British campaign in Somaliland ended in July
1901 with Mullah
‘Abdullah Hassan and his followers fleeing into sanctuary in Italian
territory. The British force of local
levies recruited by Lieutenant Colonel Eric J.E. Swayne, Indian Army, was paid
off except for 600 men who were retained to become the nucleus of the 6th
King’s African Rifles (6 KAR). Swayne
was called to London
for discussions and Captain M. McNeill DSO (Argyle & Sutherland
Highlanders) took over the military command.
of the levies was organised by giving each soldier a gratuity of two captured
camels besides his pay, whilst those men who signed on to stay in service for a
further three years received a third camel.
Any men who wished to take camels in lieu of pay were allowed to do so
if they exchanged 25 rupees for each camel (this indulgence had to be withdrawn
before all the companies were discharged because the stock of camels ran
short). Fifteen camels were given to the
nearest relatives of every man killed in action, and those who had been wounded
received a compensation of up to seven camels, according to the nature of their
wounds. Needless to say this
distribution of camels, and the quality of the camels, became subjects of intense and lengthy debate
between the Somali recipients and the adjudicators. Half of the men remaining in service went on
leave for six weeks, followed by the remaining men after the first party had
The plan for
the formation of 6 KAR envisaged a battalion of 10 British officers, 8 Somali
officers and 1,037 Somali other ranks, formed into three infantry companies and
a camel company. The battalion would be
supported by quickly-raised levy companies as and when required. 6 KAR nominally came into service on 1st
January 1902, with 100 men stationed at Berbera and 600 located up-country (500
infantry and 100 mounted on camels), but it was not until campaigning ceased in
1904 that the regiment was officially designated and recognised by the Foreign
Office. However contemporary accounts
use the title 6 KAR during the years 1902 to 1904 to distinguish between the
men on three-year engagements and the addditional levies raised for short
periods. The British officers who had
served in the first campaign were asked if they would like to serve for a
further three years in the Protectorate, and several of them agreed to do so
and were posted to 6 KAR.
the construction of a fortified base at Burao which was designed by Lieutenant
A.C.H. Dixon (West India Regiment). Dixon used his experience of operations in West Africa to build a stockade, using vertical poles
spaced one metre apart. The spaces
between the poles were filled with dry-stone walling cemented by earth and
brushwood, which formed a mortar when water was poured over. Sand bags topped the wall at a height of
about a metre and a half, whilst two concentric thorn zarebas circled the
stockade. The breadth of these zarebas
was about four metres for the inner one and about six metres for the outer
one. The zarebas had barbed wire
entangled through them and they were both so low that they did not obstruct
Traverses (protective projecting walls) were built against the inside of the
stockade at intervals, and two Maxim gun positions were constructed on
corners. The bush outside the outer
zareba was cut down for a distance of around 730 metres, giving a good field of
fire for the defenders. The rear or north
side of the stockade was positioned on a sheer bank about ten metres high which
overlooked the river and the Burao wells that were 150 metres away. The finished stockade could not be destroyed
by fire, and enemy artillery would have been needed to reduce it.
Left: A Yao Askari of 2 KAR in Somaliland
Meanwhile the Mullah infiltrated his dervishes back
into British territory and re-gained his ascendancy over the Dulbuhante tribal
territory, as had been predicted by the unfortunate tribal leaders in the
interior. French gun-runners in Djibouti ran
dhow-loads of 1874-pattern Le Gras rifles and ammunition into Las Khorai and
harbours to the east, where the Mullah’s men were prepared to pay up to six
camels for one rifle. The Royal Navy
ship HMS Cossack and the Italian
warship Governolo carried out joint
patrols, stopping and searching dhows, but many more cargoes got through than
On 16th December 1901 a group of the
Mullah’s mounted men suddenly surprised a large encampment of tribesmen at
Idoweina. The Mullah assembled the
tribesmen and announced that he intended to punish all tribes who had assisted
the Protectorate Government, and that he would drive all the British out of the
territory and that he would become the Somalis’ leader. The British Acting Consul-General, Captain
H.E.S. Cordeaux, informed the Foreign Office that he was raising the levy to
its former strength and he appealed for more British officers. Eric Swayne was ordered back to Somaliland to resume military command.
Above: Somaliland Map
The Foreign Office
sent a cable to British Central Africa (now named Malawi)
instructing that two Sikh Maxim gun sections and 300 officers and African
Askari be prepared for operations in Somaliland. However the Foreign Office adopted a
defensive pose to Cordeaux, stating: ‘that His Majesty’s Government do not wish
to be drawn into a pursuit of the Mullah, and that operations should, so far as
possible, be of a defensive nature’.
