Campbelltown’s Military History 1888-98

Campbelltown’s Military History 1888-98

The City of Campbelltown has a long history of military service. We sent our sons to the world wars, we were home to one of our greatest Victoria Cross recipients, Warrant Officer Kevin Wheately, and we proudly display monuments to these men in many of our public spaces. However, our involvement in Australian military history goes way beyond that of the 20th century, and indeed dates back to our colonial days.  These early colonial volunteers would be the basis for what would later become the Citizens Military Force (CMF) and in turn the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). 

The Towns official military history begins in 1885. With the death of General Charles Gordon following the siege of Khartoum in the Soudan (Now the Sudan), Premiere William Dalley had hastily assembled a force of approximately 770 men and around 200 horses. This expeditionary force would be the first Australian force to be sent overseas. Although it is unknown and unlikely that any Campbelltownians went with the contingent, it did spark a sense of patriotism in the township, though little would come from it immediately. However, things would change less than two months later. 

In May 1885 there was a scare with Russia. Russian forces had gathered off the boarder of Afghanistan and this proved to be a threat to British interest in the middle east. As a result, all operations in the Sudan were put on a hold and war with the Russian empire seemed imminent. This left the colonies in a precarious situation as they were left relatively undefended, and NSW in particular began to worry as many of its experienced soldiers and volunteers where off in a distant campaign. With all this in mind it was decided to rapidly expand the volunteer forces throughout the colony and on the 21st of May 1885, the Colonial Secretaries office announced the forming of 4 new companies. Albury, Mittagong and Young all were designated a company for the 1st Regiment NSW Volunteers and Campbelltown was assigned 1 company of the 2nd Regiment NSW Volunteers.

With the formation of this company began Campbelltown’s military history. The Company would have been led by prominent locals who would serve as officers, and any male could volunteer for service into the company as another rank. Joining the ranks of the volunteers was an enticing offer. Men were required to purchase their own uniforms, either through the government of made by the local tailor. weapons and equipment were supplied by the government.

Once in the ranks a soldier could expect ten shillings pay for a full day’s work with the company or 5 shillings for a half day. On top of that an annual efficiency bonus was awarded to any soldier who met the set standards of the company’s efficiency requirements. There were also money prizes for shooting and sport competition.

Over the next year the company would grow, however it was of little importance. That was until in September 1886, when Campbelltown was selected to host the colonies military exercises. The encampment was held in Mid-September and was well documented in local newspapers at the time. It appears that “Rifle Reserve Corps” (Volunteer companies) from Campbelltown, Picton, Camden, Albury, Young, Hay, Mittagong, Narranders and Braidwood were present. The camp started on the Monday, and during the evening it was reported that the camp alarm was raised twice, both times men standing too and picquets being sent out to scout for an enemy who was not there. The following day, Major General John Richardson was set to inspect the troops, however due to illness he canceled his visit, much to the disappointment of the men who wished to see the hero who had commanded the Soudan Contingent the year prior. Instead Colonel Eden carried out the review. After a parade a mock battle was set to be carried out under the supervision of Captain Bartlett. The battle would be a scenario of an invading Russian force advancing from Bulli consisting of the Campbelltown, Picton and Camden Companies. The defenders would be the Albury, Young, Hay, Mittagong, Narranders and Braidwood detachments. The battle was fought along the main road to Sydney. The defenders had time to establish themselves before the attackers stormed the position. A fierce ‘combat’ was had until finally the defenders were driven back and the attackers won the day. The encampment was concluded with further drill sessions and parades.

This was the highlight of the infantry companies’ existence. In 1889 the decision was made that the 3 infantry companies in Campbelltown, Picton and Camden should be instead converted to mounted infantry. This was motivated by the fact that a quick mobile light cavalry force would be far more effective in fighting in the plains of the Campbelltown region then a slow infantry formation. These 3 companies formed the NSW Regiment of Volunteer Mounted Infantry. In 1893 they would be restyled into the famous NSW Mounted Rifles. For all this time from 1889-95 Campbelltown acted as the headquarters of the unit and was the centre of all activity.

However, in 1895 disaster hit the Campbelltown unit when Captain Moore, a member of the Campbelltown company since its formation in 1885, passed away, and without his leadership the company quickly fell apart. Within no time the company was disbanded, and the volunteers of Campbelltown were merged with the Camden Half Company. The HQ of the Mounted Rifles was moved. However, Campbelltown’s pre federation military history would have one last Huzzah. 

In 1896, artist Tom Roberts was commissioned by the colonial government to paint a series of pictures depicting the colonial military forces. He was invited to north head where it was expected he would paint images of the permanent forces’ officers. Whilst attending a ball in his honour he was shocked by the upper class divide between officers and men, and so set out instead to paint images of the everyday volunteers. For this he traveled to Campbelltown and would create 3 now iconic pictures of the volunteers here. These included his famous painting ‘A battery’ which was painted on Manengle heights, just outside of Campbelltown, a picture of a Campbelltownian Sergeant in the NSW Mounted rifles and finally an infantryman From the 2nd Regiment of Volunteers. For many years these images were still believed to have been painted at north Head until in the early 2000’s the truth came out.

Shortly after this Australia would be at war in South Africa, fighting the Boers. Several Campbelltown born soldiers would see action and some would even become heroes. All of which is available in the Campbelltown and Airds Historical societies book “Campbelltown and the Boer War.

By John Morthen, October 2020