|The Foundation of
Modern Army Regiments
by Ken Wright
Known as the Madhi, (or 'expected one') Muhammed Ahmed had proclaimed himself
Prophet of Islam and began in 1883, to set alight the flames of a holy war
against the British controlled Egyptian regime in the Sudan.
His fanatical army of Dervishes annihilated a 10,000 Egyptian force sent
against him at El Obeid and an Anglo-Egyptian army at El Teb. These defeats
panicked the British Government into ordering the remaining forces out of the
Sudan and in 1884 sent the famous General Charles Gordon with orders to
supervise the withdrawal. As a young Captain in the British Army, Gordon was
requested by the Chinese Government to lead a revitalised Chinese army against
the Taiping rebel regime in China in 1863 where he achieved a resounding
victory (which led to his being given the nickname 'Chinese Gordon').
Believing he could defeat the Madhi's forces, General Gordon ignored his
instructions and attacked the Dervish Army. His defeat resulted in his army
being besieged in the city of Khartoum for ten months between 1884 –85. The
British Governments policy had by then become one of saving money and resources
as far as the Sudan was concerned and it was only because of popular sentiment
towards General Gordon and his army's plight that a relief force was sent to
rescue the trapped forces.
A relief army left Cairo in September, 1884, and after a series of battles,
reached Khartoum - but two days too late to save the beleaguered garrison. The
Dervishes had overrun the defenders killing them all. The news of General
Gordon's death caused outrage throughout the British Empire and was a severe
blow to British prestige.
The Colonial Government of New South Wales contacted the British Government
with an offer of troops to help recapture the Sudan. The Government in London
willingly accepted but with the stipulation the Australian troops be placed
under British command. The colonial governments of Victoria, Queensland and
South Australia made similar offers but these were rejected possibly due to
transportation problems. In a rare example of government organization
(especially for the period), a force of 768 was raised in a fortnight. This
included infantry, two field artillery batteries (only one went overseas) a
small ambulance detachment and a band.
They were trained for three weeks at Victoria Barracks. Issued with scarlet
tunics, dark blue red braided trousers, white tropical helmets and puggarees
and to wild demonstrations of enthusiasm and patriotism from the people, they
marched with pride through the streets of Sydney to the tune of ' The girl I
left behind 'and other popular songs to Circular Quay.
With 200 horses, the contingent sailed from Sydney on March 3, 1885 aboard the
transports Australasian and Iberian. Over 200,000 citizens bade them farewell.
They arrived at Sudan's Red Sea port of Suakin on March 29. This was an
historic occasion as it would be the first time soldiers from a self governing
Australian colony would fight for the Empire out side their own part of the
world and they were determined to prove their worth.
It was not the first time that an Australian colony offered assistance. The
previous year the Victorian gunboats Victoria and Albert-then at Malta, enroute
to Australia-were offered for service in the Red Sea, off the coast of Sudan.
The offer was accepted, but, as it turned out, they were not used.
The British Commander of the Suakin area welcomed the men from Australia then
ordered the Australians re-kitted with khaki drill and attached them to a
Brigade of Grenadier, Scots and Coldstream Guards. They were disappointed to
learn that they had just missed [by two days]two major battles at Hasheen and
Tawfrik against the Mahdi's most fanatical General, Osman Digna; but were able
to participate in an attack on the hill village of Tamai. After an 18 hour
gruelling marches in the blazing desert sun, the Australians were ordered to
seize the heights overlooking the village while the main British force attacked
Historians differ over the details of the battle at Tamai. Some say 600
Dervishes were killed; some claim that the attackers only found bodies from a
previous battle; still others say the village was deserted by the time the
combined British forces actually got there. Certainly the N.S.W contingent came
under heavy fire and 3 men were wounded. The village was burnt and the British
forces returned to Suakin. A fortnight later, on the 6 May, some Australians
took part in another skirmish, at Takdul. A camel corps had been raised and
included 50 volunteers from the NSW battalion. These men figured in the action,
doing 'some splendid shooting', in the words of a Sydney journalist who was
with the expedition.
The British commander- in-chief, General Garnet Wolseley, decided the best way
to keep supplies flowing for his war against the Mahdi, was to build a rail
line across the desert to the town of Berber, halfway between Suakin and
Khartoum. The Australian soldiers and British troops were assigned to guard
duty to protect the British railway workers brought to the Sudan to build the
During construction, the Dervishes constantly sniped at the troops and workers,
slipped through piquet lines and murdered men in their sleep. Fortunately, no
Australians were killed but they did suffer from thirst, hunger and the
ever-present heat. The artillery, not having an enemy to engage, was
transferred to Handoub where they got to do little more than drill for about a
month. One Australian volunteer, Captain T.S.Parrott, an engineering officer,
who had been a surveyor in civilian life, put his time with the contingent to
good use. Parrott's services were loaned to the Commanding Royal Engineer, who
set him the task of making maps and a geological survey of the mountains west
of Suakin. Back in Australia, these were printed by the NSW Government and
forwarded to London.
In May 1885, The British Government received the disturbing news that the
Russians had attacked an Afghanistan border town; this was perceived as a
possible threat to the jewel of the British Empire, India. The Sudan was to be
abandoned to the dervishes and troops sent to guard the Khyber Pass, the
gateway to India. For a time it looked like the NSW contingent would be sent
there next, but the slowness of the men to volunteer, combined with the public
mood back in the colony, put this idea to rest. And so the N.S.W. contingent
was sent home on May 17, arriving in Sydney just over a month later. The death
toll on active duty was 6, all of whom died of illness or disease.
On arrival, the troops were placed in strict isolation at the quarantine
station on North Head, a precautionary measure against disease. Five days
later, in freezing rain, but still in their tropical uniforms, they were
assembled on parade at Victoria Barracks and had to endure numerous lengthy
patriotic speeches by an assortment of public figures including the governor,
premier and the contingent's commandant. In 1907, the award of the Honorary
Distinction Suakin 1885 was made to the NSW Infantry.
The story of the Australian involvement in the Sudan is not one of heated
battles or heroism or tales of great exploits. It is one of a willingness to
test their unknown fighting capabilities and to show a steadfast allegiance
with the empire. Historians naturally tend to overlook this episode in our
military history for the more exciting beginnings from the Boer War onwards.
This is unfortunate. It set the precedent for Australian participation in later
wars to defend British interests. And while the contingent's experience may
have been insignificant as far as battles go, the past, present and future
regiments can trace their origins back to these colonial forebears who went to
Queen Victoria's Little Wars.
Australian War Memorial Website. – Sudan.
Front Line Dispatches—Australians at War 1845 - 1972.
The Anzac Tradition—Between the Lines.
The Australian Army—A Brief History.
The Australian Colonies and the Sudan Campaigns of 1884 – 85.
Copyright © 2006 Ken Wright.
Written by Ken Wright. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Ken Wright at:
About the author:
Ken Wright lives in Melbourne Australia and served 5 years in the Australian army in an Armoured Recon Unit.
He has worked as a book sales rep and correctional officer.
He is married with two children, three dogs, and two cats.
He retired early and began writing 4 years ago and has written numerous published articles published for
military magazines in Australia, the UK and the US.
Published online: 07/16/2006.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.