The raising and first operations of the
Somaliland Camel CorpsNovember 1914 to February 1915
This article has a selection of Photographs from the Ismay Papers in the Liddle Collection at Leeds University. To allow me to show the full selection I have done a seperate pageHERE
During the latter half of 1914 millions of people around
the world began to live in a state of war, but this was not the case for the
people of the British Somaliland Protectorate.
This territory, located 250 kilometres south of the strategic port of Aden, had been enduring savage periods
of war for the previous 15 years whilst a renegade named the ‘Mad Mullah’ and
his tribesmen-followers fought British troops.
However this man was not mad, nor was he a Mullah, but he was an early
type of ‘freedom fighter’ who possessed a vicious and cruel streak,
particularly towards those of his fellow Somalis who did not immediately and
openly support him in his aim of getting rid of the foreigners on Somali soil.
The Mullah’s name was Mahomed Bin Abdulla Hassan, a Somali
who declared himself to be the expected Mahdi (Guided One) and who declared
jihad or religious war against the foreign occupiers of Somaliland. By a combination of strength of personality,
military prowess, cruelty and guile the Mullah continued to survive despite
five British military expeditions having been mounted against him and his
followers who were named Dervishes. In
1910 the British authorities had, in desperation and in order to cut costs in a
territory that had no integral wealth, adopted a ‘Coastal Concentration’ policy
whereby the Mullah was left to roam the interior at will whilst the British
defended the coastal ports with Indian troops from the Aden Garrison.
In 1911 in an attempt to halt the anarchy spreading
throughout the Protectorate an armed force was re-constituted, the previous
local force, 6th King’s African Rifles, having been disbanded in
1910. The new organisation was a local
camel-mounted police force named the Somali Constabulary. The Constabulary was not a military unit but
regrettably it was used as one against a strong Dervish force in 1913 when the
Dervishes killed the British commander and defeated the Constabulary detachment
that opposed them in an action at Dul Madoba, south-east of Burao.
The Somaliland Camel Corps
That defeat led to a re-appraisal of what was needed, and
a new unit named the Somaliland Camel Corps (SCC) was raised, and was
categorised as being a military unit within the King’s African Rifles. The SCC was designed to enforce government
policies in the interior, and after an attempt to recruit Sudanese and Arab
soldiers had failed it was eventually composed of:
Two 150-man strong companies of
One 150-man company of Somalis mounted on
One 150-man company of camel-mounted
soldiers seconded from the Indian Army.
250 infantry soldiers seconded from the
Indian Army and used primarily for garrison duties in the interior.
The Somali companies had one machine gun
each and the Indian mounted company had two machine guns.
The Somaliland Camel Corps garrisoned Burao (military
headquarters), Las Dureh and Sheikh. A
Temporary Contingent of 150 Sepoys from Aden
garrisoned the chief town and port in the Protectorate, Berbera, and one or two
of the minor ports. Experienced and
proven European and Indian officers were seconded from both the British and
Left: An Indian Camel Rider
The soldiers wore a khaki puggree (cloth head dress
looking like a turban), a greenish-brown singlet, khaki shorts and blue puttees
(cloth gaiters covering the lower legs).
Initially the mounted Somalis did not wear boots. This dress provided excellent camouflage in
the dry, dusty, thorn-bush scrub that covered much of Somaliland. Somali ponies were used and apart from one
company mounted on Arab camels all the other riding camels were Egyptian. The leather saddlery for camels was the Bikaner pattern from India
whilst the pony saddlery came from England.
The men were armed with modern short-pattern rifles and
extra-long bayonets to compensate for the short length of the rifle. Initially rifle magazine-loading was not
taught, as single-shot loading conserved ammunition in situations when there
were no supply columns to quickly replenish ammunition expenditure. Ammunition was standard British military
issue and tampering with the bullet-heads to produce a ‘dum-dum’ expansion
effect was prohibited. Each mounted man
carried 260 rounds in his saddlebag and another 140 in three bandoliers worn
around the waist and across both shoulders.
