When Jihad Came to the Australian Outback

Broken Hill
Removing wounded and dead to the STC Pumping station. Photos Courtesy of Broken Hill City Library / www.brokenhillaustralia.com.au

Even in Australian terms, Broken Hill – 852km north of Melbourne, 1,150km west of Sydney – feels a long way from anywhere. Yet, in its boom days, the sweltering main street boasted more hotels than any city in Australia. From my ironwork verandah in the Palace Hotel, where Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was filmed, I look out at the gigantic slag heap that dominates every street like a frown; grey and obdurate, "the mullock", as it's known, is an unavoidable reminder of the source of Broken Hill's phemonenal wealth in the early 20th century, when its minerals – chiefly zinc, silver and lead – were railroaded to Port Pirie and then shipped to Saxon smelters in Freiberg to make, among other things, bullets for German guns.

It was on a roasting morning like this, topping 30C (85F), that the town witnessed the first and only enemy action on Australian soil during the First World War. The story is hardly known in Australia – and little enough in Broken Hill. I've travelled here to tease it out, because, although this drama took place one hundred years ago, it leads like a lightning rod into a conflagration that burns today with still greater ferocity – from Boston to China, and from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's self-proclaimed caliphate, Islamic state (Isis), all the way to Mecca itself.

History in Australia lies close to the surface, but its nuggets are easy to overlook, especially in the interior. I hope the story I'm prospecting won't prove as elusive as the town's Railway Museum. Stepping into the sunlight, I ask directions from a man leaving a betting shop, where, he says, he's placed $20 on a horse called Read All About Me. Cheerfully, he remembers that the museum is in the next street, just around the corner. "If you're going there, it's worth a visit." I go around the corner. Nothing. I walk over to another man, an ex-school teacher who points with confidence back down Bromide Street. I follow his finger. But no museum. Frustrated, I strike up conversation with a Telstra engineer, recently-arrived. He directs me up Blende Street, and I find it, at last – in Sulphide Street.

Tucked out of sight on a shelf in what used to be the station-master's office, a plastic black binder contains details and photographs of what became known locally as 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 November 11th 1914, the Turkish 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". His call overlooked the Christianity of his own allies in Germany and Austro-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 home-made Turkish flag. Their target: a train of 40 open ore wagons carrying more than 1,200 holiday-makers.

At 10am on 1st January 1915, one of the longest and most crowded trains to leave Broken Hill pulled away from the platform, which today forms part of the Railway Museum. 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 14 miles away in a shady creek in Silverton (where Mad Max was filmed). The railcars that transported ore had been hosed out, wooden planks set up for passengers to sit on – and, under them, space to pack away chairs, blankets and wicker hampers containing lemonade and lamb sandwiches, these to be consumed beneath the gum trees while families watched the running and obstacle races.

Dressed in their freshly-laundered best summer clothes, some holding parasols, hundreds of light-hearted men, women and children chatted and waved as the train jolted forward and headed out towards the desert. Australia had been at war since August 1914 – many of these picnickers had brothers, fathers and sons in the Commonwealth Expeditionary Force, which had reached Suez only a few weeks before. Yet today was a day to forget the war. On that Saturday morning, few places on Earth were as peaceful as the red landscape surrounding Broken Hill, or so remote.

I drive out to the ore wagon that marks the infamous spot, two miles away. Wooden-sided, it looks bigger than in the photos, as if built for cattle. All around, under the widest of blue skies, stretches a flat expanse of stony, treeless desert dotted with wind-twisted, blackened vegetation and the skulls of dead gourds and paddy melon. Blink, and this might be the Holy Land.

Less than 10 minutes after leaving the station, the train slowed down, the driver having been warned that sand had drifted across the line. The fireman 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.

The white cart was parked close to the tracks, on the other side of a trench carrying a water-pipe. As the train steamed closer, the fireman read the words painted on the side – "Lakovsky's Delicious ITALIAN ICE-CREAM. A Food fit for Children and Invalids" – and relaxed. "It's rather late for an ice-cream cart to be going out to Silverton," he observed. The driver smiled. "I suppose some poor old beggar's hoping to make a bit for himself."

