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Aerial bombardment of Dervish forts in Taleh.

Between 1900 and 1920, the British, assisted by the Ethiopians and Italians, fought a series of campaigns in Somaliland—sometimes called the Anglo-Somali War—against the Dervishes led by Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, nicknamed the "Mad Mullah" by the British, although he "was neither mad nor a mullah". During the First World War (1914–1918), Hassan received aid from the Ottomans, Germans and, for a time, from the Emperor Iyasu V of Ethiopia. The conflict ended when the British bombed the Dervish capital of Taleh in January–February 1920.


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

British SomalilandEdit

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 to 1841. 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. Shermerki was later succeeded as Governor of Zeila by Abu Bakr Pasha, a local Afar statesman.

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. 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).

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), and Warsangali.

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. They later signed a convention on 1 February 1888 defining the border between French Somaliland and British Somaliland.

Italian SomalilandEdit


One of the forts of the Majeerteen Sultanate in Hafun.

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.

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.

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.

In return for Italian arms and an annual subsidy, the Sultans conceded to a minimum of oversight and economic concessions. The Italians also agreed to dispatch a few ambassadors to promote both the sultanates' and their own interests. The new protectorates were thereafter managed by Vincenzo Filonardi through a chartered company. 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.

Mohammed Abdullah HassanEdit


220px-Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan

Statue of Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Hassan, who belonged to the Ogaden sub-clan of the Darod clan family, was born in 1856 in the valley of Sa'Madeeq. Some say he was born in Kirrit in northern Somalia. At the time, this part of Somalia was a protectorate of the United Kingdom. Between 1884 and 1960, the area was known as British Somaliland.

Hassan was the eldest son of Sheikh Abdille, an Ogaden Somali. His mother, Timiro Sade, also a Somali, belonged to the Dhulbahante clan. His great grandfather, Sheikh Ismaan of Bardee, was a pious man of great repute who left his homeland slightly north of Qalaafo along the Shebelle River valley in what is now the Ogaden and migrated southwards to settle with the religious Somali community at Bardera along the Jubba River. Hassan's grandfather, Hasan Nur, in turn, left his home and moved closer to the Dhulbahante stronghold in north-eastern Somalia. There, he founded several religious centres and devoted himself to the worship of God. Following in the footsteps of Hasan Nur, Hassan's father Abdille also led a religious life. Abdille married several Dhulbahante women by whom he had about 30 children, of which Hassan was the eldest. Hassan's mother, Timiro Sade, came from the Ali Geri sublineage of the Dhulbahante clan, which was allied with the Ogaden.

Hassan thus grew up among the Dhulbahante pastoralists, who were good herdsmen and warriors and who tended and used camels as well as horses. Young Hassan's hero was his maternal grandfather, Sade Mogan, who was a great warrior chief. In addition to being a good horseman, by the age of eleven, Hassan had learned the entire Qur'an by heart (he was a hafiz), and displayed all the qualities of a promising leader. He continued his religious education. In 1875, Hassan's grandfather died, which came as a shock. That same year, he worked as a Qur'anic teacher for two years. His thirst for Islamic learning was so intense that he left his job and devoted about ten years to visiting many famous centres of Islamic learning including Harar and Mogadishu and even some centres in Sudan.

Hassan received education from as many as seventy-two Somali and Arab religious teachers. In 1891, upon returning home, he married an Ogadeni woman. Three years later, along with two uncles and eleven other companions some of whom were his maternal kin, Hassan went to Mecca to perform the Hajj. The party stayed there for a year and a half and came under the charismatic influence of the newly-developing Saalihiya order under the leadership of the great Sudanese mystic, Mohammed Salih. Hassan received initiation and very rigorous spiritual training under Salih. From this experience, Hassan emerged a changed man — spiritually transformed, 'shaken and over-awed', but determined to spread the teachings of the Saalihiya order in Somalia.

Religious missionEdit

In 1895, Hassan returned to Berbera. The British considered Berbera merely 'Aden's butcher's shop', since they were only interested in getting regular supplies of meat from Somalia through this port for their British India outpost of Aden.

