The 1st Hampshire in Aden and Somaliland, 1903
Britain first occupied Aden in 1839 and over the following decades extended its authority over the coastal tribes from Sheik Saad at the entrance to the Red Sea eastwards. Turkish influence also extended into Southern Arabia, and in 1872 the Turks occupied the Yemen, bringing them to the ill-defined border of the British sphere of influence.
In an attempt to regularise the situation an Anglo-Turkish Boundary Commission was set up in 1902, but made little progress. The Turks then occupied Jalela and other villages on the British side of the boundary while, at the same time, tribesmen in the Aden hinterland became increasingly turbulent, intercepting mail and generally causing trouble.
To counter these threats, three companies of the 1st Hampshire under Major Lewis Munro were sent from India to Aden in January 1903. Headquarters and two further companies followed at the end of the month. By early February all five companies had been dispatched 70 miles inland from the port of Aden to Dtahala, the major town in the disputed area. As the British advanced the Turks withdrew into their own territory, and for a time it seemed no fighting would occur. Two Hampshire companies were sent to occupy Darrakan, west of Dthala, but the place proved to be rife with malaria and several men died before the units withdrew.
Meanwhile, Arab unrest intensified, fuelled by a dislike of foreign troops on their soil. Tribesmen raided small convoys and sniped at the army camps, prompting the British to instigate punitive operations. These took the form of small columns sent out to destroy the offending Arab villages and to exact retribution. However, the columns found themselves operating in desolate country with little water and the Hampshire men were relieved when most moved back to Aden in May 1903. Aden, too, proved intolerably hot and officers who kept ponies had to pay for their water. Meanwhile, men who chose to bathe to keep cool had to beware of sharks.
Those troops that remained in the Aden hinterland were occupied mainly in building roads and escorting surveying parties. However, they were also involved in further fierce skirmishes with Arab tribesmen which inevitably led to more punitive expeditions.
The most serious fighting, against the particularly troublesome Kotaibis, took place in October 1903. A 1,500-strong Kotaibi force attacked a British post at Sulaiq, held by a small party of some British Indian soldiers. Two companies of the 1st Hampshire plus the headquarters were on their way from Aden to Dthala when the attack on Sulaiq took place and 100 men under Captain Arthur Beckwith were detached to join the relief column. This force successfully dislodged the Kotaibis around Sulaiq.
Beckwith’s party, brought up to 250 rifles by the arrival of another detachment under Lieutenant Peter Connellan, then joined a mobile column which pursued the Kotaibis into the hills, capturing the village of Kariati in a night attack on 2nd November. The column then spent several days in punitive operations, mainly blowing up towers, and over the following week inflicted a series of defeats on the Kotaibis. Several more villages were destroyed, but the Kotaibis, by now wary of engaging the British at close quarters, confined themselves to long distance sniping.
Battalion headquarters remained at Dthala until the end of December when it shifted to El Mileh and from there in January to Musemir, a fever-stricken village of mud huts in Wadi Tiba. Malaria was rife and, despite daily doses of quinine, nearly everyone there contracted the disease. By the time the Hampshires returned to the coast again in February malaria had cost the battalion 30 men. In May 1904, when the battalion was medically inspected and the Medical Officer walked between the ranks and fell out men suffering from malaria, many were actually shaking with it as they stood. So it was without regret when, on 29th May 1904, the battalion’s five companies, ten officers and 424 other ranks left Aden for home.
British operations in Somaliland were on a larger scale than those in Aden. The Anglo-Somali War or the Dervish War was a series of military expeditions which took place in the Horn of Africa between 1900 and 1920. They pitted the Dervishes led by Mohammed Abdullah Hassan (nicknamed the ‘Mad Mullah’, though he was neither mad nor a mullah) against the British, assisted by the Abyssinians (Ethiopians) and Italians.
The conflict began when Hassan arrived in Central Somaliland, declared himself Mahdi and began raiding British Somaliland. The British responded by mounting inconclusive expeditions in both 1901 and 1902, using primarily locally raised troops with a leavening of Indian Sepoys and Central African Askari riflemen. However, morale among the Somalis in British service slumped after the Battle of Erego during the second campaign and it was decided that for a third expedition the majority of the British troops would come from outside Somaliland.
In November 1902 Brigadier General Sir William Manning, Inspector General of the King’s African Rifles (KAR), was appointed to command a third expedition against Hassan. He immediately brought in as many KAR troops as he could obtain from Central and Eastern Africa. However, despite this the resourceful Hassan still succeeded in inflicting defeats on British detachments at Gumburu (17th April 1903) and Daratoleh (22nd April 1903), occupied the Nugal Valley in British Somaliland and forced the main British force under Sir William Manning to retreat.
