.  It is noteworthy that the column traversed 135 miles in 65 hours, including much difficult and intersected country, before gaining touch with the Dervishes.  The troops were under arms for 57 hours, and had only 9 hours’ rest in the 75 hours which elapsed between 1600 on the 6th October and 1900 on the 9th October, 1917.  In the course of this operation the Pony Company marched 280 miles in 7 days.”    

On 25 February 1919, information was received by telegraph from Las Dureh that a strong Dervish force was in the area of Rajuna.  The mounted column of one pony and two camel companies was despatched immediately under Major CAL Howard and reached the Ok Pass, 53 miles north east of Burao, without incident.  Major Howard with the two camel companies then moved to Eil Dur Elan to refill at the supply dump and where he would be in a position to give some protection to the grazing grounds of the friendly tribes on the Guban plain.  The Pony Company was left at Ok Pass to provide a secure position to deny the pass and to cover Howard’s movements on the plain.  At dawn on 1 March some 400 Dervishes repeatedly attacked the Pony Company zeriba which was commanded by Captain RF Simons.  After an hour of hard fighting the Dervishes were driven off leaving 63 dead outside the zeriba.  A report was sent to Major Howard as the company pursued the Dervishes shepherding them towards the Karumba Pass on the Rajuna – Las Adey track.  At 1300 on 2 March the pursuers withdrew for water and the Dervishes relieved and elated that their pursuers had withdrawn blundered on 3 March into the trap set by the main column.   The first they knew of the presence of the camel companies was when they came under heavy rifle and machine gun fire.  They retired rapidly, but were headed off by the pony company coming up from behind.  This was the final straw and despite the heroic efforts of their leaders the Dervish riflemen broke and ran, scattering in all directions. They abandoned their stolen live stock, their own camels and even their rifles and clothing.  The Dervish casualties in the two actions were over 200 dead alone while British casualties were 2 Rank and File killed and 3 wounded.  This action can rightly be assessed as the greatest defeat of the Dervishes since Jidbali in 1904.

In the middle of April 1919 remnants of the Dervish force defeated at Ok Pass, fearing that they would be punished by the Mullah if they retreated to Taleh, gathered reinforcements and raided the friendly tribes along the coast west of Ankhor.  The mounted column under Captain Ismay pursued them to within 30 miles of the raiders at Raguda, but owing to the extreme difficulty of the country and the distance from its base the pursuit was broken off.  This patrol covered 360 miles.  This was one of the most arduous patrols made by the camel corps as the going was so bad that the animals had to be led for much of the time and the local sulphurous water had a detrimental effect upon man and beast alike. 

As a further complication to the operations was the occasional demand for troops to be made ready to reinforce the Aden Field Force.  The Indian Contingent mounted company, an infantry company and two 12pdr QF guns had marched to the coast when the reinforcement was cancelled.  Another was to release a composite company of the Camel Corps with one pony mounted troop to co-operate with the French and Italian troops in French Somaliland  to capture a German mission to the Danakil territory. The French eventually decided that there was no need for the combined operation.

In addition to these operations there were minor clashes that also helped re-establish British credibility in the Protectorate.  The Mullah had been checked again and the ebb and flow of Somali Dervishism started a downward trend again.  This was not in the least caused by the attrition of his raiders in major operations and the constant drain caused by the many small actions fought with the Illalos.  As the British made advances and inflicted defeats, no matter how small, the Dervish morale suffered and an increasing flow of deserters became apparent.  The weaker the Mullah’s power became with desertions and attrition, the more ruthless he became culminating in wholesale executions and mutilations at Taleh to deal with his wavering followers.  Simultaneously, the Mijjarten tribes on his eastern flank became more aggressive towards him.

The political situation also improved and the friendly tribes displayed more cohesion while the traditional routes of supply for weapons and ammunition were gradually closed down.  Treaties with tribal leaders surrounding the Dervish zone led to increased and more reliable intelligence being collected by the Intelligence Officers. 

With the end of the Great War it was clear that the time had come for the final advance.  The troops were in a high state of readiness and efficiency while their frequent successes had raised confidence and morale.  And in October 1919 His Majesty’s Government sanctioned aerial and military operations.

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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