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By Tom Gunning, New South Wales Sudan Contingent

Click to enlarge SYDNEY, NSW, 1885. 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 Martini-Henry rifles. Identified are: 426 Private J.A. Moutray (far left back row); sitting centre row, 436 Pte Louis Allen "Curley" Parkinson, next unidentified, Private John Edwards, Private R. Webb; 449 Sergeant J. Spence (reclining at front). J. Spence was Superintendent of Police and L A. Parkinson was Inspector of Police.  (donor: Iris Parkinson)

I was a member of the New South Wales Contingent that went to the Sudan in 1885.

It is all history now-recorded mostly in yellowing newspaper files and coldly impersonal narratives. But as an "old soldier" who was privileged to be among those 750 men, I carry in my mind some unforgettable memories which, in the light of the ever-changing methods of warfare, become all the more vivid.

War as we knew it in 1885 was a thrilling affair. There was free discussion and speculation on all phases of the project, and the day of embarkation brought all this excitement to a noisy climax in Sydney as we marched through the streets to Circular Quay.

We were eager to be off to this mysterious Sudan where 50,000 Arabs were embarrassing Britain at an awkward time. Ours was no under-cover-of-night departure; no slogans advising people to seal lips and save ships. Quite the reverse. We had passed through medical examinations; we had been bellowed at on the parade ground; we carried our old rifles, complete with saw-edged bayonets and all this was rounded off by the glorious feeling of wearing the splendid scarlet and blue uniform. In short, we were soldiers, and Sydney shouted it from the housetops. London papers published pictures of our feted departure.

  • The 2 official medals awarded to the Soudan Contingent. As well the Mayor of Sydney had a medal struck to honour the troops.

On the water at last- and Army life aboard troopship is one experience which doesn't appear to have changed greatly since.

One of our first shipboard jobs was to dye brilliant white equipment and pith helmets with the only medium available: tobacco juice.  

This was probably the introduction of science of camouflage into Australia's military life and a foreshadowing of the days when jungle green was to become fashionable for soldiers!

Another interesting point about our personal equipment was the charcoal water filter carried by each man. This item consisted of a canister of charcoal granules with a tube attached with which the water was sucked up through the filter unit. In addition, a pair of special goggles was issued to combat glare and dust. When not in actual use, they were usually slipped up on to the helmet, giving one the appearance of a modern speedway rider.

Our canteens were well stocked with tobacco and a small range of other necessities, but whatever was lacking in the matter of things to buy, was more than compensated by the fact that everything was free! These goods had been gifts to the contingent by firms and individuals, and there was plenty of everything.

  • Private Barff Tucker was born in Bathurst in 1861, and joined a bush contingent in 1885. 

    • On his departure for the Sudan, he was presented with a gold ring by members of his football club.

    •  He saw active service in the Sudan, as a serving member of the 3rd NSW Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which was partly drawn from the Bathurst district. 

    • He is recorded as being at the parade in February 1886 at which silver Egyptian medals commemorating 'Suakin 1885' were presented.



Iberia, carrying the infantry, arrived in Suakin harbour on 29 March. Established at this important Red Sea port was the Guards Brigade commanded by General Graham and we were longing to meet and mingle with these famous soldiers. During disembarkation, however, our feelings were somewhat ruffled to hear such remarks as: "Blimey, Bill; these 'Walers' are white blokes!"

The "Walers" were soon put to work though, after donning khaki jacket and trousers and shin-length gaiters of canvas. The tunic was fitted with a long pad of cloth running down the back to cover the spine as protection from sunstroke. Another flap of material hung from the back of the helmet to shelter the neck (a puggaree).

It was a rough and tough country and, as expected, terribly hot. At halts it was useless trying to sit on the ground, which meant that during daylight everything from "smokos" to eating was usually carried out at "the stand".

