Saturday, 9 December 2017

'The departure of the Australian contingent for the Sudan'

Down in the lower-ground floor of the Australian War Memorial (AWM) behind the current exhibition that has been set up to illustrate the lives of the Special Forces there's another gallery where you can see exhibits dating from the earliest years of Australia's "official" military experience. There is no acknowledgement for example of the frontier wars fought by the colonists against the Aboriginal inhabitants of the continent.

This oil painting by Arthur Collingridge (1853-1907) was made in 1885 and shows a scene at Circular Quay on the holiday that had been declared to celebrate the occasion of NSW sending a contingent to help suppress the Mahdi rebellion in the Sudan. The contingent comprised an infantry battalion of 522 men and 24 officers, and an artillery battery of 212 men. You can see the Mort's wool stores flanking the dock at the left where expensive apartment buildings are situated now. I have blown up some sections of the painting to better show the detail of this work, which documents the first time Australian forces were sent to fight in an imperial war. The plaque next to the painting says:
The dispatch of a small New South Wales military contingent [on 3] March 1885 was an important moment for Australia. For the first time, one of its colonies had raised a force of soldiers for active service with the British Army. Sydneysiders gathered to watch the soldiers march through the streets and embark from Circular Quay.
You can see in the picture below the transport in the background is listing to one side because all the passengers on the deck are crowding to that side. The detail available in this rather small painting, which the AWM bought in 1968, is remarkable. The hot European-style clothes people wore even in the summer months must have been very uncomfortable.

The AWM's page that talks about the Sudan campaign is here. The contingent arrived in Suakin, Sudan's Red Sea port, on 29 March 1885, so it took just over three weeks to get to north Africa by ship. They started their return trip to Sydney on 17 May and arrived in Sydney on 19 June. "They were expecting to land at Port Jackson and were surprised to disembark at the quarantine station on North Head near Manly as a precaution against disease."

Collingridge was a founding member of the Royal Art Society of NSW in 1880 and was a trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1900-1907. He was born in Oxfordshire, worked on the London Graphic and the Illustrated London News, and came to Australia possibly earlier than 1879. His brother Charles was chaplain to the NSW contingent.

Above: An officer's wife kisses her husband goodbye while their child weeps, holding his father's hand.

Above: Three substantial burghers of Sydney stand in a group talking among themselves.

Above: A woman and an older man (probably the father and sister of a soldier) stand talking with an officer on the dock. The men are shaking hands.

Above: Soldiers in their red coats stand on the deck of one of the troop transports, waving at people on the dock. 

Above: A woman standing on the dock uses a handkerchief to wave at a soldier on the transport.

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