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Back in 1915, violence visited Broken Hill. With the locals blaming German interference or the presence of the ‘Terrible Turks’, troops were quickly called in to “leave no work for the hangman”.
Here I am again, to regale you with another story of the weird, wonderful and downright crazy in Australian history. This time we go back to January 1, 1915. The setting is Broken Hill, where the first day of the new year is traditionally used for the celebratory picnic of the Manchester Unity Order of Oddfellows, an ancient benevolent society that counts people like “future” British PM Winston Churchill amongst its members. But this is 1915. Churchill is First Lord of the Admiralty and Broken Hill is doing its bit too: not long after the outbreak of hostilities, 4,000 men signed up and are now preparing for Gallipoli. It is a lovely summer morning, this first of the new year, and about 1,200 men, women and children are excitedly mounting one of the forty open ore carriages on the train that will take them to the picnic ground in Silverton. The mood is buoyant and that means that when shots ring out, most people think it is fireworks. Then a young woman, Alma Cowie, 17, who is standing next to her fiancée, falls down. On inspection, bystanders find that the back of her head is missing, and will later see that part of her skull has hit another woman, who now lies on the floor injured. Within five minutes, two more people are killed: William Shaw, whose daughter Lucie is one of the seven hurt, and Albert Millard, who happens to cycle along the track and is hit by one of the thirty or so rifle bullets.
The train driver puts the pedal to the metal to get away from danger. Once he is on the other side of the hill and realises that the shooting has stopped, he halts the train and sends somebody to the nearest telephone to call the police. While the shocked passengers are waiting, the injured are carried off the train. “One woman who was lifted out presented an awful appearance. She and her baby clasped in her arms were covered in blood,” the Adelaide Chronicle would later write. A woman called Mrs Mudgee, who has just passed her Red Cross Society examination, tears her petticoat into strips to make bandages for the wounded. In the meantime, in town, a posse is being gathered together: police, 53 troops from the 82nd Infantry Battalion, members of the Volunteer Rifles, and “anyone with a gun who wanted to have a lash”. The “avenging party” is “desperate in its determination to leave no work for the hangman”: although they have no idea what is going on, they suspect that the Germans are attacking the town. It is war, after all, and the Hun is a nasty adversary. Then, eyewitnesses tell them that what they have seen is “coloured” men, Turks maybe, the other enemy overseas. Now it is completely clear: the war has crossed the waters and has come to home soil! So the party steam up to what is called the camel camp, where Afghan cameleers live with their families. When they arrive they are met with bullets, so the assembled mob digs in, and for 90 minutes have “an exciting time”. Bullets come close, and “open ground, without cover” has to be crossed. Soon it is clear that fire is only coming from one rifle, and then a man comes out of the scrub with a white handkerchief on his rifle. Two seconds later he is lying on the ground with sixteen bullet holes in his body. The police are notified that another person has been killed. James Craig, who lives in a house nearby, has gone outside to chop wood and has been hit by a bullet. A few days later, the Inverell Times enthusiastically writes that “women and children were murdered”, by “Terrible Turks”: “Broken Hill is always sensational, but today it excelled itself… Hot fire was poured into the enemy’s positions, (the) Turks’ stronghold.”
When it is all over, Broken Hill is furious. A big crowd, mostly consisting of “young men and youths” comes together in the centre of town and is threatening to “steam up” to the camel camp to get revenge. But the camp is a long walk out of town, and besides, the belief is that people of “the Mohammedan religion” are “simple and childish”, so somebody else must have been behind the attack. After a few minutes, the consensus is that “the Germans were the authors of the outrage”. So, singing patriotic songs, the mob gathers in front of the German Club, conveniently located close-by. They start “hurling stones through the windows (then) dash towards the building”; they throw methylated spirits inside and set fire to it. Once the club is in ruins, a few of the 2,000-strong crowd climb the flagstaff, rip off the German flag and replace it with the Australian one. But that is not enough. The next day, the mines in town sack all “enemy aliens”: four Germans, four Australians with “other” heritage, and one Turk—all men who have lived in Broken Hill for years and have families in town. The “aliens” are then arrested, “brought to the police station under guard” and put on the express to Adelaide. From there they are transported to the concentration camp at Holsworthy. One of them is a boxer called Frank Bungardy, nicknamed the Bun (a pun on “Hun”) or the Iron-Jawed German. Later he would write that he “had a wife and children at home” and was “permitted to go there to get some personal effects”. After half an hour he has to leave behind his weeping wife and their children and say good. Holsworthy in 1915 is a collection of tents and barracks surrounded by barbed wire and watch-towers with mounted machine guns. Lots of mud, no latrines and straw mattresses as the only comfort. This is where Bungardy spends the war, separated from his family. In 1919, when it is all over, he is deported to Germany, where he dies two years later, in the boxing ring, from a blow to the head. History doesn’t tell us what happened to his wife and children.
