British soldiers were among the first European settlers in Australia as they were needed to guard the convicts transported first to New South Wales and then to Tasmania. However, being a British colony, when Britain was at war with another country, particularly the French, it was considered additional security might be required and voluntary forces were formed. The Year Book of Australia 1909 contained an article entitled the 'Military System in Australia Prior to Federation'. The article is available online on the Australian Bureau of Statistics website.
The Napoleonic Wars were the first overseas events to impact upon events in the colony. In 1801 a corps of volunteers known as the Loyal Association was formed in New South Wales in case of invasion by the French.. When news of the outbreak of war with France reached the Colony in 1808 the Governor called a muster to raise a defence force. Many of the settlers also organised their own protection. When Thomas Birch, for example, built his large brick house in Hobart in 1815 he mounted a canon on the roof in case of foreign invasion.
The next major international concern was in 1854 when England was at war with Russia - the Crimean War. Before Federation, each state was responsible for its own defence. In New South Wales the 1st Regiment of New South Rifles was established in Sydney initially consisting of one troop of cavalry, one battery of artillery and six companies of foot soldiers. In Victoria the Melbourne Volunteer Rifle Regiment (later the Victorian Volunteer Rifle Regiment) was formed with 2,000 men.
In New South Wales, once the threat of war was over the regiment barely existed but in 1860 a second expanded force of volunteers was established consisting of one troop of mounted rifles, three batteries of artillery plus twenty companies of infantry - a total of 1700 men. The Volunteer Regulation Act of 18687 reorganised the structure of the forces and also offered incentives such as a grant of 50 acres of land for five years 'efficient service'. In 1874 the land grants were abolished but were replaced a system of part payment. Additional artillery batteries and other forces were introduced including the Engineer Corps and torpedo and signalling corps. The New South Wales Lancers, a cavalry regiment, was raised in 1885 as a volunteer reserve corps until they were merged into a partially paid Light Horse troop three years later. The uniforms and weapons were supplied by the government but the men provided their own horses. Another unit, the Mounted Rifles, was also part of the Light Horse. Over the years companies were formed, merged or disbanded until 1892 when the 1st, 2nd. 3rd and 4th Regiments were extended from eight to ten companies. A number of civilian rifle clubs had also been formed at this time. By 1894 it was the custom for senior cadets from public schools to be absorbed into the regiments. Organisation of the forces improved and by 1895 an Army Service Corps, an Ordinance Store Corps and a Veterinary department was added.
From the mid 1890s volunteers were again encouraged with the formation of the Scottish Rifles, Irish Rifles, St George's Rifles and Australian Rifles. The Defence Forces continued to grow with the establishment of the First Australian Volunteer Horse in 1897 and the Railway Volunteer Corps (1897 - 1899) and the National Guard (consisting of older men and former servicemen) in 1899. Volunteer companies continued to form including, in 1900, the Canterbury Mounted Rifles, Civil Service Corps and Drummoyne Volunteer Company. An Army Nursing Service Reserve was also established.
In New South Wales by the end of 1900 the military consisted of 505 officers and 8833 men. There was also a reserve with 130 officers and 1908 men plus 1906 members of civilian rifle clubs.
Military establishments also developed in the other states.
By the end of 1900 in Victoria the forces consisted of 301 officers and 6034 men, in Queensland the military forces totalled 4028 men, in South Australia there were 135 officers and 2797 men, in Western Australia there were 135 officers and 2561 men while in Tasmania there were 113 officers and 1911 men.
The Year Book Australia 1909 article provides detailed tables showing the numbers of military personnel for each state and the types of units including permanent, partially paid and volunteer in 1908.
The military forces were not just established to protect the colony from attack. An infantry battalion of 522 men and 24 officers plus an artillery battery of 212 men left Sydney on 3 March 1885 to fight in the Sudan under the command of the British.
Colonies, particularly New South Wales and Victoria, also sent troops to assist British forces in China during the Boxer Rebellion and to South Africa - the Boer War.
The Internet has a number of introductory articles on the topic. A sample of sites is listed below.
Colonial Forces of Australia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colonial_forces_of_Australia
Military System in Australia Prior to Federation - online edition
Digger History - http://www.diggerhistory.info/
History of Australia's Artillery - http://artilleryhistory.org/history.html
Australian War Memorial website has a number of sections covering:
Colonial Period 1788-1901 - http://www.awm.gov.au/atwar/colonial/
Sudan (New South Wales Contingent) 1885 - http://www.awm.gov.au/atwar/sudan/
Australia and the Boer War 1889-1902 - http://www.awm.gov.au/atwar/boer/
China (Boxer Rebellion) 1900-1901 - http://www.awm.gov.au/atwar/boxer/
Victorian Military History:
Victorian Volunteer Forces 1854 to 1884 - Museum Victoria
Victoria's Volunteers - Defending Victoria website
Colonial Defence Records held in Melbourne - National Archives fact sheet
Colonial forces and militia - State Library of Victoria research guide
Australian colonial forces and family history - State Library of Victoria research guide
Armed forces VF 372 - Public Record Office Victoria
The early muzzle loaders in the Victorian Volunteer Forces - http://mhhv.org.au/?p=754
Military History and Heritage Victoria - http://mhhv.org.au/
Victorian Volunteer Force on the Central Victorian Goldfields 1853-1883 - thesis by Bob Marmion
Victorian Volunteer Forces Long and Efficient Service medal 1880 - Museum Victoria
Melbourne Volunteer Rifle Regiment - History
Victorian Mounted Rifles - Traralgon Historical Society
Victorian Colonial and Pre WWI badges - Digger History
A number of books have been written covering the military in Australia prior to Federation.
A search in the State Library of Victoria catalogue for Colonial Forces or Volunteer Forces or Military service, Voluntary for example provides information about books, records on microfiche, photographs and online resources on the topic. Similar searches in the catalogues of the other state libraries and the National Library of Australia would also provide useful information.
Books have also been written concentrating on one locality. One title is The Shire of Lilydale and its Military Heritage by Anthony J McAleer published in 1994.
Also check public library catalogues for relevant items. The search for the words Colonial Military Forces in a public library catalogue located the following titles:
A Military History of Australia by Jeffrey Grey (3rd ed. 2008)
An Atlas of Australia's Wars by John Coates (2006)
The Diggers: Makers of Australian Military Tradition (1993)
The Colonial Volunteers: the Defence Forces of the Australian Colonies 1836 - 1901 (1988)
The Remote Garrison: the British Army in Australia 1788-1870 (1986)
Red Coat Dreaming: How Colonial Australia Embraced the British Army (2009)
Australian Military History for Dummies (2010)
Newspapers are perhaps the most valuable resource for locating information on early Australian military history, particularly as it affects a local area. Increasingly local newspapers, as well as the larger state and national newspapers, are being digitised and made available through Trove. Use the Advanced Search option to limit the search to a particular newspaper or time frame. If the local newspaper in your area has not yet been digitised it may be available on microfiche or even hard copy at the historical society for the area. The State Library of Victoria has copies of newspapers published throughout Victoria. Check the catalogue for availability. It may be necessary to order copies in advanced as much of the newspaper collection is in storage, offsite.