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Fighting in the Aden Hinterland 1901-04

Delineating an international boundary

The first skirmishes

Aden had been captured and occupied by the British in 1839, and the opening of the Suez Canal 30 years later turned the port into an important coaling station.  Meanwhile during the 19th Century Turkish armies had been moving down the Red Sea side of the Arabian peninsula until, in 1872, Turkey occupied the Yemen (the area also known as North Yemen before the present unification with former British territory). 

In 1900 trouble occurred between local Humar tribesmen on the Turkish side of the undefined border and Haushabi tribesmen on the British side.  The leading Humar agitator, Muhammad Nasir Mukbil, erected a tower on Haushabi territory, levying customs dues from the local camel caravan traffic.  This tower was 2.5 kilometers west of Dareja.  Representations to the Turks fell on deaf ears as they favoured Mukbil, who was one of their spokesmen in the region, whilst Haushabi attempts to evict the Humar failed.  The importance of this event to the British was that the tower lay in the territory of the independent Arab tribes who were in political relations with Great Britain; the Amir of Dhala had requested support and therefore a British response was needed.

In July 1901 a British force was organised to eject the Humar from Haushabi territory.  The troops used were: ·       

200 men from the Royal West Kent Regiment. ·       
200 men from the 5th Bombay Light Infantry (soon to be re-titled the 105th Mahratta Light Infantry). ·       
A camel-drawn battery of 7-pounder guns (British Royal Garrison Artillery gunners and Indian camel drivers). ·      
the 4th Company, Bombay Sappers and Miners. ·       
the Aden Troop of cavalry (Indian mounted soldiers).

Above: Aden Hinterland tribesman with Le Gras rifle

Major W.E. Rowe of the Royal West Kents was appointed as Force Commander and his orders were to advance through Lahej into the Hinterland to deal with the situation.

(Interestingly it appears that the Royal West Kents were serving a punishment posting in Aden.  In his book The Indian Army, Lieutenant General S.L. Menezes records that in Burma in 1899 a European jury acquitted some men of the regiment of the gang rape of a Burmese woman, after regimental officers had withheld evidence likely to lead to the conviction of the accused.  Lord Curzon, the new Viceroy of India, discharged the men from the army, removed the commanding officer, reduced the Sergeant Major to the ranks, censured the officers, cancelled all leave of the battalion and moved it to Aden, then the most unpleasant station available to the Government of India.)

Meanwhile a contingent of regular Turkish troops from Taiz joined Mukbil to defend the tower; this intervention appears to have been a result of mis-information supplied by Mukhbil suggesting that the British intended to invade Turkish territory.  Major Rowe marched his men the 110 kilometres to Dareja, leaving Aden in a blinding sand-storm on 14th July, the hottest time of the year.  Rowe attacked on 26th July in very different weather – a downpour of rain.  Under covering fire provided by the 7-pounder guns the Royal West Kents attacked high ground near the tower, whilst the Bombay Light Infantry attacked and cleared Dareja village.  Both attacks succeeded.

The 4th Company, Bombay Sappers & Miners, under the command of Lieutenant  F.P. Rundle, Royal Engineers, were in support during the attack and then moved forward to join the British infantry.  However their location was still being swept by fire from nearby high ground, so the Sappers joined some of the Royal West Kents in occupying another hill from where enfilade fire drove off the enemy.  Again this move was made under the covering fire of the 7-pounder guns, to which the enemy had no effective reply.  Meanwhile the Turks in the tower continued to occupy it.

By dawn on 27th July the enemy, believed to number 800 Turks and 1,200 Humaris, had withdrawn into Turkish territory having lost around 40 men; the British casualties were four men killed and five wounded.  The garrison of the tower had silently withdrawn during the night so Rundle’s Sappers demolished the structure, and Rowe’s force returned victoriously to Aden.

