The First Campaign against the Mad Mullah in Somaliland: May to July 1901
(This is a continuation from the article: Somaliland 1884 – 1898: The Early British Years)
After the British Foreign Office took over responsibility for Somaliland from the Indian government in 1898 administrative policy hardly changed. The British contented themselves with activities along the coastal region and the interior was left alone, protection being offered verbally to tribes who requested it. The Somali Coast Police, the only local military force in the territory, held one or two posts on the approach routes to the coast but otherwise, its members were stationed in the coastal towns. A company of Indian soldiers was sent from the Aden garrison, and these sepoys also were stationed on the coast.
This state of affairs was changed radically by the appearance of a Somali named Sayyid Muhammad ‘Abdullah Hassan, later known by the British as the Mad Mullah, a tall, thin, dark-skinned man with a small goatee beard. Hassan is believed to have been born around 1856 near Kirrit in Dulbahante country where his mother lived; his father is thought to have come from the Ogaden region. In 1894 Hassan traveled to Mecca to perform Haj and there came under the influence of a mystic, Muhammed Salih, a member of a reformist sect.
The following year Hassan returned to Berbera and began preaching, but his puritanical sermons made little impression on the commercially-minded coastal Somalis. In 1897 he is believed to have moved to his mother’s tribal region in the interior where he began recruiting a group of followers who took vows renouncing the pursuit of wealth, and who welcomed an austere, disciplined lifestyle.
Initially, Hassan came to prominence as an arbitrator in tribal disputes, but his over-riding motivation was a patriotic devotion towards the removal of Christian invaders from Somali territory.
Right: An artists impression of Sayyid Muhammad ‘Abdullah Hassan
Cruel and ruthless if necessary
Hassan developed into a strong leader and disciplinarian who attained his objectives by cruel and ruthless force if persuasion failed. He began raiding the stocks of tribes under British protection and confronting the Ethiopians who were entering the Ogaden region from Harar. He established his base at Burao where he maintained around 1,500 men of whom only 200 had rifles. However French traders in Djibouti saw an opportunity and began running loads of rifles and ammunition by camel train to Burao where Hassan purchased them. Besides the potential threat to Berbera, the British became concerned as they had no troops in the interior to back up their guarantees of protection to friendly tribes. The 2nd Central Africa Regiment composed of infantry soldiers recruited in Nyasaland was despatched from Mauritius to Berbera in February 1900, allowing the Indian company to return to Aden. The African Askari were initially located in three posts at Berbera, Sheikh, and the Adadleh Wells that were near Syk and the Jerato Pass. Another post was later located at Burao when Hassan’s men moved away. The Askari disrupted the French traders’ supply of arms by the overland route, so the French then sailed boat-loads of arms and ammunition along the coast eastwards from Djibouti towards harbors in Italian territory where Hassan’s agents were waiting to receive them. The 2nd Central Africa Regiment believed that it had one splendid opportunity to kill or capture Hassan and destroy his force when news came that Hassan was camped at Milmil with his herds out grazing. The Askari under Major A.W.V. Plunkett marched to Milmil and found that their foe was camped just across the Abyssinian border, but the British Consul-General at Berbera, Colonel J. Hayes-Sadler, had given Plunkett strict instructions to stay within British territory. Plunkett complied and the opportunity was lost.
By now Hassan’s closest followers were becoming known as Dervishes, and he titled himself Mullah. The British began referring to him as The Mad Mullah and there are two theories as to why this happened. Firstly he is believed to have had surgery on his head performed by a tribal doctor when he was young, and this unsettled his temperament. Secondly, when he first started preaching at Berbera his radical sermons attracted comments that he was irrational in his thinking. The use of the word ‘Mad’ can be seen now to have been an unfortunate choice. Whatever personality traits that the Mullah displayed, they did not affect his military performance as one of the most formidable insurgent leaders that the British Empire ever had to face. It was only 20 years later when the Mullah had forsaken his nomadic lifestyle for a more settled existence that he became vulnerable to British military technology developed during the First World War.