Taking advantage of Britain's complacency, Emperor Menelek II of Ethiopia asked Ras Makonnen, the Governor of his newly conquered Hararghe Province, to send armed bands to plunder and occupy Ogaden politically. The British withdrew from this area of their territory in Somalia.

In Berbera, Hassan could not succeed in spreading the teaching of the Saalihiya order due to the hostility of the local Qadiriyyah inhabitants. They did not like him criticising their eating khat, gorging on the fat of sheep's tail and following their traditional Qadiriyyah order. In 1897, he left Berbera to be with his Dulbahante kinsmen. On the way, at a place called Daymoole, he met some Somalis who were being looked after by a Catholic Mission. When he asked them about their clan and parents, the Somali orphans replied that they belonged to the "clan of the (Catholic) Fathers." This reply shook him, for he felt that the "Christian Overlordship in his country was tantamount to the destruction of his people's faith."

In 1899, some soldiers of the British armed forces met Hassan and sold him an official gun. When questioned about the loss of the gun, they told their superiors that Hassan had stolen the gun from them. On 29 March 1899, the British Vice Consul wrote a very stern and insulting letter to him accusing his camp of stealing the gun and asking him to return it immediately. This enraged Hassan and he sent a very brief and curt reply refuting the allegation. Hassan's attention had been focused on the Ethiopian invaders of Somalia, but this incident brought him into conflict with the British as well. The British, Ethiopian Emperor Menelek II, and a small numbers of Somalis then joined together to crush Hassan's Dervish movement.

Origins of armed struggleEdit

In several of his poems and speeches, Hassan said that the British infidels "have destroyed our religion and made our children their children" and that the Christian Ethiopians in league with the British were bent upon plundering the political and religious freedom of the Somali nation. He soon emerged as "a champion of his country's political and religious freedom, defending it against all Christian invaders." He issued a religious ordinance that any Somali national who did not accept the goal of unity of Somalia and would not fight under his leadership would be considered as kafir or gaal. 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 gave a clarion call for Somali unity and independence.

At this time Hassan organized his warriors. His Dervish movement had an essentially military character, and the Dervish State was fashioned on the model of a Saalihiya brotherhood. It had a rigid hierarchy and robust centralization. Hassan threatened to drive the Christians into the sea, and he committed the first attack by launching a major military offensive with his 1,500 Dervishes, equipped with 20 modern rifles, on the British soldiers stationed in the region. Hassan sent his emissaries all over the country appealing for Somali people to join his movement and many responded to him enthusiastically.



The first offensive campaign was led by Hassan against an Ethiopian encampment at Jijiga in March 1900. The Ethiopian general Gerazmatch Bante reportedly repulsed the attack and inflicted great losses on the Dervishes, although the British vice-consul at Harar claimed the Ethiopians out of fear armed children with rifles to inflate the size of their forces. Hassan seized control of the Ogaden but did not attack Harar. Instead, he raided the non-Dervish Qadariyyah clans for their camels and arms.

In 1901, the British joined with the Ethiopians and attacked the Dervishes with a force 17,000 strong. Hassan was driven across the border into the Majeerteen Sultanate, which had been incorporated into the Italian protectorate. The Ethiopians failed to get a hold on the western Ogaden and the British were eventually forced to retreat, having accomplished none of their goals. In this campaign, "borders were ignored by both British and Somali."

February–June 1903Edit

The British became convinced of their need of Italian assistance, but memories of the disastrous Battle of Adowa inhibited any Italian fervour for action in the Horn of Africa. In 1903, the Italian Foreign Ministry permitted the British to land forces at Hobyo (Obbia). An Italian naval commander off Hobyo feared "that the expedition will end in a fiasco; the Mad Mullah will become a myth for the British, who will never come across him, and a serious worry for ... our sphere of influence."

