An unmounted albumen print showing Australian troops at Handub in the Sudan. The participation of these colonial troops in a war on the other side of the world from their homeland was an important milestone in British military history.
On 26 January 1885, after a siege lasting 317 days, Khartoum fell to the Mahdi’s troops and General Gordon was killed. Shockwaves reverberated around the British Empire, and in Australia the following month the acting premier of New South Wales, W. B. Dalley, cabled London to say: ‘The Government offer to Her Majesty’s Government two batteries of the Permanent Filed Artillery with ten 16-poounder guns, properly horsed, also an effective and disciplined battalion of infantry 500 strong; the artillery will be under the command of Colonel Roberts R. A., the whole force under the command of Colonel Richardson the Commandant and undertaking to land the force at Suakin within 30 days from embarkation.’ The offer was accepted and the New South Wales contingent was raised and dispatched within 2 months, the troops leaving Sydney on 3 March 1885 amid demonstrations of wild enthusiasm and patriotism.
‘They reached Suakin, on the Red Sea, on 29 March, and were delighted to find on arrival that they were brigade with the elite of the British Army: the Brigade of Guards. Within twenty-four house of disembarkation they were advancing on Tamai, as part of a 10,000 man force which marched for sixteen hours under a broiling sun before reaching its objective. At Tamai, the Australians came under fine for the first time, and three men were slightly wounded… The operation was no great feat of arms, but was a severe test for men who had barely landed from their troopships, and who had been civilians only twelve weeks before.
‘Colonel A.J. Bennett, who was a member of the contingent and later seved in the South African War and first World War, remarked that he never experienced worse physical conditions than in the six weeks of the Suakin campaign. He said, “Intense heat, dust, insects, thirst, and stench from bodies of dead Arabs and animals provided sufficient horrors of war, with dysentery and sunstroke claiming tremendous toil. A few skirmishes and many weary marches provided much sweat, but little glory.”
‘The rest of their time in the Sudan was mainly spent on railway fatigue work, although fifty men were temporarily attached to the Camel Corps. The campaign, which did not settle the Sudan situation for very long, ended in May, and the Australians were disappointed that they had not seen more action. The New South Wales Government offered them for service in India or on a Mediterranean station, but this was turned down by the British Government after protracted negotiations.
‘The men were repatriated on the troopship Arab on 17 May 1886, and encountered the greatest hazard of their adventure when an epidemic of “fever” broke out in the crowded troop decks. Six men died of it during the voyage. The remainder disembarked in Sydney on 23 June, receiving the same adulation to which they had departed. They were awarded two decorations; the Queen’s Egyptian medal in silver, with the clasp “Suakin,” and the Khedive of Egypts bronze star.
‘No great feats of military endeavour were performed by the expeditionary force … but it was a modest milestone in Australia’s military heritage, and, most significantly, it had established a precedent. From then on, it was taken for granted that Britain’s far flung outposts should render military assistance to the mother country in time of conflict.’
[The above is taken from Peter Firkins’s The Australians in Nine Wars, 1971.]
The photograph appears as an illustration in Michael Barthorp’s War on the Nile: Britain, Egypt and the Sudan 1882-1898 (London: Blandford Press, 1984) where it is captioned ‘Men of the New South Wales Contingent manning a redoubt, with field gun and heliograph.’
A pencilled inscription verso in a period hand reads: ‘No. 15. Australian Contingent at Handoub.’
The print measures 8.3” by 10.7” (210 mm by 273 mm).
condition: The print presents one long, light diagonal crease across its centre (which doesn't show up in the scan) and there are a few small, faint marks in the area of the sky.
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