Left: Bringing in thorns for making a zareba
The background of the First Campaign
The first large-scale military action by followers of the Mullah, although he was not present, was in March 1900 when a Somali force of around 6,000 spearmen attacked an Abyssinian force at Jijiga east of Harar. The 1,500 well-armed Abyssinians stood their ground and shot down over 2,500 Somali attackers. The fact that the Mullah had been able to raise and motivate 6,000 men alarmed both the British and the Abyssinians, and three months later the latter suggested to the British that a combined operation be mounted against the Dervishes.
Meanwhile, the 2nd Central Africa Regiment (soon to be re-titled The King’s African Rifles) was urgently needed for operations in West Africa, and by December 1900 all the Askari had left Somaliland. Hayes-Sadler supported the Abyssinian proposal and suggested raising a local Somali force which would take the field in conjunction with the Abyssinians. The British government quickly agreed to this plan because military commitments elsewhere in South Africa, China, West Africa, and Jubaland had led to a shortage of regular troops. Captain and Local Lieutenant Colonel Eric J.E. Swayne, Indian Army, well-known in Somaliland because of his explorations, was selected to raise the local force. Hayes-Sadler’s orders to Swayne were to capture or defeat the Mullah and to put an end to his influence in the Dulbahante country. Swayne was sanctioned to raise 1,000 marching infantrymen, 400 mounted infantrymen on ponies, and 100 infantrymen mounted on camels. All the levies, as these 1500 recruits were called, were to be armed with rifles. Officers were sent from the British and Indian armies and 50 Punjabi Muslim military instructors were promised from India.
The raising, training, and organizing of the Somali levies
Orders to raise levies were issued on 22 November 1900 and six days later Eric Swayne was marching the first 250 men to Adadleh to take over the askari positions. Twelve hundred Somalis had stepped forward to enlist as soon as recruitment commenced, their motivation being exasperation at the looting and killing being carried out by the Mullah’s followers. Men were only enlisted if they came from trustworthy tribes and if a Chief vouched for them; Dulbahante tribesmen were not recruited. The daily rate of pay was 12 rupees, four rupees less than the Somali Coast Police received. The training was concentrated because of a shortage of time but included obedience to orders, basic drill movements, infantry formations, shooting, and the recognition of bugle calls. The Askari had handed over 150 Martini-Enfield single-loading .303 rifles, and along with spare rifles held by the Coastal Police these armed the first 250 men. Two officers from the 2nd Central African Rifles, Lieutenants H.F. Byrne and E.U. Walsh remained in Somaliland to assist Swayne and they were stationed at Hargeisa and Adadleh. The Coastal Police initially provided 40 non-commissioned officers for the levies but Swayne soon found that there were suitable men for promotion within the ranks. These junior leaders were trained by four Indian instructors borrowed from the Aden garrison until the 50 being sent from India arrived. After additional training, several Somalis were appointed as local officers.
Shipments of rifles and Maxim machine guns arrived in February 1901, allowing weapon training programs and range practice to be carried out by all the levies. The rifle shooting skills of the Somalis, particularly at accurate volley-firing, quickly became impressive. Somali gun teams were formed and trained for the three Maxims, and the teams were soon proficient despite a lack of mekometers for range finding. Camels carried the Maxims and ammunition. Riding camels were imported from Aden and transport and eating camels and other food supplies purchased locally. Equipment, stores, barbed wire, and water tanks for mounting onto camels were ordered from Egypt, India, or England. The Aden garrison provided explosives for enlarging rocky wells, blue lights for night work, and signal rockets. Camel caravans were regularly sent up to Adadleh where stockpiles of supplies were formed.
Swayne had a setback
Swayne had a setback when he tried to raise 400 mounted men with their own ponies and saddles. The friendly tribes did not want to weaken their own security over their herds which had now been pushed north by the Mullah’s men towards the coast, where good grazing was scarce.
Left: Somali Spearmen
Initially, only 100 mounted levies came forward to enlist. Swayne then purchased ponies and saddles and mounted some of his infantrymen on them, enlisting additional infantrymen to make up his required manpower totals. Spearmen, some on their own horses, were hired on an “as required” basis to guard the animal transport and captured livestock; they received no pay but were guaranteed to receive camels captured from the Dervish herds. Before marching inland from Berbera each of the levies was given an allowance for the purchase of local shoes and a piece of American cloth. The levies also received a small allowance to give to their families before the men departed. Spare hides and lengths of steel were taken inland by enlisted cobblers and metalworkers so that shoes could be repaired and axes made for the construction of thorn-tree zaribas, or defensive fences.
