Somaliland Campaign

Somaliland Campaign
Part of the Scramble for Africa
and the First World War (1914–1918)

Aerial bombardment of Dervish forts in Taleh
LocationHorn of Africa

British Victory

 British Empire
 Ethiopian Empire (1900-1904)
 Italian Empire
Dervish State
Supported by:
 Ottoman Empire
 German Empire
 Ethiopian Empire (1915-1916)
Commanders and leaders

Eric John Eagles Swayne
Richard Corfield 
Robert Gordon
George Rolland
Herbert Augustine Carter

Menelik II

Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan
Sultan Nur Ahmed Aman 
Haji Sudi 

Iyasu V (1915-1916)

The Somaliland Campaign, also called the Anglo-Somali War or the Dervish War, was a series of military expeditions that took place between 1900 and 1920 in the Horn of Africa, pitting the Dervishes led by Mohammed Abdullah Hassan (nicknamed the "Mad Mullah", although he "was neither mad nor a mullah") against the British.[1] The British were assisted in their offensives by the Ethiopians and Italians. During the First World War (1914–1918), Hassan also received aid from the Ottomans, Germans and, for a time, from the Emperor Iyasu V of Ethiopia. The conflict ended when the British aerially bombed the Dervish capital of Taleh in February 1920.


In the colonial period, the Somali-inhabited territories in the Horn of Africa were collectively referred to as "Somaliland".

British Somaliland

Although nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, Yemen and the sahil (including Zeila) came progressively under the control of Muhammad Ali, ruler of Egypt, between 1821 and 1841.[2] After the Egyptians withdrew from the Yemeni seaboard in 1841, Haj Ali Shermerki, a successful and ambitious Somali merchant, purchased from them executive rights over Zeila. Shermerki's governorship had an instant effect on the city, as he manoeuvred to monopolize as much of the regional trade as possible, with his sights set as far as Harar and the Ogaden.[3] Shermerki was later succeeded as Governor of Zeila by Abu Bakr Pasha, a local Afar statesman.[4]

In 1874–75, the Egyptians obtained a firman from the Ottomans by which they secured claims over the city. At the same time, the Egyptians received British recognition of their nominal jurisdiction as far east as Cape Guardafui.[2] In actuality, however, Egypt had little authority over the interior and their period of rule on the coast was brief, lasting only a few years (1870–84).[4]

The British Somaliland protectorate was subsequently established in the late 1880s, after the ruling Somali authorities signed a series of protection treaties granting the British access to their territories on the northwestern coast. Among the Somali signatories were the Gadabuursi (1884), Habar Awal (1884 and 1886),[5] and Warsangali.[6]

When the Egyptian garrison in Harar was eventually evacuated in 1885, Zeila became caught up in the competition between the Tadjoura-based French and the British for control of the strategic Gulf of Aden littoral. By the end of 1885, the two powers were on the brink of armed confrontation, but opted instead to turn negotiations.[4] They later signed a convention on 1 February 1888 defining the border between French Somaliland and British Somaliland.[7]

Italian Somaliland

The Majeerteen Sultanate within the northeastern part of the Somali territories was established in the mid-18th century and rose to prominence the following century, under the reign of the resourceful Boqor (King) Osman Mahamuud.[8]

In late December 1888, Yusuf Ali Kenadid, the founder and first ruler of the Sultanate of Hobyo, requested Italian protection, and a treaty to that effect was signed in February 1889, making Hobyo an Italian protectorate. In April, Yusuf's uncle and rival, Boqor Osman, requested a protectorate from the Italians and was granted it.[9] Both Boqor Osman and Sultan Kenadid had entered into the protectorate treaties to advance their own expansionist goals, with Sultan Kenadid looking to use Italy's support in his ongoing power struggle with Boqor Osman over the Majeerteen Sultanate, as well as in a separate conflict with the Sultan of Zanzibar over an area to the north of Warsheikh. In signing the agreements, the rulers also hoped to exploit the rival objectives of the European imperial powers so as to more effectively assure the continued independence of their territories. The terms of each treaty specified that Italy was to steer clear of any interference in the sultanates' respective administrations.[10]

