After two men attacked a picnic train in Broken Hill on New Year’s Day 1915 one of their bodies is moved to the morgue. Photo: Broken Hill City Library Lorraine Cole, Barry “Fred” Cowie and Peggy Corney visit the site of the Broken Hill picnic train attack where their aunt, Alma Cowie was shot dead in 1915. Photo: Sam Scotting
The Manchester Unity picnic train attacked by ‘Turks’ at Broken Hill on New Year’s Day 1915. Photo: Broken Hill City Library
Police and local militia in a shoot out on Cable Hill with two men who fatally attacked a picnic train in Broken Hill on New Year’s Day 1915. Photo: Broken Hill City Library
Gool Mahomed sold ice-cream around Broken Hill, so few took notice when the picnic train approached the two turbaned men beside his ice-cream cart flying a strange little red flag with a crescent and star.
The Ottoman flag hung limp in the mid-morning sun as the pair suddenly threw themselves prone in the red dirt and peered down the sights of ancient rifles. They fired, peppering the train with 48 shots as it slowly chugged past carrying men, women and children in open carriages.
One of the bullets smashed into Alma Cowie’s head and the 17-year-old slumped over her boyfriend Clarrie O’Brien. Depending on your point of view, she was the first Australian killed by the enemy on home soil in World War I, or the first Australian to fall to an act of terrorism.
It was January 1, 1915, the Gallipoli landing lay ahead but the attack riveted the nation and soldiers overseas. The attorney-general, Billy Hughes, agitated for the internment of enemy nationals. It became background noise to conscription campaigns. A young Victorian Anzac was to write to the people of Broken Hill: “I can tell you we will be letting the Turks know there will be more to shoot at than a picnic train.”
But that New Year’s Day, the war was a world away from Broken Hill.
Some 1200 residents had climbed into freshly swept ore trucks fitted with benches and set off on the Manchester Unity Order of Oddfellows Club annual picnic train ride to Silverton near the South Australian border.
Gool Mohamed and his older accomplice Mulla Abdulla waited to begin their two-man war on the dusty outskirts. There was little cover. Four decades of mining had cleared the saltbush and trees for firewood. The passengers were sitting ducks. They hit 10 people. Three died. Adults threw themselves over children, some leapt off the slow-moving carriages and bolted.
The train drifted out of sight and the two assailants fled armed with an elderly Martini-Henry breech-loading rifle, a Snider-Enfield carbine, a revolver and home-made bandoliers. They headed for a quartz outcrop now known as White Rocks Reserve about two kilometres away.
The White Australia Policy was in full bloom, a curious anomaly in a mining town founded on the camel’s back. Dromedaries were cheaper to run than bullocks but the cameleers from the North-West Frontier, although British subjects, were hugely resented, denied union membership, confined with their smelly beasts to camel camps outside town and allowed only Aboriginal women. The Barrier Truth newspaper fulminated against “the Afghan Menace”; the opposition Barrier Miner newspaper ran a series demanding the cameleers be thrown out of town.
The lead, zinc and silver from Broken Hill’s line of lode was worth $100 billion. Profit vied with bitter strikes and lockouts and turned the town into a citadel of union power. Broken Hill gave the nation BHP, actor Chips Rafferty, soprano June Bronhill, comedian the Sandman and painter Pro Hart and its hard-drinking masculine culture provided the setting for the seminal 1971 film Wake in Fright. But in 1915, remorseless isolation made Broken Hill an inward-looking society whose 33,000 residents disliked outsiders and pigeon-holed the rest of the world with the question: “You come from Away?”
Gool Mohamed, born in what is now Afghanistan in 1874, came to Australia as a cameleer. Shortly after Federation he travelled to Turkey to fight for the Ottoman empire army, returning to work in the mines. But the war knocked mineral prices, pit work evaporated and he hawked ice-cream.
Mulla Abdulla was born near the Kyber Pass around 1855 and was the imam and halal butcher for the Broken Hill camel camp. Children threw stones at him. “Beyond complaining to police, he was never known to retaliate,” The Sydney Morning Herald reported on January 4, 1915.
Days before the picnic train attack, Mulla Abdulla had been fined for killing sheep off licensed premises on the evidence of the council sanitary officer. Perhaps it was no accident one of their train victims was a sanitary department foreman, William Shaw.
After the attack, pandemonium broke out. Authorities took the best part of an hour to get their act together. Police were mustered and armed, a small force from the local army base was alerted and local militia rushed the Barrier Boy’s Brigade for rifles.
