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The King’s African Rifles in the Third Campaign against the ‘Mad Mullah’

Introduction

During the inconclusive 1901 First and 1902 Second Somaliland Expeditions locally-raised troops had vastly outnumbered the Indian Sepoys and British Central African Askari that also participated.  However after the battle of Erego during the Second Expedition the mystic influence of the ‘Mad Mullah’, Sayyid Muhammed Abdullah Hassan, had demoralized the Somalis in British service.  It was now decided to mount a new campaign against the Dervish leader but this time the majority of the British troops would come from outside Somaliland.     

Lieutenant Colonel Eric Swayne, Indian Army and the British field commander in Somaliland, was invalided and recalled to London for discussions.  On 4th November 1902 Brigadier General W.H. Manning, Inspector General of the King’s African Rifles (KAR), was appointed to command the Third Expedition and he immediately concentrated at Berbera as many KAR sub-units as he could obtain from Central and East Africa.  Manning did not wish to use more than a few Somali troops as he was extremely doubtful of their reliability.

Above: 1 KAR Askari from the Atonga tribe with Sikh instructor1902
King’s African Rifles and associated units mobilized for the Third Expedition


From British Central Africa (later named Nyasaland and now named Malawi) came:

-Local Lieutenant Colonel E.C. Margesson (South Wales Borderers) with 7 officers and 360 Askari of 1 KAR.
-Captain H.E. Olivey (Suffolk Regiment) with 6 officers and 302 Askari of 2 KAR.  They joined up with Local Lieutenant Colonel A.W.V. Plunkett (Manchester Regiment) who was already on the ground, having brought 5 officers, 1 warrant officer, 2 Sikhs and 308 Askari of his 2nd KAR to participate in the Second Expedition.
-Captain C. Godfrey DSO (26th Bombay Infantry) and 52 Sikhs of the British Central Africa Indian Contingent (volunteers from the Indian Army who were in the employ of the British Central Africa (BCA) government).  They joined the 60 BCA Sikhs who had been sent to Somaliland during the Second Expedition.  

British East Africa (now named Kenya) sent 2 officers and 100 Sudanese Askari from 3 KAR.

Uganda sent 1 officer and 103 rifles from 5 KAR (a unit of Sikhs recruited for military service in Uganda).  

From Somalis Manning formed:

four garrison companies of levies each 100 men strong.
150 levy infantrymen for detachment duties in the interior.
150 mounted infantry on ponies.
50 infantrymen on camels. 
The mounted infantry and camelry were designed to be the nucleus of the 6 KAR. (It had been hoped that the camelry would number 150 men, but suitable recruits were not found.) 

The two-gun 7-pounder Somali camel battery, despite its excellent service during the Second Expedition, was now manned by 21 Sikhs from the BCA Indian Contingent and was re-titled as the KAR Camel Battery.  
Above: Somaliland Map

Other British troops provided for the Third Expedition

Manning was convinced that KAR African Askari were the best troops to use in the Somaliland interior because of their marching abilities and easy-to-manage administrative requirements.  However he also accepted other units and sub-units.

The Indian Army sent to Somaliland:

The 2nd Sikhs commanded by Lieutenant Colonel C.G.M. Fasken.
150 men of the Punjab Mounted Infantry with their mounts. 
Three companies of the 1st Bombay Grenadiers from Aden.
A Supply and Transport officer and staff also from Aden.
Centre Section (two 2.5-inch jointed guns) of the  Lahore Mountain Battery.
17th Company complete plus a detachment from 19th Company, Bombay Sappers and Miners.
7th Bombay Pioneers (737 men).
58, 65 and 69 Native Field Hospitals, and one Section of 15 British Field Hospital.
Also from India the 2nd Bombay Grenadiers and 400 men of the 23rd Bombay Rifles were sent to Aden as a reserve.  

The Maharajah of Bikaner, an Indian Princely State, sent 200 rifles of the Bikaner Camel Corps complete with camels and commanded by Major W.G. Walker (4th Gurkha Rifles).  These men were to prove both adept and reliable at scouting duties. 

The British forces in South Africa sent a British Mounted Infantry Company (141 men) from the 4th Bn The King’s Royal Rifle Corps, commanded by Captain G.C. Shakerley, and a Boer Mounted Infantry Company, the Somaliland Burgher Corps (100 men) commanded by Captain W. Bonham DSO.   The men brought their own horses and 50% spares for remounts.  They were accompanied by a further 400 ponies and 400 mules with saddlery.  

From England a Field Telegraph Section, Royal Engineers was sent which later laid a line south eastwards from Berbera to Damot.

A Royal Navy Marconi (wireless telegraphy) detachment was deployed inland but was withdrawn after disappointing results.   Stores despatched to Somaliland included 2,400 water tanks, 7,300 metres of barbed wire in 91-metre legths, 500 buckets for drawing water from wells, 4,500 metres of rope, canvas watering troughs, portable pumps, canvas water bags for the troops, light axes and sets of heliograph equipment. 

Above: Bikaner Camel Corps in Somaliland.