Despite this Cordeaux and Swayne got on with doing what they could see
needed doing and the discharged levies were re-called to service. Swayne now had a force of 1,500 men, 200 of
them mounted on camels, and he obtained approval to recruit 500 additional
The Aden garrison supplied an
officer and 100 Sepoys to man the coastal stations, and this allowed all the
Somali soldiers to be moved into the interior.
Swayne also requested artillery from Aden, and a battery of six 7-pounder guns was
located in the stores. These guns were
unfired and had probably been left behind after the British invasion of Abyssinia in 1868.
The battery, complete with camel saddles, was sent to Berbera under the
command of Captain J.N. Angus, Royal Artillery.
Angus trained Somalis from 6 KAR to be gunners; four guns were placed in
posts as part of the defences and two guns were used with camel transport as a
dervishes continued their depredations against tribes considered to be hostile, acting roughly by
spearing women and children when they wished to impose authority. The British believed that the Mullah now had
over 12,000 followers, at least 600 of then being riflemen and many of them
Right: Somali Camelry
May Swayne marched south from Burao with a Field Force of 1,200 Somali
infantry, 50 mounted infantry on ponies, 20 mounted infantry on camels, three
maxim guns and the two 7-pounder guns of the mobile battery. About 1,000 camels were marched along either
to carry supplies or to be used as rations.
A garrison of 150 men remained at Burao and 100 other men manned a
masonry blockhouse that had been constructed at Las Dureh. The contingent of Askari from British Central
Africa had not yet arrived. The Mullah was reported to be at Baran,
waiting to raid the British line of communication when his scouts advised him
of an opportunity. At this time an
outbreak of the bacterial disease glanders destroyed half of the British
ponies, severely reducing the mobility of the mounted infantrymen.
at Bohotle and built a stockaded fort there to command the wells and house the
reserve stores. The Mullah withdrew his
main body to Erigo, one day’s march north of the large Mudug oasis in Italian Somaliland.
This meant that Swayne would have to cross the waterless Haud desert to
bring the fight to his enemy, and British troops would be dissipated in
guarding Bohotle and the route back to Berbera.
In anticipation of an enemy move into Italian territory the British
force was accompanied by the Italian liaison officer Captain Count Lovatelli.
officer Ressaldar Musa Farah (mentioned in despatches for his influence in Somaliland and his gallantry in battle during the First
Campaign) with 50 levies collected an irregular force of 5,000 friendly
tribesmen. He then moved swiftly across
a 160 kilometre-wide section of the Haud to attack the Mullah’s western
encampments. Musa Farah utilised the
speed and stamina of his Somalis to surprise the enemy, killing ten of them and
capturing 1,630 camels, 200 cows and 2,000 sheep.
Due to a
shortage of camels carrying water cans Swayne’s main body could not cross the
Haud so he moved east. A column of
mounted troops and spearmen under the Chief Staff Officer, Captain and Local
Lieutenant Colonel A.S. Cobbe DSO, (32nd Sikh Pioneers, Indian Army
and 1 KAR), was detached to raid the enemy encampments near Gerowai further to
the east. Cobbe killed 140 of the
dervishes and captured 3,900 camels and 12,000 sheep for a loss of seven men
killed and one man severely wounded. A
detachment of 200 dervishes had been located in a stone fort at Halin, and
Cobbe attacked and destroyed this, seizing Le Gras rifles and more
animals. The livestock captured by Musa
Farah, Cobbe and other officers were useful additions to the British transport
and catering departments, but they tied Swayne down with a cumbersome
logistical tail that needed to remain near water holes and wells. By the end of July the Field Force was
herding 12,000 camels, 35,000 sheep and 500 cattle and also protecting about 8,000
displaced tribes people.
Left: Making loads for burden camels
The battle at Erego
and September the Field Force continued skirmishing with hostile encampments,
and back-loaded captured stock towards the coast. Major P.B. Osborn DSO (Oxfordshire Light
Infantry and 3 KAR), commanded a 6 KAR Mounted Infantry Company and was
responsible for escorting stock and sick soldiers and tribes people back down
the line of communication. The dervishes
watched and opportunely raided British supply convoys.
The strength of
the 2 KAR Askari force from Central Africa had
been increased to half a battalion, and the first contingent landed at Berbera
on 22nd August. It
immediately marched inland, being tasked with arriving at Bohotle on 22nd
September. Also a further 60 Sikhs had
been requested from Central Africa to be used
to boost the coastal garrisons. In early
October the Inspector General of the King’s African Rifles, Brigadier-General
W.H. Manning, arrived in Somaliland. His task was to supervise the line of
communication and not to interfere with Swayne’s tactical command.