The relationship between Hobyo and Italy soured when Sultan Kenadid refused the Italians' proposal to allow British troops to disembark in his Sultanate so that they might then pursue their battle against Hassan's Dervish forces. Viewed as too much of a threat by the Italians, Kenadid was exiled first to the British-controlled Aden Protectorate, and then to Italian Eritrea, as was his son Ali Yusuf, the heir apparent to his throne. In May, the British Foreign Office realised the error, and had Kenadid's son appointed regent, just in time to forestall an attack in Mudug by the Sultan's army.

The expedition ended in failure soon after. Hassan defeated a British detachment near Gumburru and then another near Daratoleh. With 1,200–1,500 rifles, 4,000 ponies and some spearmen, he occupied the Nugal Valley from Halin in the British protectorate to Ilig (or Illig) on the Italian-held coast. The main British force near Galad (Galadi) under General William Manning retreated north along the line Bohotleh–Burao–Sheekh. This "old-established line" had already been breached by Hassan when he invaded the Nugal. By the end of June, the withdrawal was complete.

January–May 1904Edit

Engelse kameelruiters - English camel troopers

English camel troopers in 1913, between Berbera and Odweyne in British Somaliland.

After the failure of General Manning's offensive, General Charles Egerton was entrusted with a response. Following extensive preparations, he united his field force at Bacaadweeyn (Badwein) on 9 January 1904 and defeated Hassan at Jibdalli the next day. The British and their allies from Hobyo harassed Hassan along his retreat, and he lost many of his camels and livestock throughout February.

In early March, the second phase of operations began. The Ethiopians advanced as far as Gerlogubi, but turned back in early April. The Italian Navy bombarded Ilig in the winter to no effect. On 16 April, some ships of the East Indies Station under Rear Admiral George Atkinson-Willes left Berbera to bombard Ilig in cooperation with an advance overland.

The capture of Ilig was effected on 21 April, the British losing 3 men killed and 11 wounded, and the Dervishes 58 killed and 14 wounded. The naval detachment which had fought the battle remained ashore for four days, assisted by an Italian naval detachment that arrived on 22 April. Control of Ilig was finally relinquished to Ali Yusuf of Hobyo. Having defeated his forces in the field and forced his retreat, the British "offered the Mullah safe conduct into permanent exile at Mecca"; Hassan did not reply.

1913 - 1914Edit

On 9 August 1913, 110 members (reduced to 85 by the start of battle) of the "Somaliland Camel Constabulary", commanded by Colonel Richard Corfield, fought the Battle of Dul Madoba against some 2750 well-armed Dervishes. Thirty-six of the Constabulary including Corfield were killed in action and twenty-one were wounded. Four hundred and fifty of the Dervishes were killed or wounded. As a result of the action the British withdrew their protection of the local Somali clans in the area around the port of Berbera, but Hassan was unable to follow up his advantage immediately.

On 12 March 1914, the British set out to create what was to become the "Somaliland Camel Corps" to maintain order in the protectorate. During the same period, the corps set an impressive standard by covering one-hundred-and-fifty miles in seventy-two hours. The camel corps grew to include some 700 mounted riders.


220px-Z Force DH9 in air ambulance role

A Z Force DH9 being operated in the air ambulance role.

220px-Taleh Castle

Mohammed Abdullah Hassan's fort in Taleh.

In 1919, the unrest in British Somaliland alarmed the British Government enough for Lord Milner, the Colonial Secretary, to consider sending a military expedition to the protectorate. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Henry Wilson, advised Milner that at least two divisions would be required and this was likely to cost several million pounds. Such a cost was seen as being prohibitively expensive in the conditions of post-war austerity.

Lord Milner then turned to the newly formed RAF, asking the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Hugh Trenchard, if he could suggest a solution. Trenchard who at that time was most eager to ensure that the air force remained as a separate service, immediately proposed that the RAF should take responsibility for the whole operation. Milner argued that some ground troops would be needed and Trenchard replied that the local colonial forces which were already in Somaliland would be sufficient.

