I was recently browsing in a local bookshop when I picked up a book of short stories
called Tales from the Outposts which had been originally published in Blackwood’s
In a story called The People without a Pillow written by “Zeres” I recognised the hero
named Ian Ross as none other than Mr Allan Gibb, DCM, as he then was, in his capacity as
an Assistant District Officer stationed at Zeila on the north coast of British Somaliland in
1911. This clue and the word ‘dead 1922’ alongside his name on the medal roll for his
clasp for Somaliland 1920, coupled with information that there had been a civil disturbance
in Somaliland in 1922, indicated that, despite a complete absence of service records on this
man, there had to be a good story, and the PRO records on the Somaliland Protectorate
provided the missing links.
This remarkable man joined Colonel Swayne’s first expedition against the Mad Mullah in 1901
at the age of 23 as an armourer sergeant only to be murdered 21 years later by hostile
tribesmen when he was District Commissioner, Burao.
His group of four medals which surfaced recently is of considerable historical
importance. The DSO and DCM, linked to the Africa General Service medal with all six
clasps to British Somaliland (1901-20), and the War Medal (1914-20) for active service
against the Mad Mullah for which no clasps to the AGS were awarded, represent 20 years
of continuous active service in both a military and a civilian capacity. Gibb was the
only European, and one of only two, who was awarded all six clasps, the other being
Risaldar-Major Farah al Somal.
Allan Gibb was born on 28 December 1877, the son of a butler, in the parish of
Corstorphine in Edinburgh. He was apprenticed to a firm of gunmakers in Frederick Street
and joined the Volunteers around 1898. In 1900 he decided to make his career in the army,
and he duly enlisted in the Army Ordnance Corps. Skilled armourers were much in
demand and he was soon earmarked for overseas service in Ashanti. Due to an accident his
posting was cancelled and instead he arrived a year later in Somaliland in April 1901 as a
Sergeant armourer instructor.
He subsequently took part in the engagements at Erigo in 1902, when he was mentioned
in despatches for repairing a Maxim under hot fire, and again for his bravery at Daratolleh
in 1903. He was also mentioned in the official history of the operations in Somaliland for
his role at Jidballi in 1904.
Of the action at Daratolleh, Lt Colonel R E Drake-Brockman wrote in an appreciation
of his life in The Times, ‘His gallantry on all occasions, but particularly during the rearguard
action in which Colonel John Gough and two other officers received the Victoria
Cross, earned for him in his humble capacity of a non-commissioned officer the DCM, but
I have heard on good authority that no-one on that day earned the coveted VC more than
Allan Gibb’. In an obituary notice in The Scotsman it stated that he had been recommended
for the highest military honour and in yet another reference to his feat of arms on that day
there is a snippet written by the then Governor of Somaliland in 1911 on an internal memo
prior to his secondment to the Camel Corps, which reads ‘In view of Gibb’s excellent
military record, he saved a British force all by coolly sticking to his Maxim ...’, and in
another memo ‘we are pledged to Gibb’.
The next mention of Gibb is that he proceeded on leave to the UK in 1905 as a
Sergeant-Major. The medal roll for his fourth clasp to his AGS medal for Somaliland
1908-10 lists him as a Lieut Quartermaster with 6th Bn. (Somaliland) KAR when he would
have been about 30. When 6 KAR was disbanded Gibb was in a sense time-expired and
redundant, having served for nearly 10 years with a colonial force. However, the Secretary
of State for the Colonies, the Rt Hon Lewis Harcourt, approved Gibb’s appointment as an
Assistant District Officer, despite the fact that all government agencies had been
withdrawn from the interior, but more significantly to retain his valuable services in
Somaliland. When in 1912 it was decided to form the Camel Constabulary under Richard
Corfield, Gibb was asked to be his second-in command. When Gibb was on leave in 1913,
Corfield and the Constabulary had a confrontation with the Mad Mullah’s followers at
Magala Yer and Corfield and many of the Constabulary were killed.
It was then decided to form a Camel Corps under military command for the purpose of
re-establishing the Government’s authority in the interior. There was little active service in
the Empire at that time and competition was keen for secondment to Somaliland by both
British and Indian Army officers. Gibb, now a District Officer, remained as a civilian still
on secondment and was appointed a civilian company commander, which in any
circumstances must have been an unusual appointment.
Gibb was involved in both actions at Shimber Berris in 1914 and in 1915. He was
mentioned in Colonel Cubitt’s despatch and in the Governor’s despatch forwarded to the
Colonial Office - ‘From beginning to end there was no hitch of any sort and it is due to the
capable handling of the CO and his staff and the excellent leading by the Company
Commanders responsible, Capt Breading, Mr Gibb and Lt Eales, that the casualty list was
kept so low as it was.’ At this point it was decided to make Gibb a local Captain in the
Camel Corps, and thus rectify his somewhat anomalous position as a civilian company
commander. His appointment on 20 August 1915 was backdated to 16 September 1914.