The mounted men carried a water bottle and animal watering
gear; a haversack; two water chaguls (skin or canvas containers – carried by
camels only); a blanket; a waterproof sheet; a Gudimo (bush axe); a hobble;
rations for man and beast for 5 days; and in the bottle and chaguls water for
himself for 3 days. To ensure that the
pony men could react and move quickly their reserves of water, food and ammunition
were distributed amongst the camels. The
Somalis were used to living frugally on camel milk and a few dates if
necessary, and when thirsty they often relished drinking spring or well water
that was so brackish, saline or polluted by stock that the Europeans could not
Above: Map of British Somaliland's strategic location
The forts at
By 1914 the Mullah was no longer a young fleet-footed hawk
of the desert, and he had both physical and mental impairments. It was believed that in his youth the Mullah
had received surgery on his head by a tribal doctor, and that resulted in an
unsettled temperament; as he grew older a disease such as elephantiasis appears
to have afflicted him, leading to obesity.
But whatever the reasons, the Mullah had decided to follow a more static
and less-mobile lifestyle.
The Dervishes brought over experienced builders and masons
to construct fortresses that could withstand attacks by the British weapons
that so far had been deployed against them.
A massive fort was built at Tale, east of Jidballi and near the Italian
border, but of more concern to the British were six small but strong forts
built at Shimber Berris at the head of the Ain
Valley that led into the large Nogal Valley. The stone fort walls were nearly 4 metres
wide at the base and the three largest structures were each up to 9 metres
high, with overhanging galleries supported by strong timber baulks. These forts were extensively loop-holed to
allow defensive rifle fire to cover all the surrounding ground. The forts could each hold 50 or more
defenders and were sited to cover the approaches to Shimber Berris. Below the forts was a very steep-sided valley
a kilometre wide; at the valley base was the Shimber Berris well and the three
smaller forts that guarded it. The steep
valley sides were honeycombed with caves that provided good defensive positions
and concealment for Dervish snipers.
Above: Firing at Dervish snipers in caves below
Shimber Berris was used as a base that allowed the
Dervishes to raid the herds of tribesmen friendly to the British who occupied
the region nearer the Somaliland coast. On 12th March 1914 a Dervish party
even raided the Somali residential and trading area of Berbera, compelling the
British authorities to respond.
The first attack
on Shimber Berris
In November 1914 a force was organised to attack the
Dervishes at Shimber Berris. The British
troop dispositions in Somaliland were:
Garrisoned by 150 Sepoys of the 75th Carnatic Infantry from Aden (the Indian
Las Dureh. Garrisoned by 100 infantry Sepoys of the
Indian Contingent SCC.
Garrisoned by 50 infantry Sepoys of the Indian Contingent SCC.
Concentrated here were:
Force Headquarters commanded by
Lieutenant Colonel T. A. Cubbitt DSO, Royal Artillery;
‘A’ Company SCC – 100 Indian soldiers on
the two Somali camel companies and the one
Somali pony company (a total of 450 men);
the remaining 100 infantry Sepoys of the
SCC as Burao garrison;
the SCC Depot Company (50 Somalis).
Cubitt’s offensive column left Burao on 17th
November and two days later was within 5 kilometres of Shimber Berris before
the Dervishes realised that it posed a threat.
The column’s animals were placed in a zareba (enclosure made of felled
thorn bushes) on top of the ridge that was being used for the advance, and a
guard of 200 men stayed with the animals.
The three larger forts were visible, two on the ridge to Cubitt’s front
and one on another spur; as yet the British were unaware of the small forts
below that guarded the Shimber Berris wells.
Cubitt ordered Lieutenant C.A.L. Howard, 32nd
Lancers, Indian Army, to charge the nearest fort with his dismounted ‘A’
Company Indian Sepoys; this fort was secured, primarily because its standing
garrison was taken by surprise and did not man the defences. But the next fort to be attacked, by Captain
A. Carton de Wiart, 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards, and his
dismounted ‘C’ Company of Somalis, proved to be a much tougher
proposition. The defenders were ready
and there was no easy access into the fort.
Heavy machine gun fire supported the attackers but three British charges
failed to get inside the fort; all the British junior officers joined in the
final charge. Carton de Wiart was
severely wounded in an eye, which he later lost, and Captain H.W. Symons,
King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, was shot dead whilst within a metre of the
fort doorway. Major A.S. Lawrence, 1st
County of London Yeomanry, received an arm
wound. Throughout these charges the
Dervish defenders taunted their attackers.