The British plan

The Dervishes were believed to be grouped around Mudug in Italian Somaliland.  Starting from both ends and working inwards Manning planned to establish a line of posts from Berbera running southeastwards to an Italian port on the Indian Ocean coast.  These posts were intended to control the wells that the Mullah’s followers and their vast herds would have to use if they moved eastwards.  

The Emperor Menelik of Abyssinia agreed to deploy troops to the south of British territory to block any escape that the Mullah and his dervishes might mount, whilst the Italian government agreed to British deployments inside Italian Somaliland.  Having thus contained the Dervish force the British troops would then attack and destroy it, seizing the flocks and herds which were the focal points of the dissident tribes’ existence.  Unfortunately Manning did not possess Eric Swayne’s intimate knowledge of Somaliland’s inhabitants, terrain, and climatic conditions.  Finally the War Office in London was to control operations.   


Initial moves

The reinforcements from British Central Africa reached Berbera by the end of November 1902, as did the 150 men of the Punjab Mounted Infantry.  A half company of 1st Bombay Grenadiers from Aden was sent inland to strengthen the Somali levy garrisons at Hargeisa and Burao.  Plunkett’s 2 KAR was sent to Garrero to be used as a flying column against the enemy when it was time to attack.  Godfrey and his 112 Sikhs from British Central Africa were divided between the garrisons at Garrero and Bohotle and the KAR Camel Battery.  

After a joint British – Italian naval reconnaissance along the east coast Obbia was selected as a base port.  The son of Yusuf Ali, the Sultan of Obbia, stated that up to 6,000 camels and drivers could be made available for transport duties, and 300 local mounted scouts could be recruited.  On 19th December Manning received orders from London to move to Obbia with his 1, 3, and 5 KAR companies and the Punjab Mounted Infantry.  The SS Haidari was hired from Aden for the voyage and besides the troops and mounts she carried ammunition, stores and rations for six months.   After a four-day voyage 1 KAR began disembarking through the surf on 26th December and started to build a breakwater.  All stores were landed by the 2nd January 1903.  Major P.A. Kenna VC DSO, 21st Lancers, was initially appointed to command the combatants at Obbia; later he commanded the mounted troops.  Local Lieutenant Colonel G.T. Forestier Walker, Royal Field Artillery, was Manning’s Chief Staff Officer.  

The infantry, mountain gunners, Sappers and Miners and the Bikaner Camel Corps that were coming from India sailed directly to Obbia, as did the mounted infantry from South Africa.  When all the men had disembarked Manning had a column numbering 2,296 combatant troops encamped a kilometer inland from Obbia, and over 2,000 more men based there permanently on logistical duties.  

Now local difficulties emerged as Sultan Yusuf Ali and his son obviously did not rate the British chances of success too highly, and they began to obstruct British interests.  Manning needed 3,500 camels but by mid-January only four had been obtained, the Sultan having instructed his subjects to only deal with the British through himself.  By the end of January the British had 150 camels, but it was obvious that firm action was needed and so an Italian warship deported Yusuf Ali and his son through Aden to Eritrea.  This action resulted in more purchasing opportunities for Manning’s transport officers but even so the local Somalis were not keen to co-operate and many camel drivers deserted soon after being hired.  1,000 camels were shipped around the coast from Berbera, but they had to be retained aboard until a heavy monsoon swell subsided at Obbia, and this event later resulted in a high mortality rate amongst the animals.

Captain and Local Lieutenant Colonel A.S. Cobbe DSO (32nd Sikh Pioneers) arrived to take over command of the three 1 KAR companies from Margesson who reverted from his local rank and remained with the unit. Manning ordered Cobbe to take a strong column inland to reconnoitre the route towards Galkayu.  Cobbe did this, cleaning out wells along the route.  The column advanced in square at all times and was not allowed to pile arms.  Cobbe returned to Obbia on 21st February with 400 camels that he had obtained from the Hawiyya tribe around El Hur.  The following day Manning paraded the Obbia Force to witness the presentation of a Victoria Cross to Cobbe, awarded for conspicuous bravery displayed at the fighting at Erigo in the Second Campaign.  The medal had been sent with an accompanying letter from Field Marshall Lord Roberts.   

After the parade Manning took a flying column of his most mobile troops out and seized the wells at Galkayu without a fight, building a strong zareba (fortification of thorn trees) there.   A second slower column commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Fasken joined Manning on 24th March.  Cobbe was then sent out to link up with Plunkett who was now at Damot.  Manning now had in place his continuous line of posts stretching from Berbera to Obbia.   Manning appears to have disliked the mule transport of the Lahore Mountain Battery, preferring to send the KAR Camel Battery out with mobile columns.  

Searching for the route to Wardair

Manning now concentrated his force by ordering Plunkett to join him from Damot with ‘A’, ‘C’ and ‘F’ Companies of 2 KAR, 50 Somali Mounted Infantry of 6 KAR, the KAR Camel Battery and a thousand transport animals.  Plunkett’s men and animals made a hard march of 170 kilometres over waterless terrain in four days.  A typical rifleman’s load was: rifle and bayonet, 100 rounds of ammunition, canvas water bag, water bottle, one day’s ordinary rations, one day’s emergency rations, axe or digging tool, cape or blanket, and personal items, all in a haversack and pouches.  