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, unfolding it, and he 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 he 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.

"What's that?" someone asked.

"It's the Germans," joked another.

The Germans! In Broken Hill! Everyone laughed. They thought it was a stone pinging against the side.

The two turbaned men continued to fire at the train, ducking down after each shot to reload, or to take cover in case anyone shot back. But no one shot back. In fact, no one had any idea what was going on. Two girls yelled "Happy New Year!" at the spectacle of two dark men in red jackets and frost-white turbans, like ice-cream almost. They imagined the shots were being fired in honour of the passing train.

A guard of honour. A stone. Children taking pot-shots at rabbits. Each truck-load formed its own interpretation. One passenger, registering two men lying on the embankment above the trench with the water-pipe, assumed that something was wrong with the pipe – a leak? – and these men were attending to it. Another, seeing a cow on the right-handside, wondered if some idiot was trying to shoot it. Yet another picnicker, thinking it was boys firing blanks, shouted: "Stop fooling around, or someone will get hurt!" Then a 17-year-old dairyman's daughter, Alma Priscilla Cowie, standing beside her boyfriend, Clarence O'Brien, slumped to the floor. When O'Brien reached out to hold her, he saw that the back and top of her head had been blown away.

Taking the dead to the morgue
Taking the dead to the morgue. Photos Courtesy of Broken Hill City Library / www.brokenhillaustralia.com.au

The two soldiers of Allah were not Turks, but British passport-holders from India's north-west frontier, an area now part of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The youngest was the ice-cream seller, Badsha Mahommed Gool, a thoughtful 39-year-old Afridi. Born in the mountainous Tirah region, Gool 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. Then, in November, Gool had bought a horse-drawn ice-cream cart from an Italian. Already, he was a familiar figure in Argent Street. Yet Gool's friendly, open manner to Broken Hill's children, to whom he sold lollies and buttermilk ice-cream for three pence a scoop, concealed a complicated, anguished character.

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, Gool claimed to have visited Turkey four times – and even to have enlisted in the Sultan's army. He wished he'd still been in Turkey when war broke out, he told his companion-in-arms Molla Abdullah, apparently over a pipe of hashish in one of the temporary shelters known as "humpies" in the North Broken Hill camel camp, where they lived side by side.

Reserved, simple, moody, his comrade Molla Abdullah was 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.Ridiculed, Molla Abdullah immersed himself in his daily prayers. He 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 its imam, he served as the butcher for his community, killing their meat in the stipulated Muslim manner. The fact that he was not a member of the Butchers' Union in the most unionist town in the country brought him into confrontation 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.

Since his arrival in Broken Hill, Molla Abdullah had slaughtered and prepared his meat in Ghantown, out of sight of the town. He had received no reprimand from the council until the moment of Brosnan's appointment. Brosnan was over-zealous, because he was not qualified perhaps. He had tried twice to get his certificate, and failed. "Why should the council carry Mr Brosnan in its arms?" was one alderman's opinion. But Mayor Brody had got to know Brosnan when he was in charge of the gang laying the wooden water-pipe from Silverton, and, in 1913, appointed him Acting Chief Sanitary Inspector. Brosnan might not have a certificate, but he was a union man with "a bit of push behind him".

Overnight, Brosnan set about pushing Broken Hill from becoming a hotbed of infectious but preventable disease. No one enjoyed his immunity. On discovering the state of the floors in the council toilets, Brosnan installed a penny-in-the-lock slot, and chastised the men and women in the council whose sense of cleanliness, he said, "did not redound to their credit".