October Swayne, now at Baran, decided to move and the 250 Askari of 2 KAR
caught up with him that evening, having left a Sikh contingent at Bohotle to
bolster the levy garrison. Rain had
fallen on the Haud and pools of water were available on the intended Field
Force route. Three quarters of the
British ponies and riding camels were incapacitated by undernourishment due to
lack of rain and good grazing, so most of the 1,250 men that marched south on 3rd
October were African and Somali infantry.
Four thousand camels accompanied the troops, half carrying baggage and
the other half providing meat on the hoof.
did not mention the fact in his after-action despatch, it is likely that the
Mullah practised a successful deception plan to make the Field Force march into
an ambush. Captain Angus Hamilton, who
was serving with 6 KAR, mentions in his book Somaliland that three
dervishes had come into a British position claiming that the Mullah’s troops
were at Erego and were prepared to surrender.
The Field Force
moved down the large Erego valley. The
ground in the valley was a mixture of desert and thick bush about three metres
high which carried small hooked thorns on the branches. Swayne marched his men over 100 kilometres
down the valley until on 6th October scouts reported that the
dervishes were positioned about three kilometres ahead. A large square was formed with the two
7-pounder guns in the centre of the front face.
Recently-enlisted levies were placed on either side of the guns but
these levies apparently had no officers with them. Companies of 6 KAR Somalis extended the front
face on both sides and 2 KAR Askaris protected the flanks. The transport animals followed behind the
square and two companies of levies and one company of Askaris brought up the
rear. The bush was extremely dense,
impeding both movement and visibility.
Each man could only see five or six of his comrades. A Maxim gun was positioned to the left of the
front face of the square and three others were deployed to the right flank.
It appears that
Swayne was led to believe by a dervish prisoner that a large clearing lay just
ahead, and so he advanced the square.
Soon enemy riflemen firing from previously-prepared pits engaged the 2
KAR Askari on the right flank at 20 metres range. The Askari stood their ground against the
dervishes who now attacked with hordes of spearmen carrying small shields, a couple
of throwing spears and a lance. The
spearmen shouted “Allah! Allah!” as they charged. The British Maxim guns broke up this attack
after about five minutes of fighting. A
second dervish attack was mounted on the same flank and was repulsed, but the
thousands of British camels had panicked and would not halt when commanded
to. As the camels trotted out of the
left side of the square Dervishes got in amongst them and directed them into
the surrounding bush where the loads were scattered.
A fierce and
successful attack was now put in on the left face of the square. The 6 KAR gunners continued to serve their
guns despite taking heavy casualties, firing case shot (shells filled with
metal balls) into the densely-packed attackers whose clothing often caught
alight due to their proximity to the gun muzzles. The levies on the left of the guns broke and
withdrew rapidly for 350 metres causing a collapse of the left corner of the
square. The Maxim gun, which had not yet
fired, was dropped in dense bush and lost.
The withdrawal now crumbled the entire front face of the square apart
from the gunners, who stood their ground.
retrieved the situation himself be re-forming his Somalis and leading a costly
charge forward. The square was
re-established but Captain Angus was dead, shot through the head whilst he
commanded his guns. The Field Force
Second In Command, Major G.E. Phillips DSO, Royal Engineers, who had commanded
the troops around the left corner of the square, was killed whilst aiming at a
dervish who fired at him first. Captain
W.D. Everett, Welsh Regiment, was severely wounded whilst commanding a company
in the rear face of the square which was also heavily attacked. Major T.N.S.M. Howard, West Yorkshire
Regiment, was slightly wounded.
Colonel Alexander Stanhope Cobbe had acted with great gallantry whilst the
front of the square disintegrated, and he was later awarded a Victoria Cross
with the citation:
6th October 1902 – At Erego, Somaliland, the retirement of some companies left him
alone in front of the line with a Maxim gun.
He brought it in single-handed and worked it gallantly. Then, seeing an orderly lying wounded 20
yards from the enemy, he dashed out and carried him to safety under heavy fire.
Colonel Cobbe was in fact assisted by a Somali Sergeant who acted as his Number
2 on the Maxim gun.
