[Published 30 December 2014]
The Department of Veteran’s Affairs announced last March that the centenary of the Battle of Broken Hill on 1 January 2015 would not be formally commemorated by the Australian Government.
That decision will now be seen in hindsight by many as a wise one indeed — following the fallout resulting from the horrific Martin Place siege perpetrated by self-styled Islamic cleric Man Haron Monis just two weeks ago - that claimed his life and those of two innocent civilians.
However Nicholas Shakespeare has written a novella — ”Oddfellows” - based on this little known event — to be published by Random House in January - ensuring this centenary will not pass unnoticed.
Shakespeare has written a poignant article - “Outback Jihad” - in which he graphically describes what the locals call “The New Year’s Day Tragedy”:
“The tragedy was a desperate response, in the least likely spot, to a jihad announced on the other side of the world. On 11 November 1914 — 100 years ago this month — the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V, and caliph of all Muslims, who had earlier signed a treaty with Germany, declared a holy war against Great Britain and her allies, “the mortal enemies of Islam”. The Turkish sultan’s call overlooked the Christianity of his own allies in Germany and Austria-Hungary, and was virtually ignored by Muslims, save for some small-scale mutinies in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and in Broken Hill where two disaffected “Turks” decided to launch a suicide mission under a homemade Turkish flag. Their target: a train of 40 open ore wagons carrying more than 1200 holiday-makers…
At 10 am on 1 January 1915, the long and crowded train pulled away from the Broken Hill platform. It had been a town ritual since 1901: on New Year’s Day, the Manchester Unity Independent Order of Oddfellows, a friendly society founded to embrace education and social advancement, held a picnic 25 kilometres away at a shady creek in Silverton…
Less than ten minutes after leaving the station, the train slowed down, the driver having been warned that sand had drifted across the line. The engine stoker was standing out on the footplate when he noticed a red cloth fluttering above a white cart. His first thought: someone’s exploding defective ammunition. But he dismissed it. No one would be venturing out with a powder magazine on New Year’s Day…
... They chugged past. The driver noticed what looked like an insignia on the red cloth. What this was, he couldn’t make out. Then a breeze sprang up, the cloth unfolded, and the driver saw a yellow crescent, like a banana, and a star.
At that moment, a pair of white turbans bobbed up from the trench—dark faces, the tips of rifles—and the driver heard two gunshots. One bullet hit the sand, spitting dust against the engine. The second bullet struck the brake van, embedding itself in the woodwork…”
In the ensuing melee and mayhem that followed for the next three hours—six people (including the attackers) were killed and seven injured.
“The two soldiers of Allah were not Turks, but British passport-holders from India’s north-west frontier, a region now divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
One was Badsha Mahomed Gül:
“Born in the mountainous Tirah region, Gül had come to Australia as a cameleer. When the camel business declined, he had worked in a silver mine until the outbreak of war, and was laid off after all contracts with the German smelters were cancelled…
Three days after the tragedy, a confession was discovered, tucked under a rock and written in a mixture of Urdu and Dari, in which, astoundingly, Gül claimed to have visited Turkey four times — and even to have enlisted in the sultan’s army…"
Gül’s accomplice was Mullah Abdullah:
”.. a disgruntled old cameleer with a limp. Aged 60, he had lived in Broken Hill for 15 years. Different skin colour, strange clothes, not Anglo-Saxon —boys laughed when he hobbled by and chased him down the street, throwing stones. He never retaliated, but several times complained to the police, who failed to act.”
Eerily reminiscent of Man Haron Monis and his numerous brushes with the legal system:
“He (Abdullah) was not trained as a priest, but he had priests in his family. In the absence of a religious leader, he had begun to take on that role in “Ghantown”, as the North Broken Hill camel camp was known.
As well as acting as imam, he served as the butcher of his community, slaughtering animals in the manner stipulated by Islamic law. The fact that he was not a member of the butchers’ union in the most unionist town in the country brought him into conflict with those who needed little excuse to treat a Pathan from north-west India as an enemy alien. The most aggressive of his persecutors was the local sanitary inspector, a short, mournful-looking Irishman called Cornelius Brosnan.”
Broken Hill’s current mayor — Winston Cuy — acknowledges there are sensitive issues in the incident such as religion and civilian deaths.
“Broken Hill will be recognising it. What are the words you use and how do you commemorate it?”
Christine Adams — Curator of the Broken Hill Sulphide St Railway and Historical Museum — provides a sensible pointer:
“We think that it needs to be treated with a certain amount of tact. It was two people, what they did was a terrible terrible thing, it wasn’t a nation”.