Sydney Earnest Christian was born on 17 April 1868, the son of a pastoralist. He was educated at the elite King's School, Parramatta and Geelong Grammar. At one point he considered a military career and qualified for entry to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, but did not enrol, instead returning to the family property.
Christian was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 4th New South Wales Infantry (Maitland Regiment), a volunteer militia unit, in 1891. On 18 February 1895 he joined the New South Wales Permanent Military Forces as a lieutenant in 'A' Field Battery and became aide de camp to Major General E. T. H. Hutton, the commander of the state's military forces.
When war broke out in South Africa, the New South Wales government offered the services of its only field batter to the Imperial government. The offer was accepted and the battery, consisting of five officers and 174 other ranks equipped with six 15-pounder field guns, embarked for South Africa on 30 December 1899. The battery was the only Australian artillery unit (and the only unit of the permanent army) to serve in South Africa, as it it was the only one to serve in the Sudan in 1885.
The battery served in the Orange Free State and the Cape Colony. It was frequently split into its two gun sections, which were sometimes deployed far apart. Detached, Christian's section saw action at Petrusville on the southern border of the Orange Free State in November 1900. The section then moved on to Pretoria and helped clear the Transvaal. It rejoined the rest of the battery in August 1901. The commander of the column with which it had been serving reported that it had "been a pattern of smartness and efficiency. They have trekked many hundreds of miles with the column, and I never wished for better artillery". For his part, Christian was mentioned in dispatches by Lord Kitchener as "a very good gunner and horsemaster". The battery returned to Australia on 15 September 1901.
Christian became an artillery staff captain in New South Wales and Victoria. He was confirmed in the rank in 1905. In 1907 he spent twelve months on exchange duty in England with the Royal Artillery. In January 1909, he became chief instructor for militia artillery in New South Wales and Queensland, carving out a reputation as a hard taskmaster. By this time, the artillery had begun to receive the new 18-pounders that they would use in the Great War. On 30 November 1910, Christian was promoted to major and given command of the 1st Field Battery, one of the Army's few regular units.
Christian was appointed to the AIF with the rank of major on 18 August 1914 as commander of the 1st Field Artillery Brigade. This brigade included the 1st Field Battery, a unit raised from regular gunners, from Christian's 1st Battery. Christian was promoted to lieutenant colonel in October and sailed for Egypt in October 1914.
One gun from each battery of the brigade was landed at Anzac on 26 April 1915 and dragged into position where they fired some 800 rounds at the enemy. Owing to a shortage of battery positions they were returned to the ships. Christian's brigade was instead landed at the Cape Helles front on 4 and 5 May 1915 where it came under the control the Companion, Royal Artillery (CRA) of the British 29th Division. Christian was evacuated sick on 9 May 1915. The brigade remained at Gallipoli until October, when it finally returned to Anzac.For his service at Gallipoli, Christian was awarded a Companion of St Michael and St George (CMG) and mentioned in dispatches.
On 21 February 1916, Christian was promoted to colonel and temporary brigadier general and given command of the new 5th Division Artillery. Forming this formation was a difficult task, as only a cadre was available from the 1st Division Artillery and few artillery reinforcements were available. Instead, the formation was filled with infantry and light horse reinforcements. Nonetheless, the 5th Division moved to France in June 1916, and the artillery was firing over the heads of their infantry in the attack at Fromelles in July, where Christian commanded a force of 114 18-pounders and 24 4.5-inch howitzers of the 4th, 5th and British 31st Divisions, and some 20 British and Canadian trench mortars. The attack was a disaster, and showed that the artillery had much to learn, but retained the confidence of their Australian infantry -- a claim that could not be made on behalf of the British high command.
In October, the 5th Division Artillery moved to the Somme front where it fired in support of the New Zealand Division. It rejoined I Anzac Corps for the fighting at Flers in November.
Christian became ill in January 1917 and was evacuated. General W. R. Birdwood, commander of I Anzac Corps, had become disappointed with Christian's performance. While acknowledging his technical ability, Birdwood felt that Christian had become fat and lazy. Accordingly, Christian was invalided to Australia, where he was discharged from the AIF. Christian retired from the Army in January 1918 with the rank of honorary brigadier general.
He died on 17 May 1931 and was cremated.
Sources: Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1899-1939, Vol 7, pp. 643-644; Horner, The Gunners, pp. 41-49, 92-93, 99-102, 137
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Last update 16 September 2001