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Map of Somaliland & the Mullah Campaigns

Greetings Gentlemen

I have written a series of very short articles for the newsletter of The Lancaster Military Heritage Group, titled "Edges of Empire".

As they are published I will post them here for general interest.

The images accompanying this article on Somaliland 1908 - 1910 may be of interest to anyone possessing a relevant medal.


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Marched over by men of the The Royal Lancaster Regiment

Introducing some little-known campaigns where men of the King's Own served.

Compiled by Major Harry Fecitt MBE TD


Somaliland, a possession of Ottoman Egypt, was acquired in 1884 when Britain occupied Egypt and renamed the possession the British Somaliland Protectorate. Britain retained the territory because of its strategic position across the Straits of Hormuz from Aden.

The Protectorate was totally undeveloped and consisted of an arid coastal plain with a depth of up to 50 miles, followed by a broken range of mountains 4,000 - 5,000 feet high. Behind the mountains was a high nearly waterless plateau known as the Haud. The summer heat was intense and the winters in the mountains and on the plateau created cold swirling mists. The people were Somali nomads who moved with their flocks of camels, sheep and goats constantly searching for new pastures. Aden relied upon Berbera for supplies of meat.

The more adventurous British officers of the Indian Army took leave in Somaliland for the hunting, which was superb.

In 1899 a local influential religious leader, Mohamed bin Abdullah Hassan (known by the British as the "Mad Mullah" - as a youth he had undergone primitive tribal surgery to remove a bone from the top of his head) attracted followers who became known as Dervishes, and he openly resisted British Rule. No Briton ever saw the Mullah & he was never photographed, but for the next 22 years he and his men led British troops on a chase around the Protectorate and in & out of Abyssinia & Italian Somaliland.

When British troops were needed they were deployed from Aden, East Africa or directly from India. The East African troops were battalions of the King's African Rifles based in Nyasaland (now named Malawi), Uganda & British East Africa (now named Kenya).

In 1909 Captain T.O. Fitzgerald of the King's Own was seconded for service with the 3rd King's African Rifles in British East Africa. Captain Fitzgerald had served operationally in the South African War from February 1900 to July 1901 where he had been mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Queen's Medal with three clasps and the King's Medal with two clasps.

Captain Fitzgerald and his Askari (African soldiers) waded ashore at Berbera in Somaliland in February 1909 as part of a British military expedition trying to contain the Mullah's activities. The Mullah had been exiled to Italian Somaliland for a time but he became restless for his own land and so returned to the Haud and incited his tribesmen to become Dervishes and to confront the British again.

The campaign involved a lot of marching and counter-marching across the Haud and one of the major pre-occupations of the British officers was the obtaining of adequate supplies of water. When found the water was not exactly pure, and Captain Fitzgerald wrote:

"The great difficulty in these operations was the lack of water, which could only be obtained from wells and pumped out into large tarpaulins. The water had to be exposed to the air for some time before it was fit to drink owing to its sulphur content. Nothing one could do to it, or add to it ? even whisky ? could take away the abominable taste. When moving from one camp to another it was possible to tell, by the loathsome stench some considerable time in advance, that camp was being reached. The water was so highly charged with chemicals that the life of the tarpaulins into which the water was pumped was about six weeks to two months, when they became pitted with holes. Judging by the agony one suffered after drinking, there is no doubt that this water must have had some deleterious effect on the interior arrangements."

As the wells were far apart the British columns of troops had to carry large quantities of water on camels brought from East Africa and elsewhere, making the columns slow and immobile. The Mahdi's men rode local camels that were hardened to marching long distances without watering, and the Dervishes themselves could live for days by just drinking camels' milk. Thus the Mullah's men were nimble and they always stayed ahead of their lumbering British pursuers.

In 1910 the British colonial authorities lost patience with the campaign and its expense and the Haud was evacuated and left to the depredations of the Mullah. A British garrison was left on the coast but Captain Fitzgerald and his Askari sailed back to British East Africa. As the book "African General Service Medals" records:

"There was no fighting except against monotony, and most, if not all, of the troops eventually returned to their home stations without seeing a Dervish, let alone firing a shot, but they did receive a medal!"

Captain Fitzgerald and his Askari received the African General Service Medal with a clasp inscribed "Somaliland 1908-10" but also, by campaigning over some of the roughest and most inhospitable terrain in Africa, they had prepared themselves as a team to face the much tougher military tasks that lay ahead of them.

(To be continued.)

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