The Battle of Broken Hill – New Year’s Day 1915

It was spotting with rain (yaaay!) as, after lunch on Day 4 of our Broken Hill adventure, we drove past this object on our way to Silverton. It may look like an ancient broken down rail wagon, but au contraire, you can be sure there is a story behind it, and I am about to give you my version.

Battle of Broken Hill Ambush Site Memorial

Battle of Broken Hill Ambush Site Memorial

In early 1915, the following article was widely reported in Australian country newspapers. It had been submitted by a Mrs H. Philipson of Sydney, and purported to be an “official statement” from Berlin, Germany:

“A notable success has been achieved by our arms in Australia, near Broken Hill, where a force of Turks surprised and put to flight a superior force, which was being transported by rail. Forty of the enemy were killed and 70 wounded, the casualties among the Turks being only two killed. Broken Hill is an important mining centre and port on the west coast of Australia. This success of our arms practically assures the control of the valuable mineral mines in the neighbourhood, and leaves the way open for an attack on Candbris, the capital of Australia, and its most strongly fortified centre, although owing to the flooded condition of the country an attack may be impossible until next spring.”

Whether any such statement was ever issued, or published in German newspapers, I am never likely to verify. It certainly smacks of a hoax. However, there is a grain of truth to the story  . . . a very small grain, mind you! Broken Hill was an important mining centre, albeit landlocked and about 2800km (1700 mi) from the west coast of Australia. As for an attack on Candbris? Well, about three years prior the US architect Walter Burley Griffin was announced as winner of the competition to design the national capital. At the time, the area around what would become Canberra, was most strongly fortified, with – wait for it  . .  “1,714 non-Indigenous people on pastoral properties grazing some 224,764 sheep”!  Perhaps we could have smothered invaders in wool?

Ah well, the Germans wouldn’t be the first to over-estimate national security defences. Nor the last. Anyway, moving right along . . .

In truth, there was an attack on Broken Hill! Absolutely! Definitely! True! There are plenty of articles and blogs on-line which document and reference the story correctly, but in broad terms it goes like this:

Since 1901, the “friendly society” Manchester Unity Independent Order of Oddfellows had celebrated New Year’s Day by picnicking near Silverton, 25km (15mi) out of town. 1915 was no exception, even if many of their number had already enlisted to fight in WWI. At 10am they set off from Broken Hill in a long train of 40 open ore trucks owned by the Silverton Tramway Company (of the style in the photo). On board were 1200 men, women and children dressed up and in good spirits, some sitting on the temporary benches and others standing.

Ten minutes along, about 3 miles towards Silverton, as the train pulled slowly up a hill, the attention of some crew and passengers was drawn to activity in the distance. They could make out an ice-cream cart with a flag flying from it, and two men with rifles.

There was good-hearted speculation about what they were doing out there. Some picnickers waved, thinking they were out rabbiting. But as the distance closed it could be seen that the flag was red with a white crescent and white star – the Ottoman Turkish flag. Suddenly the two “Turks” opened fire on the train as it was passing, getting off twenty or thirty shots.

The passengers in the low wagons were completely exposed. Three passengers died at the scene: 17-year-old Alma Cowie, married man William Shaw who was a foreman in the Sanitary Department, and Alf Millard, a pipeline inspector who was cycling beside the train. Another victim, James Craig, was killed in cross-fire later in the day when police had cornered the perpetrators who also died that day. Ten people, including one policeman, were injured in the attack.

Who would do such a thing – and why?

Well, the “force of Turks” referred to in Mrs Phillipson’s article were actually two men, neither of them of strictly Turkish origin.

Mullah Adbullah, was a 60 year-old cameleer (camel driver), probably from Afghanistan or northern Pakistan, and a resident of Broken Hill for sixteen years. He was also a halal butcher for the local Muslim population, in which capacity he had recently been prosecuted by an over-zealous sanitary inspector. In summary, this, and other persecutions which came to light at the inquest, had left him with a grievance.

His accomplice was 40 year-old Gool Badsha Mahomed. He had been born near the North-West Frontier of India, that area which often features in Rudyard Kipling poems and stories. He had lived in Australia and worked as cameleer, then he decided to join the Turkish army and fought in a number of campaigns which pre-date WWI. He returned to Australia in 1912, and at one stage he had work in Broken Hill as a miner, but by the time of this attack, he was an ice-cream vendor. It was from his cart that the attack was launched. Of the two, it was this man who had the nationalistic fervour to conceive this attack. He left a suicide note, in which he declared, in part, that “I hold the Sultan’s order, duly signed and sealed by him . . .I must kill your men and give my life for my faith by order of the Sultan.” Other sources have somewhat different translations, but the meaning is the same. He was stirred up by the increasing threats to Turkey on the part of the allies. It’s helpful to keep in mind that the Gallipoli invasion took place only a few months later.

The local population rose up in outrage against this attack, and  . . . burned down the German Club. Then they marched on the Afghan camp, but were held back by police. In subsequent days, citing the 1914 Commonwealth War Precautions Act, several men of various nationalities were considered “enemy aliens” and lost their mining jobs. One article I read also asserts that the Attorney-General Billy Hughes (soon to become Prime Minister), also used this attack as justification to intern approximately 7,000 from the German and Austrian population of Australia.

So there you have it. Two aggrieved and isolated drifters, high on marijuana (did I forget to mention that part?) take it into their head to load up a wooden ice-cream cart with outdated armaments, hang out a hand-made flag, go off on a suicide mission to kill innocent civilians, and as a consequence both our ground-roots and official response is to retaliate by vilifying the nearest suspicious-looking ethnic group. Sound familiar?

Information in this article has been put together from what were told on our visit to Broken Hill, but there are many sources on the Internet, including the not-always-reliable Wikipedia; usually correct, Australian Dictionary of Biography; and, best resource of all, the digitised newspapers to be found on the National Library’s Trove website. Of the newspapers articles, the most likely to contain accurate information is the report on the inquest. I attach some links for any who may be interested in knowing more of this extraordinary war story – the only attack to take place on Australian soil in WWI.

I thought this historical snippet merited its own blog post. More on our trip to Silverton coming up.

Garrulous Gwendoline




15 thoughts on “The Battle of Broken Hill – New Year’s Day 1915

  1. Pingback: Silverton – The Ghost Town | The Reluctant Retiree

    • One article I read on Goebbels claims he based his propaganda style on American advertising. Short, simple slogans with mass appeal. And I love this quote from Mein Kampf: “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”

      Liked by 1 person

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