In return for Italian arms and an annual subsidy, the Sultans conceded to a minimum of oversight and economic concessions.[9] The Italians also agreed to dispatch a few ambassadors to promote both the sultanates' and their own interests.[10] The new protectorates were thereafter managed by Vincenzo Filonardi through a chartered company.[9] An Anglo-Italian border protocol was later signed on 5 May 1894, followed by an agreement in 1906 between Cavalier Pestalozza and General Swaine acknowledging that Baran fell under the Majeerteen Sultanate's administration.[10]

Origins of the armed struggle

The news of the incident that sparked the Dervish rebellion and the 21 years disturbance according to the consul-general James Hayes Sadler was spread by Sultan Nur of the Habr Yunis. The incident in question was that of a group of Somali children that were converted to Christianity and adopted by the French Catholic Mission at Berbera in 1899. Whether Sultan Nur experienced the incident first hand or whether he was told of it is not clear but what is known is that he propagated the incident in the Tariqa at Kob Fardod in June 1899. [11] In one of his letters to sultan Deria in 1899, Hassan said that the British "have destroyed our religion and made our children their children" alluding to Sultan Nur's incident with the Roman French Mission at Berbera. The Dervish soon emerged as an opposition of the Chritian activities, defending their version of Islam against the Christian mission. The Dervish considered all non-dervish Somalis as non-Muslims (gaalo).[12] He acquired weapons from the Ottoman Empire, Sudan, and other Islamic countries. He appointed his ministers and advisers in charge of different areas or sectors of Somalia and called for Somali unity and independence.


Samala June 2–3, 1903.

Before dispatching forces to face the Dervish at Samala, Consul-General Hayes Salder made the following instructions to the overall commander of the forces Eric John Eagles Swayne:

"In the unlikely event of the: Mullah offering to surrender, in his case and that of the Following: Ahmed Warsama (known as Haji Sudi), Deria Arale , Deria Gure Only an unconditional surrender should be accepted no guarantee of any kind to future treatment been given. Sultan Nur, the sultan of the Habr Yunis, may be guaranteed his life." J. Hayes-Sadler, His Britannic Majesty's Consul-General, Somali Coast Protectorate. Aden April 11, 1901."[13]

By December 1900, 17 officers were sent from Britain and from India, of those were 50 Punjabi who were sent to operate the maxim guns. By the spring of 1901 1,100 men in addition to 400 mounted infantry on ponies, 100 camel sowars and numerous spearmen, all Somalis from the disaffected tribes were ready for battle.[14] To prevent the Dervish fleeing west across the border, Ethiopian cooperation was sought and the Abyssinian king sent a force of 8,000 soldiers in January 1901, the Ethiopian operations began at once 3 months before the British expeditions, the Ethiopians managed to push the dervish across the Somaliland border and punish the clans who were involved in assisting the dervish.

On May 22 Swayne’s forces on their way burned an entire Dervish settlement, leaving only the mosque. Their next operation was to punish clans that supported the Mullah, they seized 3,500 camels from the Adan Madoba of the Habr Toljaalaa and the Jama Siad of the Dolbahanta[15][16] On June 2 these tribes along with dervish forces attacked McNeill’s zariba at Samala to rustle back their herds, having failed to regain their livestock both the dervish and their clan allies retreated on June 3. Subsequently, it came to the knowledge of Swayne that the Mullah initially wanted to attack Swayne’s zariba, but Sultan Nur persuaded the dervish that an attack on McNeill’s zariba would yield some 400 rifles.[17][18]

The Dervish fleeing accidentally encountered the column of Swayne another chase ensued but the dervish managed to escape. The chase continued till the dervish crossed in to the Haud. Later in June 1901 finally the dervish encountered Swayne’s forces, reported by a The London Times correspondence on June 22, 1901 sent a report of the various campaigns describing the next encounter after Samala reported:

