Finest Hour 163, Summer 2014
By William John Shepherd
Churchill and the Mad Mullah of Somaliland: Betrayal and Redemption 1899-1921, by Roy Irons. Pen & Sword, 238 pages, £19.99, $39.95.
Churchill’s role in the 1907 campaign in Somaliland, against Mohammed Abdille (or Abdullah) Hassan, the rebellious so-called “Mad Mullah,” has been understated. It was scarcely mentioned by Churchill in his memoirs, or in the 1923 standard work on the subject, by colonial administrator Sir Douglas Jardine. Irons corrects this with elegant writing and pithy chapter epigrams from western luminaries, including Churchill (referred to throughout as “The Giant”) and even from the Book of Ecclesiastes. He provides excellent maps and photographs, a comprehensive bibliography, and extensive endnotes sourcing letters and reports of contemporaries including serving British officers.
The British Empire’s extensive trade routes, maintained by the Royal Navy, included the port of Berbera in northern Somaliland. Here the inhabitants, devout Muslims with powerful oral traditions, belonged to patriarchal clans which constantly engaged in feuds. The “Mad Mullah” was a radical Sunni preacher, so named by his more moderate countrymen, though his followers called him “Sayyid” or Master. Responding to his resistance, British officers led Somali levies augmented by Sikhs from India and former enemies like the Sudanese and Boers. They inflicted massive casualties on the Mullah’s followers, though he always escaped, often hiding in Italian Somaliland.
In 1907, Churchill, then Britain’s Undersecretary for Colonies, wrote a memo described by Irons as “disastrous” (93), arguing that Britain withdraw to a coastal line of ports based on Berbera. This policy was carried out in 1910 after Colonial Secretary Lord Crewe won approval from the Cabinet, including Prime Minister Asquith. It was, says Irons, a forerunner of Munich—a betrayal under the guise of prudence, morally equivalent to forsaking Czechoslovakia in 1938. But Irons grossly overstates Churchill’s responsibility for the decision, taken two years after he had left the Colonial Office, while ignoring those responsible in 1910: Asquith, Crewe and the Cabinet.
Following World War I, the government considered eliminating the newly formed Royal Air Force (RAF), owing to financial concerns and the advent of peace. The Chief of the Air Staff, Hugh Trenchard, whom the author cleverly calls “Deus Ex Machina,” offered the RAF as a minimalist force, which he was certain could manage colonial wars cheaper than the army. British Somaliland was the demonstration case. Under bizarre circumstances evocative of the television series “Yes, Minister,” the Air Ministry won approval from Prime Minister Lloyd George and the Cabinet, well aware that the War Office would not object, since Churchill headed both War and Air.
Accordingly, in 1920, the RAF’s “Z Force,” supported by ground troops, assaulted and destroyed the Mullah’s power base, returning relative peace to British Somaliland and preserving the RAF as an independent entity. (Mohammed Abdille Hassan escaped yet again, but died a few months later from influenza.)
Though this is a well-written military history, Irons vastly overstates Churchill’s influence before World War I and argues unconvincingly that this early “betrayal” in his career prompted Churchill to redeem himself in 1920 by taking down the Mullah, and in the 1930s by opposing Nazism. This is a fundamental misreading of Churchill, a lifelong opponent of tyranny in all its forms.
Mr. Shepherd is Associate Archivist of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.