THE NSW CONTINGENT TO THE SUDAN 1885

In February 1885, news was received in Sydney of the death of General Charles Gordon at Khartoum during the Dervish revolt. The following day, the Colony of New South Wales offered up a contingent to serve alongside British forces.

The force included an infantry battalion made up largely from volunteers from the First NSW Regiment. There was no security of troop movements in those days. At Bathurst, some 2000 persons gathered at the railway station to farewell their 14 volunteers and a reported 200,000 cheered themselves hoarse at Circular Quay. The two troopships ,Iberia and Australasian pulled out on 3 March, just 15 days after the force was accepted .It finally disembarked at the Red Sea port of Suakin on 29 March and joined the Nile Field Force of Lord Wolseley and was allocated to the Brigade of Guards who called them Walers and were surprised that they were “white-skinned”! They quickly changed into khaki drab from the scarlet and blue of the times but retained their single shot artini-Henry rifles with saw-toothed bayonets.

SYDNEY, NSW, 1885. GROUP OF OFFICERS AND MEN AT VICTORIA BARRACKS, PRIOR TO THE DEPARTURE OF THE SUDAN CONTINGENT. ORIGINAL HELD IN SPECIAL PRINT COLLECTION. (DONOR: H. BARTLETT).

Infantrymen of the NSW contingent to the Sudan, after their return to Australia. They are wearing khaki uniform issued for active service, and are equipped with Alexander Henry rifles. Identified are: 426 Private (Pte) J A Moutray (far left back row); sitting centre row, 436 Pte Louis Allen ‘Curley’ Parkinson, next unidentified, Pte John Edwards, Pte R Webb; 449 Sergeant J Spence (reclining at front).

Just a week later the battalion embarked on its first and only real expedition; an assault against Tamai some 20 miles inland. The force moved in hollow square with fixed bayonets and was soon to test itself against the Arabs who were armed with American Remingtons, spears, huge daggers and clubs.

Lieutenant William Cope wrote……….

” The New South Wales Infantry were posted on the heights commanding the hills, and in advancing to the posts allotted to them 3 men were hit, whilst the bullets whizzed past harmlessly, one of our fellows was wounded in the shoulder. Another was shot in the foot and hopped along for some yards before he realised how seriously he was hurt. Several others were hit but all in all the thing ended rather disappointedly, as Osman Digna retreated without showing much fight.

We then burned the village, a wretched affair of grass humpies and in doing so consumed a quantity of ammunition which popped about and made things lively for a time. We then marched back to our camp, and after a short breakfast commenced our return to Suakin.

As with every army since the formation of Julius Caesars First Legion, the force was alive with rumour……the contingent would go to India, it would go to England, it would go to Malta or Gibralter as a garrison force, it would stay in the Sudan until their bones whitened!!.

Finally the contingent embarked on HMT Arab on 17 May and reached Sydney on 19 June. With much feting and banqueting each man was presented with the Queens Egyptian Medal in silver with clasp “Suakin” and the Khedive Of Egypts’ Bronze Star. The contingent was then disbanded.

‘Suakin 1885’ was the first Theatre Honour granted to an Australian First Battalion.

With many thanks to Tom Gunning – His Memoirs

SYDNEY, NSW. 1885-03-03. THE SUDAN CONTINGENT WAS THE FIRST ARMED FORCE RAISED BY A BRITISH COLONY AND DESPATCHED OVERSEAS. THE CONTINGENT UNDER THE COMMAND OF STAFF COLONEL RICHARDSON, AND CONSISTING OF 800 MEN AND 224 HORSES RAISED IN NEW SOUTH WALES AND PREPARED IN 15 DAYS, SAILED FROM SYDNEY IN THE TRANSPORTS IBERIA AND AUSTRALASIA ON 1885-03-03. SHOWN ABOVE, EMBARKATION OF THE CONTINGENT AT CIRCULAR QUAY, SYDNEY.

Lord Wolseley addressed the troops before their departure for Australia and said,”Australia, putting such a fine body of troops in the field, is a warning to any quarrelsome nation that they will have to fight not only Great Britain and Ireland but also England’s most distant colonies.”

The NSW Contingent was given a loud and colourful reception on returning to Sydney. A welcome home parade was held on 23rd June, complete with a Sudanese donkey bought back by one of the soldiers followed by a reception at Victoria Barracks. A series of long and sometimes boring speeches were given to highlight the “glory” of the occasion.

Helmet, probably made from cork, and covered with six panels of heavily coated white cotton drill fabric. The outside of helmet has a narrow hatband of the same fabric. A large nickel plated badge backed with red wool bearing a lion against a southern cross within a wreath and Queen Victoria crown is attached to the front of the helmet with brass lugs and triangular pieces of leather. On the wearer’s right side, towards the back, is a white metal rose and hook

Egypt Medal 1882 -1889 with the bar ‘SUAKIN 1885’. The recipient’s number, rank, name and regiment are engraved on the edge. Obverse: The diademed and veiled head of Queen Victoria with the legend, ‘VICTORIA REGINA ET IMPERATRIX’. Reverse: The Sphinx on a pedestal with the word ‘EGYPT’ above. The exergue is blank . The medal is fitted with a straight swivel suspender and a single rectangular campaign bar. A piece of 32 mm ribbon that has three bright blue and two white stripes of equal width is attached to the suspender.

Private W E Learoyd, New South Wales Ambulance Corps, Sudan Contingent

Two soldiers, Pte Richard Perry and Pte Martin Guest died from typhoid fever and flu after arriving home and were accorded military funerals attended by hundreds of mourners.

Several functions were given tn their honour and at the Citizen’s Banquet Pte John Moutray proposed that annual reunions be held on the 3rd March each year. The Survivors’ Association, as it was known started in 1886 and still had 37 members in 1946. The President was Alfred Bennett who served in the 1st NSW Mounted Rifles in South Africa and was awarded the DSO and MID. He returned to teaching and in 1914 re-enlisted and served as the second in command of the 3rd Battalion AIF. He was made a Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George for his actions at Lone Pine. He commanded two other battalions before being sent home. He died in 1946 aged 81.

Seven men lived to receive the Coronation Medal. The last man standing was George Rauchle who died in 1963. He joined in 1883 in the permanent Artillery and served as a regular soldier until 1931. He was 96.

It could be said that this group was the FIRST returned servicemens association in Australia.

23rd July 1919

Cpl R Burns MID Regt No 10

WO1 R Burns 1977 (Grandson)

Anzac Day 1926

Source –

Photos – AWM and WO1 Ross Burns

But Little Glory, The NSW Contingent 1885 – Military Historical Society of Australia

The Rehearsal – K S Inglis