News arrived of the Dervish herds being seen between Dudub and Galadi and so Manning marched to Galadi, arriving there on 31st March.  Water, the biggest logistical problem for the British troops, was found in quantity at Galadi.   

Both Cobbe and Plunkett now took out columns and successfully raided Dervish herds around Gumburu.  Believing that the Mullah’s main force was at Walwal and Wardair Manning hoped to strike a decisive blow, and he ordered Cobbe and Plunkett to make a strong reconnaissance towards those two wells from Galadi.  Cobbe was in charge of this detachment which finally totalled:

5 officers and 116 Askari of 1 KAR.
10 officers, 1 warrant officer and 253 Askari of 2 KAR.
1 officer and 10 mounted infantry of 6 KAR.
1 officer and 50 sepoys of 5 KAR.
2 officers and 21 British mounted infantry.
1 officer and 22 Burgher mounted infantry.
2 guns of the KAR Camel Battery.
4 Maxim guns and 380 transport camels.  

Cobbe’s main problem was a navigational one in the thick bush as local guides proved to be unreliable.  Contact was made with enemy horsemen on 14th April and the firing stampeded some of the British transport animals.  Luckily a heavy thunder-storm broke during the next day which allowed the animals to water from pools near Gumburu, but Dervish horsemen were seen hovering around the flanks of the British troops.  

On the morning of 16th April Cobbe sent out two patrols, each a half-company strong, to the west and south-west to search for water.  The patrol commanders were Captains H.H. de B. Morris (East Kent Regiment) and C.E. Luard (Norfolk Regiment).  A mounted infantry patrol went north to search for the route to Wardair.  Morris was soon in contact with Dervishes to his front and Luard’s patrol was also heard firing.  Another half-company and a mounted infantry detachment under Captain Shakerley marched to support Luard.   

In the fighting that followed Lieutenant C.E.Chichester (Right) 6 KAR (Somersetshire Light Infantry) was killed and  Burgher Hill and two Somali mounted infantrymen of 6 KAR were wounded.  Rifleman No. 2556 Joseph Miller, King’s Royal Rifle Corps, was later awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal after Captain Shakerley had reported:

On 16th April 1903 I was in command of the mounted patrol sent out from the column.  We came in contact with some mounted dervishes, and were eventually surrounded by several hundreds.

Rifleman J. Miller was standing close to me, and heard me say I was going to send a message to Officer Commanding Column; he immediately volunteered to carry the message.  He succeeded in getting through the enemy’s lines at great risk, and delivered the letter to Officer Commanding Column.  

The British patrols withdrew back to Cobbe’s position at Gumburu, and a message was sent to Manning requesting him to march to Gumburu where a battle appeared imminent.  That afternoon Captain H.C. Vesey and 48 sepoys of 2nd Sikhs reached Cobbe having escorted a water convoy.

The battle of Gumburu

The next morning, 17th April, Cobbe sent out two more reconnaissance patrols whilst he waited for Manning to arrive.  Captain H.A. Walker (Royal Fusiliers) took a half-company of 1 KAR to a hill 2.5 kilometres to the south-west.  Captain H.E. Olivey (Left) took ‘C’ Company 2 KAR five kilometers to the west.  Olivey left before dawn and made good progress but had no contacts and started to withdraw.  At 0805 hours he sent a message back to Cobbe stating that enemy foot and horsemen were now advancing upon ‘C’ Company and that reinforcements were needed.

Cobbe ordered Plunkett out in support with ‘A’ Company 2 KAR, 5 men from 1 KAR, the water convoy escort of 48 sepoys from 2nd Sikhs and two Maxim guns.  Captain Vesey had requested that his 2nd Sikhs party be included.  The Maxims were loaded and an extra 50 rounds per rifleman were issued to the KAR Askari only, the Sikhs carried the standard issue of 100 rounds.  Plunkett departed at 0915 hours.  Two British mounted infantrymen from the 4th Battalion KRRC accompanied Plunkett, as did a Medical Officer from the Indian Medical Service and a Hospital Assistant from 5 KAR. Just before he left Plunkett saw another message from Olivey to Cobbe stating that he was 2.5 kilometres out and not in contact.   Cobbe’s orders to Plunkett were to recover ‘C’ Company and bring it back.  Neither Plunkett nor any of the officers with him were ever seen again.   

Cobbe then recalled Walker’s patrol and strengthened his zareba.  Firing was then faintly heard from a distance, and Somali scouts went out to reconnoitre.  A scout returned with Plunkett’s guide, who was wounded, across his saddle.  The guide reported that Plunkett’s force had been cut up.  Cobbe did not have sufficient men with him to leave the zareba, so he entrenched and strengthened it.  Wounded Askari from 2 KAR then trickled in, assisted by the mounted infantry.


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