Right: The Aden Camel Battery on the march over rough ground

The Boundary Commission and Turkish intransigence

The action at Dareja induced Turkey to request that a proper frontier be demarcated between the Aden Hinterland and Yemen.  A British Commissioner was sent to meet the Turks at Dhala (Ad Dthala on the map), a disputed area100 kilometres north of Aden; both sides brought surveyors and escorts that were limited to no more than 200 men.  The British team was led by Colonel R.A. Wahab CIE, Royal Engineers, an experienced and energetic boundary delineator, and the leader of the Turkish Commission was Colonel Mustafa Rienzi.   On arrival the British were surprised to find that the Turks were hostile and had seized the disputed area, and that Turkish soldiers fired at anybody approaching the proposed border.  Delineation was not possible.  This impasse continued until in August the British government protested to the Porte (the central government of the Ottoman Empire); when this protest was ignored a British military show of force was sanctioned. 

One point of view not being taken into account at the time was that of the Arab inhabitants of the border area in particular, and of Yemen and British-controlled Aden in general; minor Arab voices were not considered to be relevant to the negotiations between Britain and Turkey.   Whilst important or influential local rulers were recognised in various capacities and supported by both the Turks and the British, the lower-level village leaders were just told what was happening, and they often resented this treatment.  Over the next three years the British were to pay a military price for this policy during confrontations with disgruntled local tribesmen.

In December 1902 the officer commanding the Aden District, Lieutenant Colonel H.T. Hicks CB, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, ordered the formation of a column to be held in readiness to proceed, on field-service scale, from Aden into the interior of Arabia.  On January 3rd 1903 the Aden Column left its assembly point at Sheikh Othman, 16 kilometres from Aden.  The Column Commander was Lieutenant Colonel F.P. English, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and his troops were: ·       

-225 men including 12 signallers and two Maxim machine guns from the 2nd Battalion the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.       
-200 men from the 102nd King Edward’s Own Grenadiers.
-80 men from No. 45 Company, Royal Garrison Artillery with two
-7-pounder mountain guns and four 9-pounder guns.
-25 horsemen and 12 camelmen from the Aden Troop of cavalry.
-A large detachment of No. 3 Company (soon to be re-titled the 19th Company), Bombay Sappers and Miners with a Telegraph Section.
-one Section from No. 16 British Field Hospital.
-one Section from No. 68 Native Field Hospital.

The Column Standing Orders reflected the environmental considerations in the theatre:  


                       December 24th, 1902.  

1.  Water. It is anticipated that in all probability it will be difficult to obtain good drinking water in sufficient quantities on some of the marches into the interior. All ranks are therefore cautioned to husband their drinking water as much as possible. Troops and followers should be forbidden to draw water from the camel tanks (metal water tanks loaded onto camels) without permission from the officer in charge, and be cautioned against drinking water from any but authorised sources, as some of the water on the route is brackish and liable to bring on diarrhoea.  

Each unit will detail an officer or selected Non Commissioned Officer to be in charge of the water camels, who will see that their supply is only drawn on by order of the officer commanding, and that great care is taken to prevent wastage. Whenever possible, water tanks and bottles should be replenished; halts will be made for this purpose. Water-bottles will be filled overnight. On arrival in camp, the sources of water supply will be pointed out by the staff officer, and sentries posted to see that the right people draw from the right source.  

2.  Country and Inhabitants. It should be remembered that the country through which the column will march to Dthala is in the British Protectorate, and that the inhabitants and their property must not be interfered with. All supplies must be paid for, and foraging is strictly forbidden.  

3.  Camps. On arrival at the camping-places, the staff officer will point out the sites for the camps of the different units to N.C.O.'s detailed for that purpose. Officers commanding units will see that their respective camping-grounds are cleared up before departure.  

4.  Transport. On arrival in camp the (camel) transport in charge of each unit will be picketed near its camp.  

5.  Order of March and Baggage. Each unit will be complete in itself, being followed by first line transport:               

-Signalling equipment.        
-First reserve ammunition.             
-Entrenching tools.      
-Water camels.             
-Great-coat camels.  

All followers not required with the above are to accompany the baggage of their corps. The transport officer will act as baggage-master, and all baggage-followers and baggage-guards will be under his orders. He will see that the baggage moves off the ground in the following order;  

-Field hospital with its baggage in rear of fighting portion of column;          
-ammunition second reserve and ordnance park;       
-staff baggage, including supplies;
-regimental baggage with supplies in regimental charge in order of march of unit;           
-supply go-down;        
-spare animals in transport charge;             

          (By order)               S. M. EDWARDS DSO, Major, 102nd King Edward’s Own Grenadiers.          
Staff Officer Aden Column.