"Prisoners asserted that the Mullah had sworn on the Koran to attack us that day, whatever the consequences might be, and Colonel Swayne therefore determined to anticipate him. We prepared to attack the largest body—that on the left side of the valley. The Camel Corps and Mounted Infantry at once moved out, and had proceeded some three miles, when scouts reported that the whole plain beyond the hill was simply swarming with men, both horse and foot, and that an attack' by the Mullah himself, with a large body of cavalry, on the rear of the column, was imminent. It was at once decided to zariba all the transport at the foot' of a small hill under the protection of two companies, and to engage the whole of the enemy with the remainder. Captain Mereweather, with a portion of the Mounted Infantry, was sent back to cover this movement of a large body of the ~ enemy's cavalry began to enter the' valley by an opening in the hills in the rear of our force. They advanced on the Mounted Infantry, firing as they came. The remainder of the Mounted Infantry and the Camel Corps were then reinforced by Captain. Mereweather, and after a few rounds from the Maxim the enemy began to move towards a defile' in the hills. The Mounted and Camel Corps at once started off at a hard galloping pursuit, and' after exciting long chase of about six miles caught up the enemy at the entrance to a "deep gorge in: the hills. At this point some 20-of the enemy were slain, their losses killed during the pursuit being about 100. Our losses were two killed, five wounded,and seven horses killed. The retreat -here became a total rout. As the enemy went ' they dropped rifles and ammunition. Much of their ammunition is of the most deadly kind, flat-nosed bullets, split bullets, and soft-nosed bullets, with crosses cut in the tips, figuring prominently. It appeared certain that all three of the enemy's leaders were in front of our men. Namely, the Mad Mullah himself, Haji Sudi , and Sultan Nur, and we needed no further incentive to do our best. At intervals, hand to land fights took place, and the losses of the enemy were evinced by the number of rider less horses”.[19]

Ferdiddin July 17, 1901.

Crossing the border into Italian Somalia by July the dervish encamped at Ferdiddin. Swayne waited until the permission of the Italian was obtained, with few of his forces and 350 Dhulbahante tribesmen they attacked the Dervish at Ferdiddin: Sawyne describing Firdiddin :

“On getting this news I moved my force from Bohotele via Yaheyl and Weyla Hedd to Firdiddin, and attacked the Mullah at later place. The Mullah's Mijjertein rifelmen were in considerable strength with Lebel and Martini-henry rifles. His force were however scattered, and he himself was driven back into Italian territory.The Mijjertein lost heavily, and also the Mullah's own family. His brother-in-law, Gaibdeed, was killed, as well as two sons-in-law, Haji Sudi's brother and nephews, Sultan Nur's camels and the Mullah's cattle were captured. The pursuit was carried on into the bush in the Haud”[20]

“I was impressed with the danger of the Dervish movement. Until I actually saw the Mullah’s men fighting, I had no idea that a Somali could be so influenced by fanaticism. I am speaking of the Dervishes, the men who, following the custom of the Suakin Dervishes, have thrown over father and mother and their own tribe to follow the Mullah. They have passwords, wear a white turban and special bravery, and have sworn to throw up all worldly advantages. Of course a certain number even of these Dervishes have joined the Mullah simply for the sake of loot, but there are, on the other hand, a considerable number who are pure fanatics. At Ferdiddin and at McNeill’s Zeriba these were the men who led and who were shot down. At Ferdiddin, after the others had fled, a number of these men remained behind to fight to end, and were shot down as we advanced. When recording the name of the enemy’s dead, I found that a large number were Hajis or Sheikhs.”

Erigo/Erego October 6–7, 1902.[21]

By June 10, Musa Farah's detached Levy of 450 rifles had reached Kurmis. After collecting 5,000 tribesmen from the western side of the Protectorate, Musa Farah had transported them across the waterless Haud where it was over 100 miles broad, had attacked the western Dervish encampments, routed them in all directions, and had finally succeeded in transporting his force back across the Haud, together with his captured livestock, amounting to 1,630 camels, 200 cows, and 2,000 sheep. For this service His Majesty King Edward VII rewarded the Risaldar-Major with a sword of honour.[22]

In December 1901 the Dervish raided a sub section of the Habr Tojaalaa and on February 1, 1902, news reached the Somaliland protectorate British authority that the Dervish were planning a raid against the tribes from their positions east of the protectorate. On February 7 and 13, the dervishes waged a devastating attack on Habr Yunis and Dolbahnata tribes men east of Burao. The London Gazette reported "On the 7th February, the Mullah had dispatched another raiding force against our Jama Siad friendly tribes, 100 miles to the east of the scene of his raid of the 13th February, and here again our tribes suffered heavily. Burao and Berbera became filled with destitute refugees and 2000 persons were fed daily at Burao alone.[23] 1903 [24]