Above: Sketch map showing Shimber Berris
Two Somalis distinguished themselves during this first
attack and they were both later mentioned in despatches. No. 329 Lance Corporal Gudali Elmi was
wounded in the first charge but he gallantly joined the later charges until he
was forced to retire through loss of blood.
No. 196 Private Handulla Ismail led two charges against the door of the
fort and was wounded in the final attack.
Cubitt realised that he was under-resourced for this kind
of fighting and he withdrew his force and camped at Little Bohotle 13
kilometres to the south. The Dervishes
did not interfere with Cubitt’s retirement as they were licking their many
wounds from the machine gun fire that had entered fort loopholes, and were
re-organising themselves. Meanwhile a
messenger was speeding to Burao to order that one of the two 7-pounder mountain
guns there be despatched as fast as possible to Cubitt’s camp. In past encounters with the Dervishes these
old guns had been packed on or pulled by camels, and had figured prominently as
the only artillery pieces permanently in Somaliland. Why Cubitt, himself a horse-gunner, did not
initially deploy one or both guns with his column is not known, but probably he
had little idea of the strength of the Dervish forts until he saw them.
From Burao Jemadar Feroze Khan of the 56th
Punjabi Rifles, Indian Contingent SCC, rapidly marched a camel-mounted gun and
40 Sepoys to the British camp; the Naik (local Havildar) in charge of the gun
was No. 293 Shan Khan, 76th Punjabis, Indian Contingent SCC. The gun arrived on the evening of 21st
November and on the 23rd Cubitt ordered Captain H.C. Dobbs, 124th
Duchess of Connaught’s Own Baluchistan Infantry, Indian Army, to attack all
three visible forts using the gun and two dismounted SCC Companies. Again the first fort was seized without a
fight, and this time the second fort was abandoned after a few artillery rounds
had been fired at it from 500 metres range.
The approach to the third fort was difficult as a detour of over 6
kilometres had to be made around ravines, but again a few rounds into the fort
walls from very close range, and one through an observation slit, made the
garrison flee. Later interrogation of
captured Dervishes found that although the artillery rounds hitting the forts
were not killing or wounding the defenders, the concussive effects of the
bombardments significantly demoralised them.
Later the Mullah further significantly demoralised these unfortunates by
castrating them for deserting their posts.
The gun then engaged a small fort that could be seen 250
metres below in the valley, and the defenders there fled once Shan Khan started
hitting the walls and roof. By now
Cubitt had several badly wounded officers and men on his hands but no doctor
with him, and he did not have the explosives needed to properly demolish all
the forts and blockhouses, so he withdrew his force to Burao. Within two weeks the Dervishes re-occupied
all their defensive structures, but the Mullah ensured that only fresh men were
in the new garrison. Cubitt had lost 1
officer and 5 Somalis killed, and 2 officers, 1 Indian Sepoy and 24 Somalis
wounded; several of the wounds were serious.
Over 21,000 rounds of rifle ammunition, over 10,000 rounds of machine
gun rounds and 34 artillery shells had been fired. Cubitt had achieved as much as he could with
the resources in his column; in his after-action report he commented that
explosives and specialists were needed, and any future attacking column would
need to occupy the Shimber Berris area for four or five days in order for all
the structures to be effectively demolished.
Awards for the
For the gallantry that he had displayed when attacking on
19th November Captain Adrian
Carton de Wiart (left) was admitted to be a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order.
Jemadar Feroze Khan and Naik (Local Havildar) Shan Khan
both received Indian Distinguished
Service Medals. Feroze Khan had been
prominent in the seizing of the three forts on 23rd November.
Mentioned in Despatches were:
G.H. Summers, 26th (King George’s Own) Light Cavalry. Captain H.C. Dobbs, 124th Duchess
of Connaught’s Own Baluchistan Light Infantry.
H.W. Symons, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (killed).
J.W. Hornby, 12th Lancers.
