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The Battle for Oakleigh Station 1888

1888 was a particularly busy year in the life of the nascent Militia forces in Victoria. Formed in 1885 to replace in large part Volunteer forces which had been in existence since the mid- 1850s, Militia involvement in the social, civil, and military life of this wealthy colony was already comprehensive and well reported. In November of each year, on the occasion of the Prince of Wales’ birthday, a complex one-day training exercise was also held to test in a ‘sham fight’ the operational skills and leadership of units and officers alike.  In November 1888, the exercise was centred on the village of Oakleigh, established in 1853 and located 19 km to the south-east of Melbourne City.

In 1888, in addition to the traditional four-day Easter camp, the Review on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s birthday, engagement in the Victorian Rifle Association matches and acting as guards and escorts for such duties as the opening of Victoria’s Parliament, the Militia also became involved in the major Centenary Exhibition of 1888.  All of this on top of individual unit training, and social events for the small permanent staff and Militia officers.

The ‘battle for Oakleigh’ in October 1888 was a useful training exercise – cheap to run, conducted on actual ground which an invader of Melbourne might be expected to use if approaching from Westernport, and using the various arms and services in combination.  Some equally useful ‘innovations’ were tested – wire telephones, khaki hats, mounted rifles, ambulance service, ordnance and commissariat.  Many of the Militia officers engaged held prominent positions in the colony’s social and business life and some would continue military careers well into the 20th century – with a number of them as well as numbers among the soldiers who exercised that day, to see active service in the Anglo-Boer War, just 11 years away.

As for the village of Oakleigh, it no doubt returned quickly enough after the ‘excitement’ to its rural and newly industrialising state, but one wonders how much the exercise of 1888 encouraged young men of the district to volunteer for Militia or cadets. It was perhaps no coincidence that an Oakleigh Detachment of ‘H’ Company, Victorian Rangers was established in 1891 and a cadet unit re-established at the Oakleigh State School in 1894 after it had been disbanded just a year before the 1888 exercise.  Militia, or as they are now called – Army Reserves – still serve in Oakleigh Barracks to this day.

‘The Battle for Oakleigh Station 1888’, Broadway: Newsletter of History Monash Inc. , November 2017. Copyright  @ Andrew Kilsby