Obsessive to prove himself in his war on scarlatina, diphtheria, pneumonia and typhoid, Brosan became a tyrant against all filth. In order to keep Broken Hill's premises in conformity with the requirements of the Pure Food Act, he fined a shopkeeper who sold butter which, in Brosnan's opinion, was "not fit for greasing boots". He chased a man riding in a suspicious milk cart – "the more he cried 'whoa!' the faster he'd go," reported the Barrier Truth – and when the cart struck a stone, stayed long enough only to collect eight samples. He prosecuted one woman for selling a verminous stretcher; another for tipping her soapsuds into the lane.

As well, the uncertificated ex-pipe-layer was strenuous in hunting down anyone he suspected of contravening the Broken Hill Abattoirs, Markets, and Cattle Saleyards Act.

Soon after his appointment, Brosnan had received a letter from the community in Ghantown appealing in the name of religious liberty for Molla Abdullah to be able to kill their meat at their camp and not in the municipal abattoirs, where sheep and cattle were slaughtered alongside pigs ("one of the tenets of our faith is that the latter is a contamination"). On Brosnan's recommendation, the Abattoir Committee turned down the request. "We can't allow them to slaughter anywhere except at the abattoirs. There are people of 50 different religions who will want the same privileges." Molla Abdullah was not to be made an exception.

Some of the troops involved with the battle
Some of the troops involved with the battle Photos Courtesy of Broken Hill City Library / www.brokenhillaustralia.com.au

Brosnan prosecuted Molla Abdullah for the first time in April 1914, for slaughtering sheep at the North Broken Hill camel camp instead of at the abattoirs. In court, the Ghantown butcher had read haltingly from a piece of paper: "Me not guilty; not know break law; very sorry; not do again." Ordered to pay a fine of £1 or go to prison for seven days, Molla Abdullah had paid the fine.

The sanitary inspector had visited Ghantown again on 4th December and found four sheepskins strung out on the fence. He looked for Molla Abdullah and beckoned him over. Mercilessly, Brosnan recited the regulation that each butcher's carcass slaughtered at the abattoirs must be branded with a distinctive brand in indelible red. There was no brand on these carcasses. This time, Molla Abdullah was fined £3 and ordered to pay the costs of court. The police magistrate gave Molla Abdullah until the end of December to pay, or face imprisonment for one month.

Molla Abdullah felt utterly dejected by the court case. He had no means of paying the £3 fine. The fire that had destroyed his uninsured two-roomed house in Williams Street, while he was boiling some fat, had burned all the money he had, as well as his possessions. He had lost everything. Brosnan's strict application of a set of regulations that made no sense to him and contravened his religious principles now threatened his freedom. Back in Ghantown, he wallowed in an apathy from which no one could stir him, save Gool Mohammed.

In his confession that he wrote on the eve of the tragedy, Molla Abdullah wrote: "One day the inspector accused me. On another I begged and prayed, but he would not listen to me. I was sitting brooding in anger. Just then the man Gool Mohammed came to me and we made our grievances known to each other. I rejoiced and gladly fell in with his plans and asked God that I might die an easy death for my faith."

Gool did not need to remind Molla Abdullah that Turkey was at war with Australia, and that the Sultan, only three weeks earlier, had appealed for a jihad against the Entente Powers, obliging all Muslims young and old, on foot or mounted, to support it. Rather than go on living this persecuted and insulting existence in Broken Hill, wouldn't it be better to die gloriously with the guarantee of happiness in the next life – by killing as many Australians as they could? The Australians were doing all these terrible things to true believers, not only here, but in Egypt and no doubt imminently in Turkey. So why not go for them?

Early on 1st January 1915, the two-man army packed into the ice-chest a Snider-Enfield, which Gool had bought for £5, and a Martini-Henry breech-loader with a long steel barrel. Then they climbed onto Gool's ice-cream cart and rode out of Ghantown, following the railway line towards Silverton, to declare war on Australia. In white shirts and hats, peering over the side, in the scorching sun – all those unbelievers, waiting to be picked off.