He continued to serve in the Camel Corps on secondment from the administration, as
did other regular army officers who were refused permission to serve in other theatres of war; until 1918 when he was duly reabsorbed but now with the rank of District
Commissioner and stationed at Burao in the interior. At the same time he was informed
that his entire service in Somaliland would count towards his civil pension, a rather
unusual gesture from a normally penny-pinching Colonial Office, but it highlighted the
appreciation of the authorities for his outstanding services. When the time came to launch
the final offensive against the Mad Mullah in 1920 Gibb was given command of the tribal
levy comprising some 1500 persons, which was to work in close liaison with the Camel
Corps. Once again Gibb distinguished himself and although the Mullah just eluded him, he
captured his headquarters at Taleh and played his part in the complete rout of the Mullah’s
forces. For his services he received one of the three DSO’s awarded for this campaign and
this in distinguished company.
He returned to his civilian duties in 1920 and in the following year led a delegation of
distinguished Somalis to Aden to be presented to the Prince of Wales, who was en route to
India for his Indian tour. Towards the end of December 1921 he settled compensation
claims with representatives of a Royal Italian Commission as a result of intertribal fighting
on the Anglo-Italian border. Only a few weeks later, on 24 February 1922, he was murdered
by tribesmen at the Burao Station headquarters as the direct result of wild protests made
against Government proposals to institute a levy to assist in the cost of opening schools,
since none existed at that time due to the nomadic existence of these tribes. His death had
far reaching effects. The Governor’s despatches covered every aspect surrounding his death,
for the Governor had been taking tea with Gibb in his bungalow at Burao a quarter or an
hour before his death in company with Risaldar-Major Farah al Somal. The Governor had
lent his car to Gibb to enable him to take appropriate action. Unfortunately, although
warned by a Corporal of the Somali Camel Corps, in mufti, not to go ahead, he unwisely
albeit gallantly went alone to confront the frenzied mob. This time it was a reaction aimed
specifically at the Government which Gibb represented. Gibb must have realised too late
that this was not the time for heroics and one rifle shot put paid to his life. The Government
authorities reacted and RAF planes from Aden flew over the area a few days later.
Gibb’s body was taken to Sheikh where he now lies buried. On 5 March 1922 the
Governor called in the tribe concerned with the killing and imposed a fine of 3000 camels
for Gibb’s death (tribal custom and law allows for the payment of 100 camels for murder).
He also informed them that the Burao station, except for the mosque, would be bombed
and burnt by the RAF. This drastic action and the unprecedented fine well illustrated the
importance given to the law and order aspect but in part represented the reaction of the
authorities to the death of Gibb.
On 14 March 1922, replying to a question in the House of Commons, Mr Winston
Churchill, as Secretary of State for the Colonies, gave a detailed account of the action
which was being taken and mentioned Gibb by name as an officer of long and valued
service to Somaliland whose loss he deeply regretted. Hansard
There is only one known photograph of Gibb (though no doubt others exist) and a
sketch of him behind his Maxim at Daratolleh. It was acknowledged ‘that no British officer
has ever had such a wonderful insight into the Somali character nor presented so sound a
colloquial knowledge of the Somali language’. Gibb who was a bachelor had been
completely dedicated to his work with the Somalis and in his continuous travelling in the
interior, under sometimes appalling conditions, he must have faced danger and hardships
too numerous to mention.
And now a further word to this brief account of Allan Gibb and it goes back to the
action of Daratolleh in 1903. From a detailed study of this action, a list of all officers
present, and the reading of the citations for the Victoria Crosses and what was not recorded
by the untimely death of Maude, the Argus correspondent, there is the strong supposition that but for Gibb, working under terrible conditions and in that thorn bush country, there
would have been not only no survivors from the rearguard but few survivors, if any, from
the main body. What Gibb had prevented was a repetition of the action at Gumburu in early
1903, when a force composed of 231 officers and other ranks of the 2nd Bn. (Nyasaland)
KAR in similar circumstances were virtually wiped out save for a handful of survivors.
Both Drake-Brockman, a doctor of many years’ service in Somaliland, and the Acting
Commissioner in 1911, acknowledge that Gibb did something very special on that day and
he can be considered extremely unlucky not to have received the Victoria Cross in
company with the three officers so honoured.
What Gibb effectively accomplished in the rearguard action at Daratolleh was to physically
move his maxim alternatively from the left face to the right face whilst being attacked from
both sides. “Geeb” as he was known by the Somals was buried at Sheikh and not at Burao
for security reasons. I have a coloured photograph of his unmarked gravestone which lies
under the shade of a tree near the edge of a dry river bed with goats and donkeys grazing
nearby. Gibb is also remembered in both poem and film as is Richard Corfield, the more
widely known District Officer, buried with his servants in unmarked graves at Magalla
Yer. Unfortunately the continued unrest and the lack of diplomatic representation in
Somalia since 1991 have made tying up loose ends virtually impossible.