On the first week of October the Somali and Yoas led by a few British officers at last arrived within the reach of their enemies. They formed a Zariba in a clearing Awan Eergo in a very dense bush, and around the enemy were hiding in all the surrounding bushes . The British led forces were compelled to advance slowly, immediately the Dervish attacked from all directions causing the British led forces front line to fall back in a disarray, but the rear companies stood firm holding their position, the 2nd King African Rifles and 6th King Africans Rifles in the extreme right and left however fell back in a sudden panic, rescued by one-half company in the front the troops rallied and held their ground under intense fire. In the severity of the fight the transport camels stampeded with the 2nd African Rifles and two Somali companies, Ltd Swayne managed to push the enemies for 2 miles and recover 1,800 of the transport camels. in the aftermath of the battle it was discovered a maxim gun was missing, casualties included 2 officers killed and 56 levies . Both the Somali and Yoa performed great in the 6th but on the 7th of October the severity of the fight sunk their spirit and the officers leading the forces complained that they couldn't rely on their men. The dervish in the other hand lost greatly, some 62 death 40 of them Hajis and Mullahs and all 6 commanders of their force were killed[25]

At the conclusion of the first and second expeditions, the British administrations and the colonial office were satisfied with the outcome, despite the leaders of the Dervish not all being killed or captured. Gabriel Ferrand, the Vice-Council of France following these events observed that "Neither the Mahdi nor his chief advisor Ahmed Warsama, better known under the name Haji Sudi, nor the Sultan Nur,leader of the Habr Younis clan were killed or captured. The optimism Colonel Sadler and Lieutenant-Colonel Swayne in the latest reports relating to military operations is inexplicable." [26]

Gumburu April 17, 1903 and Daratoleh April 22, 1903.

The third expedition was launched on January 3rd 1903 with a new commander Sir William Henry Manning. The plane was to encircle and trap the dervish from all sides. The main body of the forces were to advance from Obbia in Italian Somalia to the wells of Galkayo while one land at Berbera and form lines through Bohotleh. The dervish leaders upon hearing news of the Obbia forces landing with a body of horsemen left for Milmil and Haradiggitt rallying tribal allies:

Towards the end of march news reached the British forces of whereabouts of the bulk of the dervish forces. Defectors and captives claimed the dervish forces were in Galadi. A reconnaissance patrol led by captain Plunkett was sent by Manning to Galadi where they met the bulk of the dervish forces that were majority made of Somali Bantu clans of the Makana and Derjele tribes. Between 16-17 of April the British small forces, made up of Somalis, Indians and Yaos were encircled from all directions and decimated. All 9 officers were killed and 89 rank and file were killed. The battle took place in a small hill Gumburu close to Galadi. Before the news of the disaster at Gumburu made it to the British forces another column from Bohotleh forces engaged another dervish forces at Daratoleh the later forces were defeated by the British forces.

The bulk of the main dervish forces without their tribal allies moved to Halin in June 1903;

"A deserter from the enemy stated that the Mullah. accompanied by Haji Sudi and Sultan Nur, with a large forces of horse and footmen, reached Kurmis on 8th June, camped near Lasakante on 9th June , and moved towards Dannot early on 10th June on their way towards the Nogal. On 12th June mounted scout could not get through from Bohotle to Dannot owing to the numbers of the enemy's horsemen watching the road. On 13th June two deserters from the mullah came into Bohotle and stated that the Mullah with his whole force was on his way to Nogal with a view of establishing his Haroun at Halin. Intelligence Report from 11th July 1903".[27]

4 August 1903. — deserter from the Mullah, nameed Abbas Isman (Ibrahim), came into Bohotle at 5.30 a.m. His story is as follows Haji Sudi is still his trusted adviser. Sultan Nur still lives with the Mullah, but no longer is keen to help him. Abbas was with the Mullah at Wardair during the fight. When the fight was over a horseman galloped to Wardair and announced that the English had been wiped out. The Mullah immediately mounted his pony, Dodimer and rode hard to the field of battle.[28][29]

Jidballi January 10, 1904.[30] Charles Egerton

This was not the mere handful they had fought at Samala, at Gumburu, or at Daratoleh. It was no reconnaissance, nor yet was it a hastily recruited tribal levy such as they had faced at Ferdhiddin or Erigo. In comparison General Egerton’s force at Jidbali must have seemed to them a mighty army; and, in very truth, it comprised some of the best seasoned British, Indian, and African troops at the Empire’s disposal. On the other hand, the Darwishes numbered from 6000 to 8000 fighting men, representing the pick of the Mullah’s forces.


