First Jihad of the "Mad Mullah" 1899-1905

[ 1899 - 1905 ]

Given the frequency and virulence of the Ethiopian raids, it was natural that the first pan-Somali or Greater Somalia effort against colonial occupation, and for unification of all areas populated by Somalis into one country, should have been directed at Ethiopians rather than at the Europeans; the effort was spearheaded by the Somali dervish resistance movement. The dervishes followed Mahammad Abdille Hasan of the puritanical Salihiyah tariqa (religious order or brotherhood). His ability as an orator and a poet (much-valued skills in Somali society) won him many disciples, especially among his own Dulbahante and Ogaden clans (both of the Daarood clan-family). The British dismissed Hasan as a religious fanatic, calling him the "Mad Mullah." They underestimated his following, however, because from 1899 to 1920, the dervishes conducted a war of resistance against the Ethiopians and British, a struggle that devastated the Somali Peninsula and resulted in the death of an estimated one-third of northern Somalia's population and the near destruction of its economy. One of the longest and bloodiest conflicts in the annals of sub-Saharan resistance to alien encroachment, the dervish uprising was not quelled until 1920 with the death of Hasan, who became a hero of Somali nationalism. Deploying a Royal Air Force squadron recently returned from action in combat in World War I, the British delivered the decisive blow with a devastating aerial bombardment of the dervish capital at Taleex in northern Somalia.

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Mohammed bin Abdullah Hassan, better known as the Mad Mullah, was born in the interior of Somaliland, some say at Kirrit, in the late sixties, his father an Ogaden Somali, his mother a Somali of the Dolbahanta tribe. His boyhood was much like that of other Somali boys, spent sometimes with his fellow-tribesmen and their stock in the interior, sometimes in Berbera. Now and again, perhaps, he voyaged in some friendly buggalow carrying Somali produce, hides and ghee and sheep, to Aden and the Arabian coast. Be this as it may, when he was about seventeen or eighteen, he determined to see the world, and is said to have enrolled at Aden as a fireman in one of the liners plying between East and West. His employment in this capacity must have greatly influenced his future career. For, doubtless, at Egyptian ports in native caravanserais he often listened awestruck to many a strange story of the Mahdi from the mouths of refugees from the Sudan. Following on his experiences at sea, Mohammed having now fully attained to man's estate, made the pilgrimage to Mecca - a journey which is the common ambition of all Somalis. So impressed was he by what he heard and saw that he made several subsequent journeys to the sacred city, joining the Mohammed Salih, an insignificant but fanatical Mohammedan sect, whose tenets are of a harsh and uncompromising nature as compared with those of the Kadariyah, which is the predominant sect in Somaliland. On his return from the last of these pilgrimages in 1895, he gained some notoriety in Berbera by denouncing certain practices of the Kadariyah to somewhat bored and unsympathetic audiences. With all the strident fervency of a born agitator he would inveigh against the luxury of the age, the immorality of chewing " kat," or the gluttony of gorging the fat of sheep's tail. For a living he depended upon the alms of the charitable; and there is an old Arab woman in Berbera who has often wondered whether he would repay the four annas she lent him in the days of his need should the opportunity ever came. He gained but few adherents among the comparatively sophisticated inhabitants of Berbera, and so in 1899 he repaired to the interior, where he lived in the Nogal valley among his mother's kin. Here he started a movement advocating the expulsion of the British infidel from his Mohammedan country. Many adherents Looked to his banner. Some were fired by his religious and political teaching. Others were attracted by promises of the wealth to be gained by raiding the stock of those tribes which espoused the infidel's cause, others again were inspired by a dual motive, religious and material: they saw an admirable opportunity to lay up for themselves treasure in the Mohammedan paradise by confiscating other tribes' treasure upon earth. For three years the Mullah disciplined his follower", eradicating the tribal feeling, which is normally one of the chief characteristics of the Somalis, and substituting his own authority for that of the elders of the tribes. Then early in 1899 he perpetrated his first overt set of hostility to the British Government. Suddenly swooping down upon Burao, a considerable native centre some eighty miles from Berbera, he raided the wealthy Habr Yunis tribe, and forced a section of the Dolbahanta to join him. After the raid, his fighting men were estimated to number 3000. 