“There was,” the Barrier Miner reported, “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.”
Author Patsy Adam-Smith described it less heroically in 1969, saying it was “as close a parallel to the Keystone Cops of silent comedy days as this country is ever likely to see”. One of the police cars broke down and when constable Robert Mills approached the pair – not realising they were his quarry – he was shot in the groin and leg.
The fleeing cameleers had already killed another man on their way to the quartz outcrop. Enraged, locals descended on the area. Shooters surrounded the tor and poured hot fire on the pair. Mulla Abdulla fell but Gool Mahomed fought on, keeping several hundred men at bay. His attempt to surrender was ignored.
Just before 1pm police and military rushed the redoubt to find the old man dead and his younger accomplice alive but riddled with 16 bullets. He died on the way to hospital.
What became known as “the Battle of Broken Hill” (thanks largely to a little-seen 1981 film of the same name) was over after three hours.
Six died and at least seven were wounded, including two children. The so-called Turks’ bodies were disposed off swiftly and secretly. Camel camp residents wanted nothing to do with their purification. They may have been buried under an explosives store or in the jail murderer’s plot.
Broken Hill celebrated its victory. Souvenir hunters tore the ice-cream cart apart, scavenged bullet-riddle carriages and hunted for spent cartridges. By nightfall a mob full of beer and wind wheeled into Delamore Street to torch the German Club. Fire carts arrived but hoses were chopped up to ensure the building burnt to the ground. The mob then headed to the camel camp amid cries of “Remember our women who were shot”.
Police unsuccessfully attempted to halt the march. But the lynch mob ran out of steam when confronted by a detachment of civilian and military forces with fixed bayonets lined up across the road outside the camel camp.
The ambush inflamed Australia.
The Herald’s six-deck headline shouted “The fight with the Turks”. The Melbourne Argus was equally as shrill: “Turks Attack Train”. In Adelaide, a mob tore down a Muslim flag from the minaret on the Little Gilbert Street mosque. Hughes used the attack to intern all “enemy aliens” for the duration of the war.
Three days after the attack, 11 aliens were arrested in Broken Hill and sent to Adelaide for incarceration in the Torrens Island Concentration Camp. Only one company, Central Mine, stood down aliens. Union leaders said nothing, mindful perhaps that aliens helped hold the line against BHP in the 1909 lockout.
Australia also began a sort of town-planning ethnic cleansing: place names like Germanton were changed to Holbrook (NSW) and Grovedale (Victoria) as authorities swept away teutonic vestiges.
Peter Black, former Labor MP for the seat of Murray-Darling who served 19 years as mayor of Broken Hill, said the attack resonated in modern-day Australia.
“It was used for quite terrible purposes. The conservative governments of the day embraced it in the same way we embrace terrorism in Australia today, as a motivational force. While we’re talking about terrorism were not talking about a federal budget are we?”
Days after the attack, a miner found three Urdu statements under a rock at the last stand. One was Gool Mahomed’s application to join the Turkish army. “I kill your people because your people are fighting my country,” he wrote. Mulla Abdulla mentioned the court case and said both had prayed “to Allah that life was no more use to them . . . I have never worn a turban since the day some larrikans threw stones at me . . . I wear the turban today.” Some dispute the suicide notes’ veracity.
On January 7, coroner C.F. Butler, SM, found four Broken Hill residents had died of gunshot wounds “feloniously and maliciously inflicted on them” by the “Afghans”.
Broken Hill Historical Society secretary Jenny Camilleri said the attack was buried in the past: “It was never mentioned in school. We didn’t even know the meaning of the word Muslim until recently.”
But memories did not die. Technical-school students made a replica of the ice-cream cart and it now does duty as a tourist attraction at White Rocks Reserve; a rotting old wooden ore carriage denotes the attack site and the Police and Justice Museum in Sydney has the rifles, the Turkish flag, a bandolier and a Koran.
When Alma Cowie died in Clarrie O’Brien’s arms on the picnic train she was wearing his friendship. His son found it when Clarrie died and gave it to a local museum.
For Peggy Corney, Alma’s niece, the ring completed the circle. “It was just so lovely to know after so many years that he treasured her all his life,” Peggy said.
Alma Cowie is buried in a family grave in the dusty Broken Hill Cemetery about 500 metres from where she was shot. A glass dome filled with delicate porcelain flowers and small birds sits on the white-tiled slab. Peggy Corney cleans it occasionally. “The red dirt gets into everything out here,” she says.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Wuxi Plastic Surgery Hospital.