Twenty-one British officers joined Swayne and he organized his infantry into two corps each of 500 men, using Captains M. McNeill and G.E. Phillips as the corps commanders. Major W.G.L. Beynon DSO, Swayne’s Second In Command, commanded all the mounted troops having under him Captain J.W.B. Mereweather with the mounted infantry and Captain C.M.D. Bruce with the camel corps. Captain D.A. Friedrichs was appointed as Swayne’s Adjutant or principal staff officer. Lieutenant H. Boulton with a small detachment from the Indian Medical Service provided medical support and he was the only qualified doctor on the campaign. A British armorer sergeant accompanied the force to maintain the weapons. Two liaison officers were sent to work with the Abyssinian forces, Brevet Major the Honorable A.H.C. Hanbury-Tracy and Captain R.P. Cobbold. Unfortunately, one of the British officers, Lieutenant L.W. de Sausmarez, was killed in an accidental shooting incident at Burao.
Operations delayed by late rains
The 50 Punjabi instructors had only arrived from India as Swayne set out on his operations, and so he decided to keep them together rather than split them around the force. Swayne’s strategy relied on marching faster than his enemy and so surprising him. The Punjabis marched at a slower pace than the Somalis and they also required more administrative support, particularly with special rations. Swayne was also determined to seize the camel herds belonging to the Mullah’s followers. He later wrote in his after-action report:
“In Somaliland life revolves around the camel. The people live on the milk for the greater part of the year, and without the camel, the best grazing grounds distant from water would be unattainable, for sheep have to be kept near the wells. Without the camel, the bulk of the people could not exist.
Informing plans of attack, therefore, it was important to bear in mind that if the flocks and herds of the enemy could be captured the men would inevitably be compelled either to make terms or to collect to attack the expedition.”
Swayne’s operational movements were delayed for two months because of late rains which denied him grazing in the interior for his ponies, riding camels and transport camels, and it was not until late May that his levies concentrated at Burao and started searching for the Mullah’s forces. This delay upset the Abyssinian plans as they had started moving east from Jijiga in January and by May they were running out of food. The Abyssinian soldiers could not exist on meat alone as could the Somalis, and the Mullah’s men had removed the grain in the areas that the Abyssinians occupied. Although the British and Abyssinian forces never managed to act in concert, the Abyssinian advance had made the Mullah move eastwards into Dulbahante country.
The British formed two columns, Swayne commanding the more mobile one whilst McNeill commanded the slower one which included most of the transport camels. Scouts had reported that the Mullah with 5,000 men was south of Yahayl and both British columns marched southeast from Burao through Ber and Eyl-Dab. On the way, the Mullah’s stockaded village and former headquarters at Kob-Fardod were burnt down, with the exception of the mosques which were untouched. The mounted troops were tasked with raiding the herds of the Mahmud Gerad Dulbahante tribe which supported the Mullah. These herds were grazing 50 miles to the east of the line of march and Beynon successfully seized 300 camels. On 30 May both columns and the mounted troops with the captured camels met up at Samali (see map) where there was a large pool of rainwater.
The attack at Samali
Swayne ordered McNeill to defend Samali and two adjacent thorn zaribas strengthened by barbed wire were built. The upper zariba included the crest of a small hill overlooking the surrounding countryside and housed the men, with a .450-inch Maxim gun positioned on a cairn of stones. The lower zariba housed all the transport animals and captured stock and ran down the hill towards the water. McNeill’s force consisted of 370 riflemen, 70 spearmen, and a few mounted Somalis who went out scouting. Also, twenty of the Punjabis were with McNeill, the remainder having been detailed to join the Burao garrison.
Swayne moved off to search for the Mullah’s herds on 2 June, with his mobile column taking only hospital and Maxim gun transport camels plus some eating camels as rations. Enemy scouts reported the British movements so the Mullah marched his men, to avoid contact with Swayne, and advanced on Samali. The Mahmud Gerad Dulbahantes were pressing the Mullah to recover their seized camels and the Mullah was anxious to do this and also to seize all McNeill’s animals, which totaled over 3,000 camels and 50 horses, plus the rifles of the levies that were going to be killed at Samali. The Mullah would then have been well enough armed to engage Swayne’s column.