To resume, the Mullah followed up his first coup of April 1899 by a further successful foray against the Habr Yunis in August, and he reoccupied Burao with a force estimated at 5000 men. He gave himself out as the Mahdi; and ominous rumours spread foretelling an advance on Berbera. The Consul General urged an expedition on the Home Government, but our commitments elsewhere, more particularly in south Africa, were such as to preclude the immediate adoption of this course. During the first seven months of 1900, the Mullah was comparatively inactive, but in August he suddenly swooped down upon the Aidegalla tribe and caused all the friendly tribes to evacuate the Haud in confusion. Next month the Habr Awal tribe suffered severely at his hands. 

It would be superfluous to discuss here in any detail the campaigns which followed. They are exhaustively described in the Official History of the Operations in Somaliland, 1901-04, published by the War Office in 1907; and it will be sufficient for the purposes of this paper to outline very briefly the general course of events. 

The first expedition started in April 1901, and operations terminated in the following July. The force employed consisted of a locally-enlisted and hurriedly-trained levy of 1500 men, of whom 500 were mounted. The casualties inflicted on the Dervishes were estimated at some 1200 killed and wounded, and, in addition, 800 prisoners were taken, including some notable headmen. 

The Mullah's power had thus been appreciably shaken, and for a time he remained quiescent. But not for long. In October 1901 he renewed his activities, and, thanks to the illicit arms traffic, he had, by January 1902, not only recovered from his losses, but had forced the majority of the Dolbahanta tribe to return to his standard. By the time our second expedition was launched in June 1902, his following was estimated at 15,000, of whom 12,000 were said to be mounted and 1500 armed with rifles. Against this, our Expeditionary Force consisted of some 2000 rifles, partly King's African Rifles, but principally locally enlisted and locally- trained Somalis. During this expedition, which culminated in the severe but successful action fought at Erigo in October 1902, the Dervishes sustained some 1400 casualties, lost a large number of prisoners and some 25,000 camels, in addition to many sheep, cattle, and horses. But disorganized transport and the shaken moral of the Somali levies prevented the pursuit of the Mullah to his retreat in the Mudug district. 

It was now evident that the situation was such as to demand regular and seasoned troops. At the time of the action of Erigo, the force in Somaliland had consisted of 2400 rifles, of which no less than 1500 were local levies. This force was immediately increased by a further contingent of 900 King's African Rifles, and by 300 Indian infantry. A strong column was to advance from Obbia in Italian Somaliland and occupy the Mudug. Another column was to operate on the Berbera-Bohotleh line. And, simultaneously, an Abyssinian fores of 5000 rifles, accompanied by British officers, was to advance along the Webi Shebeli, to prevent the Mullah's retreat westward. The advance from Obbia commenced on the 22nd February 1903; and the enemy immediately fell back on Walwal and Wardair, denying us an opportunity of trying conclusions with his main force. On two occasions, however, small advance parties engaged large forces of Dervishes. At Gumburu, a reconnaissance of two companies of the 2nd King's African Rifles and 48 rifles of the 2nd Sikhs came up with the Mullah's main force, commanded, so it is said, by their chief in person. The fight which ensued appears to have lasted two and a half hours. The Dervishes charged the British square from dense bush some 300 to 600 yards distant, their horsemen and riflemen being driven back time and again with cruel losses. The square was eventually broken by a rush of spearmen, but not before all our ammunition had been exhausted. The Dervish casualties, estimated by some at 2700, are unknown: for no British officer survived to tell the true story of Gumburu. Our casualties were all officers (9) and 187 men killed and 29 men wounded. Another action at Daratoleh - in which were engaged some 800 Dervishes, flushed with their victory at Gumburu, with their leaders wearing the uniforms of the dead British officers - resulted in the infliction of heavy casualties on the enemy, our losses amounting to 2 officers and 13 men killed, and 4 officers and 25 men wounded. In the meantime the Abyssinians inflicted a crushing defeat on the Dervishes, claiming to have killed 1000 of their spearmen. Immediately after this engagement, which took place on the 31st May 1903, the Mullah made a daring but successful movement eastward to the Nogal valley. Unfortunately, however, it was impossible to intercept this movement, as, owing to camel transport and other difficulties, our troops were being withdrawn to Bohotleh. 