Gibb, an Army Ordnance Corps Armourer-Sergeant attached to 2 KAR later received
a Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Lieutenant Colonel Swayne’s citation read:
He had charge of a Maxim. He at all times carried out his duties
efficiently, and attracted my notice by his coolness in repairing a Maxim under
Left: Corner of a zareba under construction.
lasted for around two and a half hours before the dervishes withdrew and
dispersed to loot the camel loads in the bush. Eric Swayne then re-organised his men and led
a sortie through the bush driving the dervishes before him for three
kilometres. Most of the camels and loads
were recovered, but not the lost Maxim gun (it was finally recovered in
1920). The Mullah added a touch of
courtesy to the proceedings by returning to Swayne two cases of whisky and a
few boxes of spoiled tinned stores, with a note saying that if the British
stopped fighting and allowed the dervishes to have a port on the coast, then
hostilities would cease.
The Mullah had
lost up to 1,000 men killed, wounded and captured. The British casualty list was 2 officers
killed and 2 wounded, 56 soldiers and 43 transport spearmen killed, and 84 men
wounded. But a square had been pierced
and the British assumed that the dervishes would regard Erego as a
victory. In fact time would show that
the Mullah regarded the battle as a reverse, as many of his men were now
understandably reluctant to charge against field and Maxim guns.
The conclusion of the campaign
After a night
spent re-organising the Field Force Swayne marched out on 7th
October to a temporary pool of rain water that scouts had located 10 kilometres
away at Eyl Garaf. Swayne intended to
continue operations against the Mullah whilst leaving his camels at the water
pool. However on 8th
September the company officers reported to Swayne that whilst the Yao Askari
tribesmen in 2 KAR were philosophical about events, the Somalis of 6 KAR and
the levies definitely were not.
Once the shock
of battle was over the Somalis had collectively allowed a superstitious awe of
the Mullah to constrain their thoughts.
They now feared that the Mullah was invincible, and they were reluctant
to face him in battle again so soon after Erego. Swayne stayed at Eyl Garaf for six days until
the water dried up, patrolling against the dervishes. Then, unwilling to risk a serious
confrontation with such an extended line of communication behind him, and with
the morale of his Somalis still low, he withdrew in good order to Bohotle.
further reinforcements arrived from Aden and
British Central Africa the campaign was now
effectively over. The Mullah, smarting
from the wounds to his force, withdrew into Italian territory to Mudug oasis
and then on to Galadi. The dervishes did
not return to British Somaliland until nine
Campaign ended as inconclusively as the First one had ended. Although Swayne’s Field Force had killed or
wounded 1,000 dervishes and seized 25,000 camels, 1,500 cattle, 200 horses and
250,000 sheep, and had forced the Mullah outside British territory, dervishism
still was a potent threat. The British
could either go on the defensive or else plan to crush the Mullah before his
reputation grew too strong amongst the Somalis.
The latter course was chosen and a Third Campaign was planned, but with
the understanding that the bulk of the British force would be comprised of
regular African Askari and Indian Sepoys.
military operational role in Somaliland was
now almost ended and he was later appointed to be a Companion of the Most
Honourable Order of the Bath (CB).
of his raid across the Haud Ressaldar Musa Farah later received a gazetted
promotion to Ressaldar Major and a special Sword of Honour from His Majesty
King Edward VII.
In his despatch
for the period 18th January to 1st November 1902 Swayne
mentioned the names of 15 British and 2 Somali (Ressaldar Major Musa Farah and
Jemadar Mahomed Yusuf) officers , one Sikh Sepoy and 5 Askari from 2 KAR, and
12 Somali soldiers and interpreters.
Some of those mentioned went on to serve with distinction during the
next two campaigns, whilst others were killed in action fighting against the
Mullah and his dervishes.
A campaign bar
to the African General Service medal was not issued until after the conclusion
of the Fourth Campaign. The medal roll
for the Second Campaign identifies 500 Somalis in 6 KAR plus 450 Somali mounted
infantry and camelry men; 300 Yao
tribesmen serving as Askari in 2 KAR; 60 Sikhs serving in 1 KAR; 12 British
officers; and Sepoys from the Bombay Grenadiers who manned rear area garrisons
and probably provided heliograph signals support.
Above: Eric Swayne's medals and decorations
References: Frontier and Overseas
Expeditions from India Volume VI, Expeditions Overseas, reprinted
by The Naval & Military Press Ltd.
The Official History Of The Operations In Somaliland 1901-04, reprinted by The Naval
& Military Press Ltd.
Hamilton, Angus, Somaliland,
1911, Hutchinson and Co., London.
Hayward, Birch and Bishop, British
Battles and Medals, 2006, Spink, London.
General Sir John, The History of the Royal Artillery from the Indian Mutiny
to the Great War, 1937, Royal Artillery Institution.
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
McNeill, Malcolm and
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.
Malcolm, KAR - A history of the
King’s African Rifles, 1998, Leo Cooper, London.
Gazette. This article appeared in a
recent issue of the Journal of the Anglo-Somali Society.