Walcha history: Bush battalion prepares for war

Military scene: 33rd Battalion marching through Armidale in 1916. The camp was set up at the showground.
Military scene: 33rd Battalion marching through Armidale in 1916. The camp was set up at the showground.

Lieut. Richard Henry Blomfield, M.C., who had a grazing property at Walcha, wrote a history of the 33rd Battalion that was published in the Northern Daily Leader during April, May and June 1939. Much of what follows has been taken from his writings.

The 33rd was formed on a district basis. “A” company was to come from Armidale; “B” from Walcha, Uralla, Barraba, Bingara and Manilla; “C” from Narrabri, Moree and Inverell and “D” from Glen Innes, Guyra and Tenterfield. There were upwards of 70 men from Walcha who served in the 33rd.

The Armidale camp was set up at the local showground with the stallion box being the jail. The battalion was issued with four ancient military rifles, one per company of 250 soldiers, and consequently the men were obliged to train with sticks.

When uniforms were eventually issued, the recruits had great trouble learning how to wrap the puttees from ankle to knee correctly, many becoming hopelessly entangled. The puttee was a strip of cloth some three yards long that had to be wrapped tightly from the ankle to just below the knee and then tied off with a shorter tape. It provided some protection and support in the absence of knee-high boots.

The camp hospital at Armidale showground was at first a very primitive affair where, according to Blomfield: “Orderlies served patients with burnt sago and bread soaked in water flavoured with disinfectant.” Ladies from the Armidale Voluntary Aid Detachment made regular visits to the hospital bringing invalid foods and small gifts.

After limited training at Armidale, the battalion moved to Rutherford camp near Maitland for brigade training before put up at the Sydney showground to prepare for the trip overseas. They were the first “bush” battalion to arrive in the city and were welcomed in style by brass bands and large crowds. The battalion departed Sydney on May 4, 1916 aboard HMAT Marathon and disembarked in southern England nine weeks later.

More from Lieut. Blomfield: “Our nine train loads of Australians, the first complete unit to arrive in England, were welcomed all the way along the route. At Exeter the ladies presented every man with a ‘dixie’ of tea and two buns.”

Three months of hard training at the huge Lark Hill encampment on the Salisbury Plain included sham battles, bag charging, bayonet fighting and machine gun practice before the 33rd Battalion embarked for France late in November 1916 aboard an ancient paddle wheel steamer that took them to the French port of Le Havre.