His Majesty's Government now derided on a further increase to our force in Somaliland in view of the Mullah's position in the Nogal and its proximity to our sphere. More than 8000 troops, of which 1000 were British, were employed, in the hope that the Mullah's power would be permanently shattered. The enemy's force, which numbered between 6000 and 8000 fighting Dervishes, was concentrated at Jidballi, where the Mullah, deriding to make a stand, received a most crushing defeat. His casualties in the actual fight at Jidballi (both January 1904) must have been very large; but far greater were his losses during the course of his subsequent flight northwards to Jidali, and thence eastward into Italian territory. On the other hand, our casualties were slight, except in officers, of whom 3 were killed and 9 wounded, out of a total of 27 killed and 37 wounded of all ranks. It appears that the Mullah only sought sanctuary in Italian territory after receiving solemn assurances of a safe passage from Osman Mahmoud, the Sultan of the Mijjertein, the Italian Somali tribe, who was equally solemnly pledged to us to prevent him from crossing the Italian frontier. Had it not been for this breach of faith, the Mullah would doubtless have had no alternative but to surrender 

Thus, this fourth expedition was completely successful in all but bringing the Mullah himself to bay, and so putting an end to his movement. The greater portion of his wealth, which among a desert dwelling nomad people consists of the flocks and herds upon which their very existence depends, had been captured. The moral of his Dervishes as a fighting body had been utterly destroyed; and their numbers, estimated at 6000 to 8000 before Jidballi, could not have exceeded 800 on the conclusion of the campaign. Above all, the Mullah's personal prestige was temporarily shattered; and the discredited refugee in Italian territory must have out a poor figure as compared with the defiant enemy who, during the third expedition, indited the following letter to the British people: - I wish to rule my own country and protect my own religion. If you will, send me a letter saying whether there is to be peace or war. I intend to go from Burao to Berbera I warn you of this - I wish to fight with you. I like war, but you do not. God willing, I will take many rifles from you, but you will get no rifles or ammunition from me. I have no forts, no houses, no country. I have no cultivated fields, no silver, no gold for you to take. I have nothing. If the country were cultivated or contained houses or property, it would be worth your while to fight. The country is all jungle, and that is of no use to you. If you want wood and stone, you can get them in plenty. There are also many ant-heaps. The sun is very hot. All you can get from me is war - nothing else. I have met your men in battle, and have killed them. We are greatly pleased at this. Our men who have fallen in battle have won paradise. God fights for us. We kill, and you kill. We fight by God's order. That is the truth. We ask for God's blessing. God is with me when I write this. If you wish for war, I am happy; and, if you wish for peace, I am content also. But if you wish for peace, go Solvay from my country back to your own. If you wish for war, stay where you are. Hearken to my words. I wish to exchange a machine gun for ammunition. If you do not want it, I will sell it to some one else. bend me a letter saying whether you desire war or peace." 

In March 1905, the Illig or Pestalozza Agreement was concluded between the Italian Government and the Mullah, whereby peace was declared between the Dervishes on the one hand and the British and Italian Governments on the other. The Mullah was assigned a port and certain territories in Italian Somaliland, beyond which he and his Dervishes undertook not to encroach. The Mullah also agreed to become an Italian protected subject. This agreement was, however, nullified soon after it was concluded, as the Mullah left Italian territory, and by 1907 had re-established himself on the British side, raiding and looting far and wide.

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