Following the end of World War I, British troops once again turned their attention to the disturbances in British Somaliland. The Dervishes had previously defeated British forces at the Battle of Dul Madoba in 1913. Four subsequent British expeditions against Hassan and his soldiers had also failed.[31]

In 1920, British forces launched a final campaign against Hassan's Dervishes. Although the majority of the combat took place in January of the year, British troops had begun preparations for the assault as early as November 1919. The British forces were led by the Royal Air Force and the ground component included the Somaliland Camel Corps. After three weeks of battle, the Dervishes were finally defeated, bringing an effective end to their 20-year resistance.[32] After the RAF bombing campaign, Hassan and his remaining Dervish fighters fled into Ethiopia. Tribal Chief Haji Mohammad Bullaleh (Haji the Hyena) a Habr Yunis Akil, commanded a 3000 strong army that consisted of Habr Yunis, Habar Jeclo and Dhulbahante warriors and pursued the fleeing Dervishes. They attacked Hassan and his army in the Ogaden region and swiftly defeated them, causing Muhammad to flee to the town of Imi. Haji and his army looted 60,000 livestock and 700 rifles from the dervishes, which dealt a severe blow to them economically, a blow from which they did not recover. [33]


  1. Nicolle (1997), 5.
  2. 1 2 Clifford (1936), 289
  3. Abir (1968), 18.
  4. 1 2 3 Lewis (2002), 43, 49.
  5. Lewis (1999), 19.
  6. Laitin (1977), 8.
  7. Ravenstein (1894), 56–58.
  8. Metz (1993), 10.
  9. 1 2 3 Hess (1964), 416–17.
  10. 1 2 3 Issa-Salwe (1996), 34–35.
  11. F.O.78/5031,Sayyid Mohamad To The Aidagalla, Enclosed Sadler To Salisbury. 69, 20 August 1899.
  12. J. D. Fage, A. D. Roberts, Roland Anthony Oliver (eds.) (1986). The Cambridge History of Africa, Volume 7. Cambridge University Press. p. 196. ISBN 0521225051.
  13. Official History of the Operations in Somaliland. 1901–1904 Vol. I p. 54
  14. F.O. 2/2479, Sadler tel. to Lansdowne, no.18, 15 Mar. 1901, and no.21, 5 Apr. 1901.
  15. The British Somaliland Protectorate to 1905. By A.M. Brockett, p. 324, Lincoln College , Oxford , 1969.
  16. Official History of the operations Volume 1. 1907. P.73.
  17. In pursuit of the mad mullah by Malcolam McNeil, p.123
  20. Command Papers volume 69 1902. Page 15.
  21. Frontier and Overseas Expeditions from India Volume VI, Expeditions Overseas, reprinted by The Naval & Military Press Ltd.
  22. Mad Mullah Of Somaliland ,1923. P.78. This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  23. The London Gazette, September 2, 1904.
  24. The dervish were brutal in their sudden attacks on the tribes , sparing not women and children and it has become a mark of their 20 years long campaign [Cd. 1394] Africa. No. 1 (1903). Correspondence respecting the rising of the Mullah Muhammed Abdullah in Somaliland and consequent military operations, 1901-1902.pp7-9
  25. .[Cd. 1394] Africa. No. 1 (1903). Correspondence respecting the rising of the Mullah Muhammed Abdullah in Somaliland and consequent military operations, 1901-1902.pp85-87
  26. Les Çomâlis. .Ferrand, Gabriel,1903. p.268.
  27. Official history of the operations in Somaliland, 1901-04 by Great Britain. War Office. General Staff Published 1907.
  28. Official History Of The Operations in Somaliland,1907, p. 410-412, 1901-04 volume 1.
  29. A captain of the Gordons service experiences 1900–1909, edited by his mother Mrs. Margaret Miller, and his sister Helen Russell Miller.p.177
  30. Frontier and Overseas Expeditions from India Volume VI, Expeditions Overseas, reprinted by The Naval & Military Press Ltd.
  31. Baker (2003), 161–62
  32. Baker (2003), 161–62.
  33. "Churchill and the Mad Mullah of Somaliland, p. 209".


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