329 Lance Corporal Gudali Elmi and 196 Private Handulla Ismail, both SCC. Jemadar Feroze Khan, 56th Punjabi
Rifles, and No. 293 Naik (Local Havildar), 76th Punjabis, both of
the Indian Contingent Somaliland Camel Corps.
the second move against Shimber Berris
headquarters was sympathetic to requests made by Cubitt and Captain W.A.H.
Bird, 23rd Sikh Pioneers, Indian Army, was despatched to Somaliland with 29 of his Pioneers, gun cotton explosive
and hand grenades. Bird and his men
arrived at Burao on 29th January 1915, allowing Cubitt to advance a
force against the Shimber Berris fortifications on the following day.
This time preparations were made to allow a longer stay on
the objective. A Medical Officer,
Lieutenant R.E. Drake-Brockman, Royal Army Medical Corps, accompanied the
column; Lieutenant H.B. Davidson, 10th Goorkha Rifles, Indian Army,
was the Transport Officer and Lieutenant G.J.J. Johnston, 32nd
Lancers, Indian Army, commanded the Water Column. Cubitt’s principal staff officers were
unchanged: Brevet Major G.H. Summers, 26th (King George’s Own) Light
Cavalry, Indian Army, and Captain H.L. Ismay, 21st Prince Albert
Victor’s Own Cavalry (Frontier Force), (Daly’s Horse), Indian Army. His Majesty’s Commissioner and
Commander-in-Chief Somaliland Protectorate, G.F. Archer, accompanied the force.
Cubitt prepared two columns. The Mounted Column of 12 officers, 357 men, 5
machine guns and 5 days’ rations moved with 388 riding camels and 38 ponies;
because of insufficient water on the route the remainder of the Pony Company
SCC were dismounted. The Dismounted
Column marched with 5 officers, 324 men, two 7-pounder guns, 1 machine gun, 8
ponies, 222 transport camels (8 of these camels being spares), and 6 days’
rations. As always in Somaliland
irregular pony-mounted scouts named Illalos were employed for reconnaissance
and flank protection duties. Irregular
riflemen from friendly tribes were engaged to garrison staging points and the
objective after its capture.
To provide the necessary water at Ber, a staging point
about half-way between Burao and Shimber Berris, 18 new wells were dug in
advance. The tanks of water carried on
the Water Column transport camels each held nearly 38 litres when full but the
cans inevitably leaked. The water ration
was: British Officers – 4 to a tank; Indians and Somalis of all ranks – 10 to a
tank; ponies – 4 to a tank. Camels were
watered when it was available from wells.
The standard load for a transport camel weighed 145
kilograms; all these camels were hired locally at Burao along with one
attendant for each three camels. Six
camels (plus two of the spares held ready for emergencies) carried the two
7-pounder guns whilst nine others carried 250 artillery shells; nine camels
carried the force reserve rifle and machine gun ammunition and nine other
camels carried the Pioneers’ explosives and tools.
The second attack
on Shimber Berris
On 2nd February 1915 Cubitt concentrated his
force five kilometres from Shimber Berris.
He had to destroy the top three forts before he could go down into the
valley below to destroy the small forts near the well; this job was made easy
as the top forts were not occupied, but the new foundations of a much larger
fort were discovered on the ridge. The
Dervishes had obviously hoped that the new fort, when completed, would
withstand artillery shells. Whilst the
Sikh Pioneers demolished the top forts the Dervishes sniped from caves below
Right: Lance Naik Mohamed Khan
The morning of the following day was spent in moving the
entire British force around to the other side of the valley in order to use a
track that led down to Shimber Berris well.
Friendly tribesmen secured the ridgeline and the nearest water
holes. Once down in the valley Cubitt
could see that two small forts overlooked and flanked the water course and a
third central one commanded the far end; Dervish snipers were also manning many
of the caves that were now above the British troops on both sides of the
valley. Whilst the two 7-pounder guns
engaged the central fort the flanking forts were each attacked by a SSC
company. Both flanking forts were
captured by 1500 hours; they were not destroyed but used as cover for riflemen
and machine gunners who supported attacks on the caves that the two attacking
companies now made.