At around 1600 hours that day, McNeill’s outlying pickets came in reporting that enemy horsemen were trying to seize camels that had been led out of the zariba to graze. Effective use of the Maxim gun at 1,200 yards range emptied some saddles and thwarted the enemy. All the British stock was driven back into the lower zariba except for two camels and 20 sheep that were lost. Two of McNeill’s men were overrun by the enemy and their bodies were later found stabbed into pieces by spear thrusts. Then about 2,000 of the Mullah’s spearmen and 500 of his horsemen appeared out of the bush and advanced on the zaribas. Fifty to 60 of these men had rifles, which they fired as they advanced. As the lower zariba was near the bush and vulnerable at one corner Lieutenant J.C. Lampfrey had been posted there with some levy riflemen and spearmen. Meanwhile, the riflemen and Maxim gunner in the upper zariba shot over the top of the lower zariba into the enemy’s advancing ranks, which broke up the advance. Just after last light, a determined assault was made on the lower zariba and Lampfrey’s men were closely engaged. Although some of the enemies were killed whilst touching the fence, none managed to get through the thorn barrier to reach the animals.
Simultaneously a determined assault was made on the upper zariba in an attempt to capture the Maxim. Effective fire by the gun and by the 20 Punjabis who were positioned around it stopped any enemy from penetrating the protective barbed-wire barrier. When the moon came up at 2100 hours the enemy spear and riflemen withdrew taking many dead and wounded with them. Throughout the night sounds could be heard indicating that the Mullah’s men were repositioning themselves in the bush.
5,000 men in a long line, several ranks deep
After the first light, McNeill sent patrols out around the zaribas and they found 12 enemy dead near the Maxim cairn and five others just outside the stock zariba. More dead men and horses were lying further out, but the patrols did not linger as further enemy action was expected. At 0845 hours around 5,000 of the Mullah’s men emerged from the bush, all on foot, in a long line several ranks deep. The line extended from beyond the Maxim cairn to beyond the pool of water, allowing each end of the line to envelop the British zaribas and engage them on three sides. Up to 100 of the Mullah’s men were carrying rifles.
McNeill had ordered no shots to be fired over 500 yards range, and although the levies were excited they maintained their discipline and only fired when they were ordered to. Then a very heavy British fire was laid down which repeatedly broke up enemy advances. None of the Mullah’s men got within 150 yards of the upper zariba. Lampfrey and his men were in close action again in the lower zariba, the Mullah’s men getting close enough to hurl spears, wooden clubs, and stones at the defenders. Two of Lampfrey’s men were killed and one wounded by spears. As the upper zariba was relatively secure the lower zariba was reinforced and this extra firepower drove the enemy away. Although during the previous evening the Mullah had exhorted his followers to fight and win, the enemy cohesion was now broken and the Mullah’s forces retreated to the hills and began making for their own territory.
McNeill had insufficient mounted troops to pursue the enemy but his patrols did bring in prisoners found in the nearby bush. These prisoners were used to recover 180 dead enemy bodies, 15 of them being in the water pool. The bodies were dumped in deep crevices 600 yards down-wind of the pool. The British had lost ten men killed and eight wounded. Several rifles were recovered from the bush.
It was learned from the prisoners that the Mullah watched the second day’s fight from a hill to the south. He was accompanied by his chief advisor, Haji Sudi, a former interpreter for the Royal Navy at Suakin and previously a head man on European hunting safaris. They departed when they saw that the battle was lost.
14,000 camels seized
Meanwhile, Swayne’s infantry was marching eastwards each carrying a rifle, bayonet, equipment, 100 rounds of ammunition, two days’ rations of dried meat and dates, and a sheep-skin container holding about one gallon of water. The first news they had of the fighting at Samali was when Swayne’s scouts came across some of the Mullah’s men fleeing through the bush and took prisoners. Swayne’s troops now attacked the routed Dervish forces, killing probably 200 of them and wounding many more. The Mullah and his survivors finally gained refuge in Italian territory, many men had died of wounds or thirst on the way. The British estimated that in total the enemy had suffered up to 1,000 casualties.
