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The EK1

The raising and first operations of the Somaliland Camel Corps November 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 page HERE

British Somaliland in 1914

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 camel-mounted Somalis.

§        One 150-man company of Somalis mounted on ponies.

§        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 Indian Armies.

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 stomach it.

Above: Map of British Somaliland's strategic location

The forts at Shimber Berris

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 from Yemen 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:

Berbera.  Garrisoned by 150 Sepoys of the 75th Carnatic Infantry from Aden (the Indian Temporary Contingent).

Las Dureh.  Garrisoned by 100 infantry Sepoys of the Indian Contingent SCC.

Sheikh.  Garrisoned by 50 infantry Sepoys of the Indian Contingent SCC.

Burao.  Concentrated here were:

·        Force Headquarters commanded by Lieutenant Colonel T. A. Cubbitt DSO, Royal Artillery;

·        ‘A’ Company SCC – 100 Indian soldiers on camels;

·        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 first action

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.

Personnel Mentioned in Despatches were:

Major G.H. Summers, 26th (King George’s Own) Light Cavalry.  Captain H.C. Dobbs, 124th Duchess of Connaught’s Own Baluchistan Light Infantry.

Captain H.W. Symons, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (killed).

Lieutenant J.W. Hornby, 12th Lancers.

No. 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.


Preparations for the second move against Shimber Berris

Aden military 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 the plateau.

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 displayed:

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 action

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:

Captain W.A.H. Bird; No. 4392 Naik Sher Singh and No. 4584 Havildar Teja Singh, all of the 23rd Sikh Pioneers.

Lieutenant 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

Somaliland was 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

(An edited version of this article appeared in a recent edition of the Journal of the Anglo-Somali Society )   SOURCES: (most economical shown)

Archer, G.F.: Despatch dated 20th February 1915. (London Gazette Supplement, Number 29690, pages 7631-34, dated 2 August 1916 online here: ).

Archer, Sir Geoffrey, KCMG: Personal & Historical Memoirs of an East African Administrator. (Oliver & Boyd, London 1963).

Carton de Wiart, Sir Adrian: Happy Odyssey. (Pen & Sword Military reprint).

Chhina, Rana: The Indian Distinguished Service Medal. (Invicta India 2001).

Digest of History of Somaliland Camel Corps, King’s African Rifles. (The National Archives, London Reference: WO 106/272).

Duckers, Peter: Reward of Valour. The Indian Order of Merit, 1914-1918. (Jade Publishing Limited, Oldham 1999).

Hayward J, Birch D, and Bishop R: British Battles and Medals. (Spink, London 2006).

Ismay, General The Lord: The Memoirs of General The Lord Ismay. (Heinemann 1960).

Ismay Papers in The Liddell Collection, Leeds University, England.

Jardine, Douglas OBE: The Mad Mullah of Somaliland. (Naval & Military Press re-print and available on-line here: ).

Lucas, Sir Charles: The Empire at War. (Oxford University Press 1921).

Magor, R.B.: African General Service Medals. (Naval & Military Press, London 1993).

Moyse-Bartlett, Lieutenant Colonel H.: The King’s African Rifles. (Gale & Polden Ltd., Aldershot 1956 or obtain a reprint from Naval & Military Press).

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