The rebel leader in this area was Osman Digna, who had fled to Tamai, some twenty-one miles away. The New South Wales Contingent was detailed to accompany an expedition to occupy the position. This operation was duly carried out and the Australians had their first taste of the enemy, who, incidentally, were known as "Fuzzy-Wuzzies". It took another war to change the Sudan soldier's conception of that term.

These dark gentry were exceedingly nasty customers and, surprising as it may seem, they were equipped with better arms than the British. Each man had a range of weapons which chilled the blood of many a Guardsman. In the first place they each carried an American Remington rifle- a far more effective weapon than ours. This was supplemented by two spears, a "throwing stick shaped something like a boomerang and a terrible ham-stringing "knife-dagger" in the form of a capital J, the size of a large carving knife and razor-sharp on every edge. To this formidable kit of tools was added a shield altogether a strange and deadly outfit, combining the old and the new.

A favourite "sabotage" measure adopted by the Fuzzy-Wuzzies was to poison the waterholes, thus defeating our filters and causing casualties. This action necessitated the wholesale condensing of seawater on ships in Suakin harbour and its transport to the troops in skin bags (jerbas) per camel express. Not many Sudan men will ever forget the taste of that water; some even maintained that poisoned water was more palatable.

The Arabs were also the original "terrors-by-night". During the time we worked on the Suakin-Berber railway, guard duties at night became rather an ordeal. The natives lurked in the enveloping darkness, ready, and more than willing, to pounce on an unwary sentry with a specially selected spear. In this midnight stalking they used great stealth and patience. One procedure was first to steal some grease from the railway construction job, smear their bodies all over, then roll in the sand like a milkman's horse. Thus camouflaged, they used to lie flat on their faces and commence a tortuously slow slither-crawl towards our camp. 

Usually the stalker would cut a small bush, push it forward to arm's length, then inch by inch, slither up to it. The operation would then be repeated. It was necessary for a sentry to note the exact position of every bush in his area. Any that moved -or appeared to move-were fired at without challenge. Morning inspections sometimes revealed the wisdom of this action.

Not all the natives were hostile, of course; and one tribe, the Arnaras, gave great service as night scouts. It was when we were camped at Otao, twenty-three miles inland, that one of their patrols discovered a Fuzzy-Wuzzy who had come to the wells for water, bringing with him an old donkey and two jerbas. Without ceremony the gentle Arnaras hacked off his left hand at the wrist and continued on their way without another thought of the incident. 

Next morning one of the British Mounted Infantry, hearing groaning, cautiously approached through the thick mimosa scrub and found the victim, who was taken to hospital. The donkey, however, was somehow acquired by the officers' cook who used it to carry his valise whilst in the Sudan. This soldier actually brought the animal back to Australia, where it lived in luxury at the Zoo, eventually expiring quietly in a paddock at Narellan, N.S.W.

The contingent's other mascot was a sheep -not an Arab goat-about which a section of the Press said a great deal. Late one afternoon some thousands of sheep and goats captured in a ravine between Handoub and Hasheen were driven through our camp by mounted infantry. Next day we marched through the same ravine to engage our old friend Osman Digna who had a strong force at Hasheen. Two other columns, one from Suakin and one from Takdul, should have hemmed the Arabs in, but were too late; and we had the mortification of seeing the tail end of Osman's retreat. 

Passing through the ravine on the outward trip, however, we heard a faint bleating high up on the mountainside. We mocked it and the animal responded by coming down, where it was easily caught-a half-grown lamb, black and white, with short curly wool. It was taken back to camp with us and commandeered by one of the men. Instead of a battle, we got a sheep; but it really was a sheep-not a goat!

Our departure from Suakin was a hurried affair, but the authorities were in no hurry back at Sydney. From Friday, 27 June, until the following Tuesday we languished in quarantine, seething with impatience. During those trying days one bright spot was the gift of forty baskets of fish from some local fishermen. That welcome gift is commemorated today in maps of Sydney harbour by the name "Forty Baskets Beach".

from pages 99 and 100 of "AS YOU WERE" 1947 by the AWM


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