Select Page

In my 1998 book Where Australians Fought: the encyclopaedia of Australia’s battles, I included the following entry which was primarily drawn from Professor Ernest Scott’s volume of the Official History of Australia in the First World War, titled Australia during the War:

Broken Hill, an affray on 1 January 1915 caused by two Moslem men who raised the Turkish flag and began shooting at residents of this mining centre in western New South Wales.  The men—both longtime residents of the district—were actually Afghans not Turks, although one [Gool Mohammed] (an ice-cream vendor) had at one time served in the Sultan’s army and reportedly remained fanatically devoted to Turkey’s cause in the First World War.  The other [Mullah Abdullah] was a former camel-driver who acted as the religious leader of the local Moslem community.
The first target attacked was a train of 40 open ore-trucks crowded with 1000 people on a holiday picnic to Silverton.  Shortly after 10 a.m., as the train was heading west about three kilometres from the town, the two Afghans opened a heavy fire into the exposed passengers from a bank close beside the tramway.  The three people killed and six wounded were of all ages, and both sexes.
The train was not stopped until out of range, then the alarm was raised by telephone.  Police and available troops, as well as some members of the local rifle club, were hurriedly assembled to begin a pursuit.  In the meantime the two riflemen had gone to a cottage on the town’s outskirts and shot [dead] its elderly male resident, before retreating to a low rocky hill north of the town.  A policeman who stumbled upon them here was wounded, but the two fugitives were now promptly surrounded.  In the firefight which followed, lasting until after midday, one of the Afghans was killed and the other seriously wounded before capture.
That night, a large group of outraged citizens gathered in the town centre.  In the belief that local residents of German origin had instigated the attack and supplied the weapons used, this mob marched on the nearby German Club and burned the building down.  Members of the crowd also decided on a similar demonstration against the Afghan camel camp situated beyond the town limits, but police prohibited a march en masse.  When smaller parties eventually reached the camp they found it guarded by ten police and 50 armed soldiers. Rather than take on the inhabitants’ protectors (who were, in any event, the same men who had earlier subdued the two murderers), the crowd of intending avengers dispersed without any further disturbance.”

  

Although I considered this incident ‘an affray’ rather than a significant military engagement, I included it in my encyclopaedia essentially because it has entered Australia history as the ‘Batttle of Broken Hill’—Gavin Souter, in his award-winning 1976 book Lion and Kangaroo, had specifically described it in those terms. The entry (and indeed the encyclopaedia) was written several years before the al-Qaeda attacks against the United States in 2001 which marked the commencement of a spate of religious-inspired terror attacks against Western countries, often mounted by radicalised Moslem individuals long resident within the communities they turned against.

I had often wondered since about the fate of the gunman captured in the aftermath of the train shooting at Broken Hill, as published accounts in recent years have often tried to make sense of the motives for the attack. Because it appears that Gool was found alongside his dead companion, reportedly mortally injured with 16 wounds that led to his death soon after he was carried back to hospital in town, there had been no opportunity to get definitive answers to that question.

  

The best explanation that could be established came from a suicide note composed by Gool, though written by Abdullah in Dari script, stating that—by order of the Sultan of Turkey (who claimed to be the Caliph or spiritual leader of all Moslems)—he was required to ‘kill your men and give my life for my faith’ even though he held ‘no enmity against anyone’.

Thus, when the Australian Army commissioned a centenary history of Australia and the Great War, including a new volume on The War at Home published by Oxford University Press in 2015, it was interesting to read a more modern take on the whole affair:

“Almost a hundred years after the Broken Hill tragedy, however, the actions of Gool Mohammed and Mulia [sic] Abdullah, while still seeming tragic, no longer appear incomprehensible.  Ascribing their actions to a ‘lust for blood’, as newspapers did in the wake of the shooting, is inadequate.  We now comprehend how religious fervour can incite people to kill and in the process be killed.  Although at the time, as Gavin Souter wrote, ‘their motives remained a mystery’, their action can now be no longer seen as utterly incomprehensible.”