Right: Maxim Gun on a camel
McNeill’s column now marched to join Swayne at Lasadar and as there were no organized enemy forces in the area to oppose them the British seized 14,000 camels, 1,000 cattle, and 30,000 sheep from tribes who had allied themselves with the Mullah. These seizures involved hard marching of up to 30 to 40 miles each day through thick bush by columns of levies. This led to the tribal leaders coming in and surrendering unconditionally. Meanwhile, the Mullah regrouped at Mudug (see map) with his more fanatical followers, and being threatened from the south by the Sultan of Obbia he decided to return to Dulbuhante country and re-establish Dervish authority.
The action at Ferdiddin
Swayne’s whole force was now feeling the strain of marching swiftly over long distances. Hayes-Sadler ordered an end to operations but just then Swayne’s scouts gained information that the Mullah’s force was at Ferdiddin (see map). Swayne decided, despite Sadler’s orders, to seize the initiative and attack as that would in fact be a safer option than withdrawing whilst the enemy force was in the vicinity. On 16 June 100 levies and the transport animals were left behind at Courgerad, fourteen miles from the enemy camp. At midnight a night march was made, only 16 transport camels carrying Maxim guns and water being taken forward on the march. Ferdiddin was approached at first light, and prisoners captured on the spot stated that the Mullah’s village was three miles ahead beyond a spur. The British advanced in three groups. An infantry column on the right under Captain Phillips moved to take some dominant hills, another infantry column on the left under Captain MacNeill advanced across a plain, and the mounted troops under Beynon were sent forward in the center to reconnoiter. The mounted troops were now reduced to 75 men due to the detailing of escorts to march prisoners and captured stock back to Burao. Lieutenant F.A. Dickinson with a reserve infantry force followed Beynon.
Lieutenant Friedrichs commanded the advance party of the mounted troops and as his group passed through some thick bush an enemy ambush was sprung. Friedrichs was killed whilst attempting to rescue a non commissioned officer of the levies. Enemy rifle fire now started knocking down the transport camels and half of the horses and camels of the mounted force. Dickinson was ordered to run forward with his men to occupy the spur which was two miles away. The seizure of the spur was quickly achieved although Dickinson suffered a leg wound in the process. Dickinson’s men and the unwounded levy machine gunners now disentangled the Maxims and belts of ammunition from the dead and wounded camels and brought the guns into action on the spur. This fire support allowed the mounted troops to disengage and fall back onto the spur.
Meanwhile, MacNeill’s and Phillips’ columns pressed forward on the left and right and once Phillips had seized the hills the British had the advantage and fired from above onto the Mullah’s men. A Somali officer now led Dickinson’s men down the spur in a charge towards the enemy positions and this, combined with the advances of the flanking columns, broke the enemy resistance. Swayne’s levies pursued the enemy for five miles, shooting several brave Dervishes who stood and fought rearguard actions ordered by the Mullah. The withdrawal of the Mullah’s men quickly turned into a flight towards Italian territory. Swayne now halted his men as his supplies of water were almost exhausted and after burning the Mullah’s village at Ferdiddin the British withdrew and re-grouped at Courgerad. British casualties at Ferdiddin were one British officer killed and one wounded and eleven levies killed and 17 wounded. The Mullah’s force was believed to have lost 200 men killed or wounded, more dying of wounds and thirst as they fled. The Mullah’s party is thought to have survived by cutting open the stomachs of dead camels in order to drink the water found there. Eight hundred prisoners had been taken by the British including many Chiefs and headmen; most of them were later released after coming to terms with the British administration.
Orders from London; friendly tribes left unprotected
The Foreign Office in London now ordered the campaign to cease and Swayne marched to Burao with his men and transport animals via suitable water holes. Burao was reached on 30 July and the force began to disband. The captured stock was returned to friendly tribes who had lost it to the Mullah in the first place, spearmen were paid off with camels and some of the levies opted for this form of payment rather than cash. Wounded men and relatives of the dead were also compensated with camels. The sheep and milch goats, apart from a small percentage eaten by the levies, were returned to the enemy’s women and children.
