by G. A. SHEPHERD
This article was published in the British Yemeni Society's journal, 1993
Now that the Republic of Yemen is an united country, the way in which it was divided between British and Turkish spheres of influence will be the object of curiosity to future historians. This article records the operations mounted by the British and British Indian armies in support of the Boundary Commission set up to demarcate the border between the two parts of the Yemen.
In October 1901 the British and Turkish governments agreed that the border between the Turkish province of Yemen and the British Protectorate of Aden should be demarcated. This agreement followed a series of disputes which had culminated in the Ad Dareja incident in the previous July. Diplomacy had failed to remove a tower, erected by tribesmen owing allegiance to the Turks, in Haushabi country. It was being used as a customs post. A British expedition was despatched from Aden which, by blowing up the tower, succeeded where diplomacy had failed.
On 11th February 1902 the two Boundary Commissions met at Dhala’ for the first of many conferences. The British party was led by Colonel Wahab CIE., RE. and Lt. Colonel Abud of the Bombay Political Service, later replaced by Mr. Fitzmaurice of the British embassy at Constantinople. The Turkish Commission was headed by Colonel Mustafa Rienzi. Both sides were accompanied by surveyors and an escort of not more than 200 men.
The British Commission was surprised to find that the Turks were hostile and had seized the area in dispute. The British camp was quickly enclosed on three sides by armed Arabs who fired at anyone attempting to advance towards the border. No border delineation was possible.
In August the British government protested to the Porte without effect. A show of force was called for and the Resident in Aden asked India for reinforcements. When these arrived, it became possible to despatch a column to Dhala’. This consisted of men of the second battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the 102nd Grenadiers from Bombay, the Aden troop of cavalry and a section of two guns from 45 Company Royal Garrison Artillery. It took the force of 500 officers and men nine days to reach Dhala’, some 88 miles from Aden.
The Turks had also reinforced their garrison at Qataba, opposite Dhala’, which now consisted of 800 soldiers, 600 Arab levies and eight guns. The Resident, Major General Maitland, considered that the situation was serious enough for him to ask for yet more troops, although he still considered that it was unlikely that Turkey would go to war with Britain over the Yemen frontier.
By 8th March 1903 the ‘Aden Column’ consisted of 700 British troops, 860 Indian troops, eighteen mountain guns and a detachment from the Aden cavalry troop, a total of 2,200 combatants plus the Commission’s escort of 200. This force was split between Dhala’ and Nobat Dakim. On 13th March the British ambassador made another demarche to the Porte. This one was successful and the Turks withdrew, basing themselves in Qataba, while the British Commission camped two miles south of the town. The British troops settled down to road building and training. In May a small force was sent to punish the Al Ajud who had been interfering with the traffic through the Haradaba defiles. Otherwise all was peaceful.
In June events in Somaliland forced the Resident to sent all available troops there, leaving himself without a reserve closer than India. Rumours abounded and the trihes believed that the British army had been defeated and became restless. Nevertheless the survey got under way at last on 1st September in Shaibi country.
Initally all went well, although one Indian surveyor was killed by fire from a village called Hadara. The survey party moved across Wadi Bana, leaving a garrison of 200 men at Awabil and stopped at a bill beyond Rubiatain. On 12 September the heliograph reported that over 1,000 Yafa’is had crossed the Bana into Shaibi country, intending to cut off the two British parties. Awabil was attacked, but the garrison successfully beat off the Yafa’is at the cost of one soldier from the Hampshires killed and four wounded.
The Turks insisted that Rubiatain was on their side of the border and the survey party withdrew. This was the furthest point to the north east that the border was surveyed. On 11th October the first boundary pillar along the Shaibi border was erected and from then on the two commissions cooperated reasonably amicably.
While security improved along the border, it deteriorated rapidly on the British lines of communication back to Aden. The Subaihi tribe fired at the British camp at Nobat Dakim on several nights, while the Dhambari and Qutaibi tribes began to interfere with the traffic between Nobat Dakim and Dhala’. In October 1903 the first ‘Radfan Operation’ was launched, when a strong force advanced to Nakhlain and destroyed its fortifications. This action failed to stop the trouble. The Qutaibis murdered two sowars who were carrying mail to Aden and later attacked the post at Sulek. A punitive expedition marched through Qutaibi country in November, losing nine killed and twenty one wounded in a number of skirmishes.
At the end of 1903 boundary pillars marked the entire border between the Amir of Dhala’s territory and the Turks and the two Commissions moved together to Tusan in the Tiban before splitting up. The British Commission moved to Musaimir and then to Ad Dareja. Most of the ‘Aden Column’ was now withdrawn to Al Mileb or Musaimir.
Good progress was made in delineating the Haushabi border, but the Commission was now faced with the territory belonging to the Subaihi tribe. They had caused the British a great deal of trouble over the previous years, and the Resident, wisely, reinforced the Commission’s escort and established the ‘Subaihi Column.’ This consisted of three hundred men of the Buffs, a double company of the 123rd Rifles and two guns from the camel battery.
However, there was little trouble and the two Commissions joined up at Mufalis, having agreed the border. At this stage there was still a total of 1640 infantry, eight mountain guns, 45 sappers and 130 mounted men spread out in garrisons from Dhala’ to Mufalis.
There was now a hold up caused by a dispute about the ownership of a tower near Mufalis. The problem was solved in a military manner by blowing up the tower and paying the owner compensation. In April the Commissions were able to continue moving west towards Khatabia.
All activity was now taking place too far west for it to be sensible to supply the force from Aden. A new base was formed 70 miles west of Aden at Ras Ara. The Commissions had now reached sparsely populated country and reached the Shaikh Said peninsula in May. The Turks moved to their fort at Turba and the British withdrew to Aden. The demarcation of the border from north east of Dhala’ to the sea at the entrance to the Red Sea had been completed.
The boundary outlasted the Turks after the first world war and the withdrawal of the British in 1967. It served its purpose at the time, but is happily no more.
From March 1903 to April 1904 there were 2,000 British and Indian troops deployed in support of the Boundary Commission. They suffered ten killed and twenty five wounded in action and thirty four deaths from other causes. The troops had fought minor battles at Dhabri, Awabil and Nakhlain and during the punitive expedition against the Qutaibis. It would be interesting to know whether the Turks experienced similar difficulties on their side of the border.