Four months before the 25th of April 1915, when the ANZACS (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) landed on the Turkish coast at Gallipoli, the first Australians to fall from Turkish enemy fire were Oddfellows and members of their families – civilians on a Broken Hill picnic train.
The incident occurred on New Year’s Day, 1915, in Broken Hill, located in the far west of NSW. Broken Hill is a mining town, and was where the BHP mining company was founded in 1885. Members of the Manchester Unity Order of Oddfellows and their families – 1,200 people, including children, crammed into open ore trucks of a train steaming to the picnic grounds at Silverton, located 25 kilometres north-west of Broken Hill. Short of the picnic grounds, however, the train groaned unexpectedly to a halt.
The engine driver had braked at the curious sight of an unattended ice cream cart by the side of the track. Attached to it was a pole, and from the pole hung a flag – the Turkish flag, although none of the passengers recognized it as such. The happy babble on the train died down as the passengers pondered the meaning of the deserted cart and the forlorn flag.
The silence was suddenly broken by the sound of a gun shot, followed by another. It took the crowd a short time to realise that they were under attack, with a boy, girl, old man and three women hit in the initial volley of bullets. Some of the people on the train realised that they were under fire from two men in a trench dug in a nearby sand dune. The two men firing at them were the town’s ice cream vendor and part time camel driver, Gool Mahommed, and the butcher for the Afghan camel drivers and the leader of the local Islamic community, the elderly Mullah Abdullah. As well as the dead and injured on the train, a man riding by on a horse was also shot, while another man chopping wood 500 metres away was killed by a ricochet of a bullet. The train started up again, taking the petrified passengers out of range, while news of the attack was telegraphed back to the town police and citizen militia.
Mahommed and Abdullah made a run to a new vantage point, and along the way they shot a man who had barricaded himself inside a hut. Near the Cable Hotel, still on the run, the pair came across a group of police. When the police saw they had rifles, two constables were ordered to approach them to ascertain their identity. Mahommed and Abdullah opened fire, and one of the constables was wounded by two bullets. The police decided to retreat and wait for reinforcements. The killers ran for cover to a rocky white quartz outcrop a few hundred metres away that gave them good protection and from there, for the next 90 or so minutes, the they shot it out with police, with the militia and enthusiastic civilians joining in.
The Barrier Miner reported the engagement:
“The general operations were under the direction of Inspector Miller and Lieutenant Resch. The attacking party spread out on the adjoining hills, and there was a hot fire poured into the enemy’s position, the Turks returning the fire with spirit but without effect, which is rather surprising, as the range was short and the attacking parties in some cases exposed themselves rather rashly to get a shot.”
The reason for the ineffectual return fire from the Turks was that Abdullah had been shot dead early on in the battle. Eventually Mahommed stood up with something tied to his rifle – either the Turkish flag or a white flag of surrender, and was shot immediately.
The Barrier Miner reported on the end of the shooting:
“In the battle there was a desperate determination to leave no work for the hangman or to run the risk of the murderers of peaceful citizens being allowed to escape. It was not a long battle. The attacking party was constantly being reinforced by eager men who arrived in any vehicle they could obtain or on foot. At just about one o’clock a rush took place to the Turks’ stronghold and they were found lying on the ground behind their shelter. Both had many wounds. One was dead, the other expired later in hospital. They were in the dress of their people, with turbans on their heads. The police took charge of the bodies.”
Found on the body of Mohammed was a note, which read:
“In the name of God, all Merciful, and of Mahommed His prophet. This poor sinner is a subject of the Sultan. My name is Gool Badsha Mahomed, Afghan Afridi. In the reign of Abdul Hamid Sultan, I have visited his kingdom four times for the purpose of fighting. I hold the Sultan’s order, duly signed and sealed by him. It is in my waistbelt now, and if it is not destroyed by cannon shot or rifle bullets, you will find it on me. I must kill your men and give my life for my faith by order of the Sultan. I have no enmity against anyone; nor have I consulted with anyone, nor informed anyone. We bid to all the faithful farewell.”
The Battle of Broken Hill left four people dead and ten wounded, and had far reaching implications. The Australian Attorney-General, Billy Hughes, used the incident to agitate successfully for the internment of all enemy nationals (mostly those of German descent) in Australia during World War 1.
Paul Taylor’s book “Australian Ripping Yarns”, Five Mile Press, Rowville, Victoria, 2004, p. 175-177 was used as the basis for this blog entry.