Despite the friendly and subdued tribes emphatically telling Swayne that when the Mullah returned they would have to submit to him or lose their herds because they had no rifles with which to defend themselves, London decided not to permanently garrison Burao or anywhere else inland. The levies were reduced to a Camel Corps 100 strong and an infantry force 500 strong. The discharged levies were enrolled in a Militia from which they could be re-engaged as levies if required. The remaining 600 serving levies were all stationed on or near the coast. It was not to be long before the Mullah took advantage of this fact.
An inconclusive end to the Campaign
This First British Campaign against the Mullah was inconclusive in that he was not killed or captured and neither side received a devastating blow in battle. However, the campaign was important in that Swayne understood the potential of the Somali soldier, and apart from a handful of British and Indian personnel, all the troops in the British force were Somali. This situation was never to be repeated as in the future African, Indian, and British soldiers, sailors and airmen made major contributions to campaigns in Somaliland.
Eric Swayne and his Somalis worked on a basis of mutual respect and understanding. He included the following comments in his final report:
It was not advisable, nor was it necessary, to dragoon the levies, whose mobility was, to a great extent, the outcome of their being an irregular corps. I had whilst in the Uganda Rifles, some opportunity of contrasting Somalis with Sudanese, and I found the Somalis in the main perhaps easier to manage.
Provided the men are treated with the same consideration as is used in the native army in India, they will readily respond by doing their best. It was unfortunate that many of the officers could only communicate with their men through interpreters who, in some cases, were prone to make the most of their position.
Swayne commanded the next campaign against the Mullah, but after that, no future British campaign commander in Somaliland would ever equal Swayne in the knowledge that he had acquired of the territory and its people.
A zebra for King Edward
All officers and men on the campaign, including those attached to the Abyssinians, were awarded the African General Service Medal with a clasp inscribed “SOMALILAND 1901”. Unfortunately, it appears that less than 400 of the levies actually received their medals, as by the time the medal rolls were prepared and the medals manufactured and sent to Somaliland the whereabouts of many of the former levies was not known.
Sixteen of the British officers received mentions in Swayne’s despatches as did three of the local men. The mention of one of the three read: Ressaldar Musa Farah has served Government for some 13 years. He is thoroughly trustworthy, and the most intelligent Somali I have ever met, and far above the average of Indian native officers. He has more influence in the country than any tribal Chief and has frequently been employed on detached work, where his tact, judgment and firmness have always insured satisfactory results. He is tireless in the saddle and got the utmost out of the company of mounted infantry he commanded. He was conspicuously brought to my notice for gallantry in action at Ferdiddin by the Officer Commanding the Mounted Corps.
Captain G.E. Phillips and Captain M. McNeill received Distinguished Service Orders. Major W.G.L. Beynon, who already possessed a Distinguished Service Order, received the brevet rank of Lieutenant Colonel when he attained the rank of substantive major. Major The Honourable A.H.C. Hanbury-Tracy became an Ordinary Member Third Class of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George for his liaison duties with the Abyssinians. He was also invested with the Order of the Most Brilliant Star of Ethiopia of the second class, and Emperor Menelik placed in his charge a zebra which was to be a gift to King Edward.
Frontier and Overseas Expeditions from India Volume VI, Expeditions Overseas, reprinted by The Naval & Military Press Ltd.
Hamilton, Angus, Somaliland, 1911, Hutchinson and Co., London.
Jardine, Douglas, The Mad Mullah of Somaliland, 1923, Herbert Jenkins Ltd., London.
Magor, R. B., African General Service Medals, The Naval and Military Press, revision of 1993 edition.
McNeill, Malcolm and Dixon, A.C.H., In Pursuit of the “Mad” Mullah, reprinted in the Legacy Reprint Series.
Moyse-Bartlett, Lt. Col. H., The King’s African Rifles, reprinted by The Naval & Military Press Ltd.
The London Gazette.
The Official History Of The Operations In Somaliland 1901-04, reprinted by The Naval & Military Press Ltd.
(This article appeared in a recent issue of the Journal of the Anglo-Somali Society.)