A meeting was arranged to discuss the coming campaign. In attendance were: Winston Churchill who was Secretary of State for War and Air, Leo Amery the Colonial Under-Secretary who deputized for Milner, Sir Henry Wilson and Sir Hugh Trenchard. Wilson was strongly opposed to a campaign being conducted by the Colonial Office and the Air Ministry which would draw upon the War Office's soldiers.

However, when Amery and Trenchard stated that under no circumstances would they request troops, Wilson withdrew his objection and consented to the RAF taking the lead. By the January 1920, the British forces had assembled the "Z Force" provided by the RAF in Egypt, the Somaliland Camel Corps which was permanently based in the field as the local gendarmerie regiment and one battalion of the King's African Rifles. The Z force consisted of:

1) 12 Airco DH.9A aircraft. The aircraft were shipped to Somaliland on the Royal Navy's aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and were used for bombing. One was converted into an air ambulance.

2) A vehicle fleet consisting of ten Ford trucks, two Ford ambulances, six trailers, two motorcycles and two Crossley light trucks.

3) 36 officers and 183 men, including the Z Force commander, Group Captain Robert Gordon, and his Chief of Staff, Wing Commander Frederick Bowhill.

By 1 January 1920 the Z Force had constructed a temporary aerodrome at Berbera from where they operated. On 21 January RAF aircraft bombed Hassan's main base at Medistie and his fort at Jideli. Many members of Hassan's forces had never seen an aircraft before and were terrified by the aerial bombardment to the extent that they fled into the hills. It was also during that first bombardment that Hassan came close to being killed, narrowly avoiding death when an unfortunate camel shielded him from a nearby bomb blast. After the next five days had passed the Z Force had destroyed three Dervish forts; they then provided air support and communications for the ground forces. This battle established the tactics of aerial bombardment followed by attacks by ground forces, and of using aircraft to provide support for ground troops during concurrent attacks. These tactics are among the primary methods of wartime operations to this day.

On 28 January the Camel Corps occupied Jideli and Hassan retreated to his main fort at Taleh. After combined land and air operations, the British took Taleh on 9 February. Hassan's forces suffered great losses and were scattered, his forts were damaged and he escaped with only four of his followers to the Ogaden.

Subsequent eventsEdit

Although in the following months Hassan did regain some power in Ogaden, he was never a force in British Somaliland again. He died of natural causes in December 1920. Somaliland went on to enjoy 20 years of stability. In Great Britain, where the "Mad Mullah" had long been a source of irritation, news of the swift victory was well received in Parliament and the country.

The cost of the 1920 operation was put at £77,000 and Amery described it as "the cheapest war in history". Trenchard and the newly established RAF were greatly encouraged by the outcome. The following year in March 1921 at the Cairo Conference, Winston Churchill, who was by then Colonial Secretary, along with the three service chiefs decided that all British forces in Iraq would be put under control of the RAF. The intention was to apply the model of imperial air control which had worked in Somaliland to a much larger region which was similarly troubled.


The Dervish legacy in Somalia can be seen in the country's cultural heritage, history, and society. In memory of past heroes, the military government of Somalia led by Mohamed Siad Barre erected statues visible between Makka Al Mukarama and Shabelle Roads in the heart of Mogadishu. These were for three major Somali History icons; Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, Stone Thrower and Hawo Tako. Other historical facts about Somalia, numerous castles and fortresses built by the Dervishes were included in a list of Somalia's national treasures.

The Dervish period spawned many war poets and peace poets involved in a struggle known as the Literary war which had a profound effect on Somali poetry and Literature, with Muhammad Abdullah Hassan featuring as the most prominent poet of that Age. Many of these poems continue to be taught in Somali schools and have been recited by several Presidents of Somalia in speeches as well as in poetry competitions. In Somali Studies, the Dervish period is an important chapter in Somalia's history and its brief period of European hegemony, the latter of which inspired the resistance movement. Due to their goal of creating a unified Somali State or Greater Somalia transcending regional and clan divisions, many scholars regard the Dervishes as the ideological architects of Somalia and Muhammad Abdullah Hassan himself as the "Father of the Nation".