The march to Dhala took seven days to complete.  Water on the route was not always sufficient to satisfy the needs of the entire column and its transport animals, so the 102nd Grenadiers and the Native Field Hospital marched a day behind the European troops to allow natural replenishment of wells and pools.

The Aden Column spent the remainder of January building defences around its camp at Dhala.  Three kilometres distant at Jaleli (Al Jalela on the map) was an entrenched Turkish force of 400 infantry, 25 cavalry and four guns, and Colonel Wahab advised that the political situation was very tense.  By early March the column had been strengthened by the arrival of :

-the 1st Battalion The Hampshire Regiment.
-the 123rd Outram’s Rifles.
-the 30th (Abbottabad) Mountain Battery of six 2.5-inch screw (jointed barrel) guns.
-a section of two 7-pounder camel-packed guns manned by men of the Royal Garrison Artillery. 
-Later No. 6 British Mountain Battery with six brand-new jointed barrel 10-pounder guns also joined the column. 

Right: Dhala Town

The first detachment of Hampshires to arrive relieved the Fusiliers, but during February the situation appeared to be deteriorating and the Fusiliers were turned around on their march back to Aden, and they returned to Dhala.  At sea two cruisers from the British Mediterranean Squadron were despatched to Aden.  On the more southern Wadi Tiban route to Yemen, 400 British infantry, two 9-pounder field guns and two 7-pounder camel guns were stationed at the commanding Dar Aqqan post.

This British demonstration of strength succeeded as in mid-March the Turks received orders from the Porte to withdraw from Jaleli to Kataba.  On 22nd March Major W.S. Delamain and his 123rd Rifles occupied Jaleli and hoisted the British Ensign under a salute from the troops; spectators included the Resident and military commander in Aden, Brigadier General P.J. Maitland CB, and a large gathering of local tribesmen.   

Above: The Camel Battery in Action.

On 27th April 100 Fusiliers, 100 of the 123rd Rifles and two guns of No. 6 Mountain Battery advanced under the command of Colonel English to occupy Sanah, three kilometres from Qatabah, where they stayed until 11th July whilst Colonel Wahab continued his delineation work.  Small punitive expeditions were now mounted out of Dhala against tribesmen who sniped at British troops, ambushed small convoys and camelmen carrying mail to and from Aden, and stole British mules or camels.  The tribesmen had efficient rifles as French arms traders in Djibouti just across the Gulf of Aden were extremely active.  These expeditions targeted recalcitrant villagers by blowing up towers, demolishing villages and destroying coffee-gardens.  On one of these forays against the village of Dabra the new 10-pounder mountain guns were brought into action for the first time anywhere in the world, destroying a tower.  Meanwhile the main military effort around Dhala went into road-making and securing the border delineation team.

Military operations intensify

By August 1903 feelings were running high on both sides and Arab attacks on British positions intensified.  On 13th September a large attack was made on 100 of the Hampshires who were escorting a working party at Awabil; for a time the British struggled but eventually the attackers were driven off.  The British had lost one man killed and 5 wounded, whilst the attackers under Saleh bin Umr suffered 20 killed and more wounded; Saleh bin Umr had previously received a stipend from the Turkish authorities, but the new border delineation placed him on the British side of the line and without the stipend. 

Right: Sulaiq Fort

On 5th October Colonel English set out with a 200-man column with guns to punish the village of Naklain in the Danbari region of the Radfan country, south-east of Dhala. (This was a prelude to the Radfan campaign fought over 60 years later by the British Army against similar opponents.)  After a 32 kilometre approach march from As Suk that included fighting through a gorge where the British artillery was decisive in removing snipers, Naklain was reached and the buildings destroyed by gun-cotton.  The crops were destroyed using bayonets and swords whilst the gunners shelled isolated houses; during this time the tribesmen, who had not expected that a reprisal could be delivered on their remote village, continued sniping from a distance.  Then a fighting withdrawal commenced back through the gorge to As Suk, during which the British lost three men killed, eight wounded and six who needed carrying back because they suffered from sun-stroke.  Colonel English then marched his column back to Aden as the Royal Dublin Fusiliers was departing for Britain.

Left: Cultivators with fortified towers on the skyline.