…That is what we do with history that asks uncomfortable questions: sweep it under the rug. Even if it is as interesting as the Battle of Broken Hill.
It is, of course, interesting that the good folk of Broken Hill so readily blame the Germans, since, without German smarts their town had not even existed. Before 1883, there was nothing but desert. Then, a boundary rider from Germany called Charles Rasp discovers metals in the ground. He pegs the first mining block on September 5, then forms a syndicate of seven men, who together lease the whole ridge. They subscribe £70 to their newly-founded Broken Hill Mining Company, each paying £1 a week towards working the claim. First, it looks like a dud, until they hit pay-dirt two years later when they find silver. Their Broken Hill Propriety Company soon makes a fortune and most of the “patriots” burning the German Club work in its mines. But even disregarding history, it is clear even in 1915 that people like Frank Bungardy are innocent bystanders, paying an enormous price for something they didn’t do.
The real culprits turn out to be Badsha Mahommed Gool and Mullah Abdullah. Both have good reason to be less than cheerful about Broken Hill and its inhabitants. Neither of them are Turks, by the way. Gool was born in what is now Pakistan, then part of the British Empire. He and Abdullah, from India, are British subjects, but not treated like that. Gool first worked as a cameleer, but it is clear with the emergence of train transport that the good times in that business are over. He finds a job in the mines, but is sacked when the war breaks out and contracts with German smelters are cancelled. Desperate, he buys an ice-cream cart from a local Italian, the one he will later use to transport the rifles to the train track. His friend and neighbour in the camel camp is Mullah Abdullah. He is the local imam and therefore also a halal butcher. That is never a problem until a new “sanitary inspector” comes to town, an Irishman called Cornelius Brosnan. Officially, only butchers who are part of the Butchers Trade Union can slaughter animals in Broken Hill. And you can only become a member if you are British and white. But before Brosnan arrived, the local council had accepted Abdullah slaughtering sheep at home, for the use of the people in the camel camp. Brosnan is having none of it. He fines Abdullah a number of times, even after he is told that Abdullah’s house and possessions have been destroyed in a fire, leaving him without the means to pay. Both men are taunted by the local children on a regular basis, as well. They are chased, abused, and stones are thrown, so when they sit down together, a few days before the raid, and smoke a bit of hashish, they find each other in their bitterness and anger. They also talk about the war and the fact that the supreme religious leader of the Ottoman Empire has just declared a jihad against Great Britain and its allies. It seems fortuitous: why not go out in a blaze of glory? Kill as many “unbelievers” as possible for Allah and avenge yourself against the town at the same time?
After it is all over, the bodies of Gool and Abdullah have mysteriously disappeared. Broken Hill’s funeral director doesn’t want them in his shop, and the men at the camel camp also refuse to handle the corpses. Not only are they afraid of reprisals, they are also, the Adelaide Chronicle writes, “loyal British subjects. Many have served in the British army, and at the beginning of the war offered their services, saying they would fight for Australia. (They are) very bitter against the perpetrators of the raid” and don’t want to be associated “with the Turks’ lust for blood”. So the bodies vanish, the “aliens” are in a concentration camp and the “first Australians killed on home soil” are used in PR exercises to get more men to enlist. The Bulletin writes a fake news story, multiplying the victim count by ten and insisting that the raid was a well-thought-out German exercise. An inquest concludes that Gool and Abdullah “died from gunshot wounds inflicted upon them by persons unknown, in self-defence, (which was) justifiable under the circumstances”. After the war, the Battle of Broken Hill, as it is called, is soon forgotten. There are some academic articles, a book or two and an attempt to make a movie that strands because of lack of funds. In 2015, the town tries to get some money from the Federal Government to put up a commemorative plaque. They don’t get anywhere either. Finally, the NSW Government gives $5,000 to the National Trust, which it uses for a memorial outside of Broken Hill’s Historical Museum. That is what we do with history that asks uncomfortable questions: sweep it under the rug. Even if it is as interesting as the Battle of Broken Hill.