By 1600 hours many Dervishes could be seen fleeing from
the caves and the remaining fort. Cubitt
ordered a company to charge the fort, which it did, but it could not gain
access. Whilst the company riflemen and
supporting machine gunners provided covering fire the Sikh Pioneers laid
charges at the fort doorway. Effective
fire came from the fort’s remaining defenders making the Pioneers’ work
extremely hazardous. Two men of the 23rd
Sikh Pioneers were later awarded the Indian
Order of Merit, 2nd Class, for the gallantry that they
No. 4392 Naik Sher Singh’s citation read: For bravery in action on the 4th
February 1915 at Shimberberris, Somaliland. In placing a charge of gun-cotton against the
door of a fort, he was knocked over and rendered practically insensible by the
discharge of dervish rifles through the door, but after getting clear, he
returned and placed the box in the correct place.
The citation for No. 4584 Havildar Teja Singh read: For
bravery in action on the 4th February 1915 at Shimberberris, Somaliland. He
followed Naik Sher Singh to the door of a fort and coolly placed a charge of
gun cotton, arranged fuzes correctly, fired the charge and enabled the
demolition to be carried out successfully.
The effect of the explosives collapsed the top half of the
fort onto the bottom half, burying and killing the 10 brave Dervish defenders
who had remained to fight it out.
Concurrently Lieutenant Howard and his ‘A’ (Indian) Company SCC were
grenading and clearing the caves on the slopes above; whilst engaged in this
activity Howard was wounded. Cubitt
ordered the two flanking forts to be demolished, and after the dust had settled
on those explosions the force withdrew to a zareba.
Left: Jemadar Mohamed Yacub
Whilst the Illalos had behaved as ordered the friendly
tribesmen had come down off the ridge-lines during the cave clearances in
attempts to get hold of Dervish rifles, and the presence of these friendlies
had hampered Howard’s men. But next
morning when the force returned to the battleground all the caves were found to
be empty of live Dervishes, although the bodies of 32 men were found there,
including those of the Dervish commander and his second-in-command. Cubitt had lost three Other Ranks killed and
three officers and ten other ranks wounded.
Captain W. Lowry-Corry, 23rd Cavalry (Frontier Force), Indian
Army, was one of those severely wounded.
No. 146 Private Ismail Abokr SCC was later mentioned in despatches for
carrying a wounded officer, probably Lowry-Corry, to safety. Only dead Dervishes remained under the rubble
of the demolished forts.
The conclusion of
the Shimber Berris actions
Cubitt marched his force back to Burao, leaving a garrison
of friendly tribesmen at Shimber Berris.
The platoon of gallant 23rd Sikh Pioneers returned to their regiment in Aden. Morale in British
Somaliland was now high and groups of determined Illalos prevented
the Dervishes from encroaching forward of their position at Jidballi, 100
kilometres to the east of Shimber Berris.
The SCC was recognised as being an effectively trained and disciplined
fighting force; nevertheless the Indian Contingent was to provide a vital
professional stiffening to the Somaliland Camel Corps for many years to come.
Awards for the second
Apart from the Indian Orders of Merit already mentioned,
Major and Temporary Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Astley Cubitt DSO, Royal
Artillery, was awarded the Brevet rank
of Lieutenant Colonel.
The Mentions in Despatches were:
W.A.H. Bird; No. 4392 Naik Sher Singh and No. 4584 Havildar Teja Singh, all of
the 23rd Sikh Pioneers.
C.A.L. Howard, 32nd Lancers.
Brevet Major G.H. Summers, 26th (King George’s Own) Light
Cavalry. Captain H.L. Ismay, 21st
Prince Albert Victor’s Own Cavalry (Frontier Force). Colour-Serjeant Gabobi Ali; No. 128 Private
Hassan Ali and No. 146 Private Ismael Abokr, all SCC.
The Africa General Service Medal
not considered to be a theatre of the Great War, but a new Africa General Service
Medal was struck in 1916, with the head of King George V replacing that of King
Edward VII; the medal ribbon did not alter.
A clasp to this medal titled SHIMBER
BERRIS 1914-15 was authorised for those who had been in the field
during Cubitt’s actions at Shimber Berris.
Of the 821 clasps issued, 306 were awarded to members of the Indian
Contingent SCC, the remainder going to Somalis and the European officers. Today this medal and clasp is sought after by
collectors, and is rarely seen at auction.
Right: Centre small fort after a charge had been blown