At the end of October the Kotaibi tribe attacked the Sulaiq post, south-east of Dhala; this was garrisoned by Captain F.L. Lloyd-Jones, 113th Infantry attached to 102nd Grenadiers, and 70 of the 102nd Grenadiers.  Colonel R.I. Scallon, 123rd Outram’s Rifles, marched 300 British and Indian infantry with two guns to the relief of the post, where Captain Lloyd-Jones was severely wounded; the Kotaibis were pushed back into the hills. 

Fighting continued around Sulaiq for several days and on 1st November 550 British and Indian infantry advanced to capture Kariati.  Two hundred men of the Hampshires marched up in support and they became involved in heavy fighting in the Bujer Valley.  During a confrontation enemy horsemen were mistaken for friendly levies and allowed to ride near to the Hampshires before firing into the British ranks; two awards were later made for gallantry displayed during the serious fighting that followed as the Hampshires withdrew. After destroying many towers and occupying several villages the Sulaiq garrison was strengthened and this column marched back to Dhala on 15th November.  It was estimated that during these operations the tribes had lost 200 men killed whilst the British had lost 10 killed and 21 wounded, including another officer. 

above: questioning a deserter

Meanwhile the Boundary Commission proceeded with its work, marking the new boundary with stone cairns as it advanced, and in early February 1904 it entered the Subaihi country.  As this tribe was considered to be very hot-tempered a strong British supporting column was stationed at Musaimir whilst the Subaihi Column of 600 infantry, including men of the Buffs (the East Kent Regiment), and two guns was formed in Aden under the command of Major E.E. Ravenhill of the Buffs.  This column marched to garrison Khatabia and the show of force prevented further serious fighting.  A delineation hold up occurred over a tower near Mufalis but a mutually satisfactory solution saw the sappers demolishing the tower and the owner receiving British compensation.

Things now quietened down, apart from the murder of a British Political Officer by a local police corporal.  In early April many British military units returned to Aden, leaving a garrison at Dhala whilst the 94th Russell’s Infantry supported the boundary delineation programme.  As Colonel Wahab completed the south-western stretch of the border that ran down to the sea his base was located on the coast at Ras Ara, 110 kilometres west of Aden.  On 23rd May 1904 Colonel Wahab and his team returned to Aden and proceeded to Perim Island to complete matters with the Turkish Commissioners.  The Boundary Commission and its military escorts had completed a difficult task over very demanding terrain and in sometimes violent circumstances.  Only ten years later British and Turkish troops would be confronting each other outside Aden as the Great War developed.

Above: Boundary Commission camp on Dhala Plateau.

Military awards

A campaign medal was not issued, much to the disappointment of all of the troops involved, but the operations undertaken counted as War Service.

Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (CB)

Lieutenant Colonel  and Brevet Colonel Robert Irvine Scallon CIE, DSO, 123rd Outram’s Rifles.

Later Colonel Scallon published in Battalion Orders:  The distinction granted to the Commanding Officer is intended less as a reward to him personally than an acknowledgement of His Majesty’s appreciation of the good hard work done by the officers and men of the 123rd Rifles.  Colonel Scallon feels very sensible that it is to the loyal way he has been supported by all ranks since he took over command, and to the reputation the officers and men have made for the 123rd Rifles, he owes this honour, and he much regrets that he alone has been rewarded. Colonel Scallon thanks one and all for the coveted honour they have obtained for him.’

Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (CMG)

Lieutenant  Colonel and Brevet Colonel Robert Alexander Wahab, RE,  CIE, for services in connection with the delimitation of the Aden frontier.  

Companions of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO)

Lieutenant George  Stewart  Symes, 1st Battalion Hampshire Regiment, displayed great coolness and gallantry on the 7th November when a body of Khataibis suddenly opened fire on the Hampshire detachment at short range, causing a momentary confusion. Lieutenant Symes carried Private Treadwell back some 30 yards under a hot fire at close quarters when the latter was wounded and unable to move, Lieutenant Symes being at the time practically alone.

Major E. E. Ravenhill, 1st Battalion, East Kent Regiment (The Buffs). He commanded the Subaihi Column to my entire satisfaction.

Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel F. P. English, 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who commanded the force which successfully attacked and destroyed the village of Nakhlen.