The plan was that the engine, unmanned, would drag the forty packed mining wagons to destruction. In the event, the jihadists missed not only the driver and fireman, but also Molla Abdullah's particular bugbear, Cornelius Brosnan – "owing to my grudge against the inspector it was my intention to kill him first". Even so, three of their bullets killed dark-haired Alma Cowie; William Shaw, from the Sanitary Department; and Alf Millard, who had ridden up on his motorbike clutching the camera with which he intended to photograph the picnic. A fourth stray bullet killed Jim Craig as he chopped wood in his back yard.

Once the train had steamed out of sight, the two men walked back towards town, taking shelter on a rise behind an outcrop of white quartz boulders. Here, beneath their red flag, they held out for the next two hours. They were encircled on the granite slopes below by an enraged posse that comprised, eventually, 53 troops from the 82nd Infantry Battalion, 10 policemen, members of the Volunteer Rifles – and basically "anyone with a gun who wanted to have a lash", a man in the Broken Hill library whose grandfather was on the train tells me. This was a militia, in the words of a local reporter, "desperate in its determination to leave no work for the hangman".

I follow a road to the white rocks. Local boy racers doing wheelies have left dark skid marks on the tarmac. On the crest opposite, a water tank on tall legs seem poised to stride off through a horse-riding school. Heat-waves dance off the slopes. It's a desolate place, despite the incongruous presence of a ghost-white replica of what is billed, optimistically, as "perhaps the most famous ice-cream cart in the world".

Just before 1pm, an armed mob surged to the top of the hill. They trotted forward like wild cattle to inspect the two turbaned bodies that lay ten yards apart. Molla Abdullah had been shot through the temple. Gool had 16 bullet wounds and was still breathing, though he would die moments later. From start to finish, the Battle of Broken Hill had lasted three hours, leaving six dead and seven injured, including a 23-year-old tailoress – hit by a flying fragment of bone from Cowie's skull.

Weeks later, a German newspaper in Freiberg carried the following news item: "We are pleased to report the success of our arms at Broken Hill, a seaport town on the west coast of Australia. A party of troops fired on Australian troops being transported to the front by rail. The enemy lost 40 killed and 70 injured. The total loss of Turks was 2 dead. The capture of Broken Hill leads the way to Canberra, the strongly fortified capital of Australia."

Shortly afterwards, on a beach on the other side of the world, a force of 20,000 Anzacs, many with the Third Australian Brigade comprising miners from Broken Hill, landed on the Gallipoli peninsula.

Still, today, no one in Broken Hill knows where Gool Mohammed and Molla Abdullah lie buried, as if this strange and tragic event had occurred, but then had been blown away by the desert winds, until there's nothing much left or remembered. Yet it would be a mistake to disregard their narrative, the bones of which keep reassembling, resurrected by the same combination of frustration, racial and religious discrimination, ignorance – until it reaches an intolerable pitch, and explodes.

By strange coincidence, I return to the Palace Hotel as news breaks of a manhunt in Boston for two Chechen brothers. Motivated by extremist Islamic beliefs, the young men had launched an attack on the Boston marathon, killing three and injuring 264. Their bombs: two pressure cookers.

Back in England a month later, I watch the television news. In Woolwich in south-east London, two British men of Nigerian descent have hacked a soldier to death "to avenge the killing of Muslims by British armed forces". On September 2nd, an Australian who goes by the name Abu Yahya ash Shami, has been named military commander for the town of Jalula in northern Iraq, part of the new Islamic State, after beheading four people.

Then, last week, following home raids and arrests by Australian police in a sweeping counter-terrorism operation across Sydney and Brisbane, the official spokesman of Isis, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, called for Muslims to murder Australians in any way possible. "Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over... kill them in any manner," the leader reportedly said in Arabic, in a 42-minute propaganda video released on September 22nd.

It might be a hundred years old, but the narrative that played out in the Australian outback in 1915 by Badsha Mahommed Gool and Molla Abdullah touches all of us – wherever, and whoever, we are.

Oddfellows, Nicholas Shakespeare's novella based on the Broken Hill massacre, will be published by Random House in January.