Stung by these setbacks, the British replaced Manning with General Charles Egerton who painstakingly prepared a further campaign against Hassan, one in which the 1st Hampshire were heavily involved. Three companies under Major Jackson arrived in Berbera from Aden in June and were immediately dispatched some 45 miles inland to Upper Sheikh. They remained there until October while transport and water supplies were improved and a road from the coast constructed.
When operations started at the end of October, the bulk of Brigadier General C.G.M. Fasken’s 2nd Brigade, which included the Hampshire companies, advanced to Wadamago and Eil Dab at the upper end of the Nogal Valley. As they did so the 1st Brigade, composed of King’s African Rifles, moved up on its right with the intention of driving Hassan’s forces northeastwards.
A long pause then followed as the two brigades awaited the arrival of Abyssinian forces. However, when it became clear that these would not be forthcoming, Egerton decided to advance on Jidballi where Hassan’s men were gathering. Starting on 8th January 1904, the 2nd Brigade reached Badwin by evening, then covered 20 miles the next day to meet the 1st Brigade which had advanced from the southwest. On 10th January the combined force moved on Jidballi, the 52nd Sikhs leading with the Hampshire companies echeloned on their left rear.
As the British neared Jidballi on 11th January, they came under attack from Dolbaharata tribesmen, Hassan’s elite fighters. The Hampshires opened fire, ‘blazing away hard’, and within 40 minutes the enemy was in full flight with British mounted troops in pursuit. Five Hampshires were among the 60 British casualties, including Lieutenant Charles Bowden Smith who was killed in action.
The encounter at Jidballi crippled Hassan’s fighting power. To prevent him escaping southward and to force him northeastwards towards the coast where the tribes were hostile to him, the British advanced eastwards down the Nogal Valley and then up to the Sorl plateau driving Hassan before them. The 2nd Brigade then returned to Eil Dab, and after a short rest at Sheikh the Hampshires joined a column tasked with advancing eastwards through Northern Somaliland and driving Hassan out of British territory.
The advance started from Las Dureh, 70 miles south east of Berbera, on 10 March 1904. With his escape southwards blocked by the 1st Brigade, Hassan found himself pushed steadily eastwards towards Italian territory. His men never attempted to stand and fight. The British mounted troops were involved in some skirmishing but the infantry saw no action, and within three weeks Hassan had been expelled from British territory. Although the Dervish leader evaded capture it was as a mere fugitive.
The Hampshires moved to the coast down the steep Aiya pass, descending 6,000ft in ten miles. At Las Khorai they embarked for Berbera on 10th April, having covered 430 miles in just one month.
Another task now awaited them. Near the mouth of the Wadi Nogal was Illig, a small port from which Hassan’s men were raiding the country and where he had stored the booty he had managed to plunder. On 20th April a combined force of Hampshires, Marines and sailors landed by night at the mouth of the wadi, three miles north of Illig. The British made swiftly for the port and were within 600 yards of the place before the defenders – in an enclosure surrounding a small tower, partly behind a double row of stone walls – began to open fire. They had rifles and two ancient guns but these were unable to stop the advance, which went forward by short rushes with covering fire.
With the sailors blocking the enemy’s retreat, the main assault was ordered. This was successful, the Hampshires breaking into the enclosure and putting its defenders to flight. The tower held out longer, but Lance Sergeant Gawn smashed in a door with an axe and burst in, disarming three opponents, an act of gallantry that won him the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Over the following two days the Hampshires and some Marines occupied Illig while demolition parties destroyed the enclosure and surrounding walls.
With his bolthole at Illig closed, his best fighting men killed or captured and more than 10,000 of his camels taken with several hundred rifles, Hassan’s power had been effectively broken and the Somaliland Field Force could be reduced. The 1st Hampshire were awarded the Africa General Service Medal for their role in the campaign and Major Jackson received warm praise in General Egerton’s dispatches, in which Captain Deane, who had been serving with the mounted troops, and Colour Sergeant Urry were also ‘mentioned’. The Battalion finally embarked for England on 22nd June 1904 and arrived home 17 days later.
Somaliland brought to a close 20 years of foreign service for the 1st Battalion. The tour had cost the lives of seven officers – three in action – and of 230 other ranks, including three Colour Sergeants and 21 Sergeants. Their names were recorded on the memorial tablet in Winchester Cathedral unveiled by Sir William Hamilton, GOC Southern Command, in September 1907.