Major W. S. Delamain, 123rd Rifles, commanded the escort of the Boundary Commission for about eight months, during which time the Commission marched from Kotaba to the coast, a distance of at least 160 miles. He has been highly spoken of by Colonel Wahab in his letter to the Government of India dated 10th June, 1904.

Brevet Promotion

Major George Cecil Dowell, Royal Artillery, to be Lieutenant Colonel.  Dated 19th January 1905. Commanded No. 6 Mountain Battery throughout. His battery was in excellent order, and rendered most efficient service during the Kotaibi Expedition.  

Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM)

No 4715 Lance Corporal C.E. Dicker, 1st Battalion the Hampshire Regiment, in recognition of his gallant conduct during operations.

Below: Medals to C.E. Dicker -
Photograph kindly supplied by the owner of the medals, The Royal Hampshire Regiment Museum, Serles House, Southgate Street, Winchester, England.

Mentions in Despatches (MiD), except those already listed above, made by Major General P.J. Maitland CB:

Captain E. A. F. Redl, 113th Infantry, was Intelligence Officer with the Boundary Commission, and his services in that capacity have been brought to notice by Colonel Wahab. He was placed at my disposal for the Kotaibi Expedition, and did excellent work in charge of the supply and transport arrangements.

Captain A. F. Shewell, 123rd Rifles, who was in command of the post at Awabil when it was attacked by the Yaffais on the 13th September, 1903. He afterwards did good work with his regiment in the Kotaibi Expedition.

Captain F. L. Lloyd-Jones, 113th Infantry, attached lO2nd Grenadiers, who was in command of Sulek Post when it was attacked by the Kotaibis from 25th to 29th October, 1903, and who was severely wounded in the action of the 29th October.

Lieutenant J. Macpherson, Indian Medical Service, was Medical Officer with the advanced force during the expedition against the Kotaibis. He is a hardworking and skilful medical officer, and his arrangements for the care of the wounded and sick were very good.

Major J. R. B. Davidson, Royal Garrison Artillery, was of great service to me as Road Commandant, and deserves credit for rapidly refitting the camel battery with the 7.5 gun.

Major A. F. Pullen, Royal Garrison Artillery, who succeeded Major Davidson as Road Commandant when the latter took command of the Royal Garrison Artillery in Aden, and who acted as my staff officer during' the Kotaibi Expedition.


Frontier and Overseas Expeditions from India, Volume VI, Expeditions Overseas, Part II, Chapter XVI. Published by Army Headquarters India in 1911.  (Free download: ).

A Famous Indian Regiment: Kali Panchwin, 1768-1923 by Reginald Hennell, 1927. (Reprint by BR Publishing Corporation, Delhi.)

Outram’s Rifles. A History of the 4th Battalion, 6th Rajputana Rifles by H.G. Rawlinson CIE.  (Reprint by Naval & Military Press.)

The History of the Indian Mountain Artillery by Brigadier General C.A.L. Graham DSO, OBE, DL, psc.  (Free download: )

The 2nd Bn The Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the SA War – With a Description of the Operations in the Aden Hinterland by Arthur Edward Mainwaring (free download: ).

The Indian Sappers and Miners by Lieutenant Colonel E.W.C. Sandes DSO, MC, RE. (The Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, 1948)

The Armed Forces of Aden 1839-1967 by Cliff Lord and David Birtles. (Helion and Company, Solihull, 2000)

Division of the Yemen and the Boundary Commission Fights 1902-1904 by G.A. Shepherd.  (British Yemeni-Society Article, free download: )

Indian Field Post Offices 1903-0. The Aden-Yemeni Boundary Commission (and) The Somaliland Field Force by Robson Lowe. (Robson Lowe Limited, London 1979)

London Gazettes dated June 24, 1904 page 4008; February 17, 1905 page 1198; April 14, 1905 page 2798; and June 30, 1905 page 4550.

Internet article on the Dareja Expedition:

Internet article on the Boundary Commission:

The Indian Army by Lieutenant General S.L. Menezes PVSM, SC. (Published in VIKING by Penguin Books India (P) Ltd, 1993)

The Land of Uz by Abdullah Mansur (G. Wyman Bury). (MacMillan & Co London, 1911) (free download: )  

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