100 years ago – the jihad in Broken Hill, Australia

I’ve known of the so-called ‘Battle of Broken Hill‘ for some time, but it seems not many people have heard of it.  Nicholas Shakespeare wrote an in-depth account of the incident last year, from which these excerpts are taken.

Even in Australian terms, Broken Hill – 850 kilometres north of Melbourne, 1150 kilometres 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 the ironwork verandah of the Palace Hotel, I look out at the gigantic slag heap that dominates every street like a frown. Grey and obdurate, “the mullock” is an unavoidable reminder of the source of Broken Hill’s phenomenal 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, “the Mecca of ores”, to make, among other things, bullets for German guns.

It was on a roasting morning like this, topping 30 degrees, that the NSW town witnessed the only enemy action of World War One on Australian soil. The story is hardly known anywhere – and little enough in Broken Hill – yet it leads like a lightning rod into a conflagration that burns today with still greater ferocity, from Boston to Endeavour Hills, and from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed Islamic State caliphate to Mecca itself.

. . .

On 11 November 1914 … 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.

. . .

Early on 1 January 1915, the two-man army packed into an ice chest a Snider-Enfield, which Gül had bought for £5, and a Martini-Henry breech-loader with a long steel barrel. Then they climbed onto Gül’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, were all those unbelievers, waiting to be picked off.

The plan was that the engine, unmanned following the attack, would drag the 40 packed ore wagons to destruction. In the event, the jihadists missed not only the driver and the stoker but also Mullah 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 Alma Cowie; William Shaw, from the sanitary department; and Alf Millard, who had ridden up on his motorcycle, clutching the camera with which he intended to photograph the picnic.

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. As word of the attack spread, they were encircled on the granite slopes below by an enraged posse that comprised, eventually, 53 troops from the 82nd Infantry Battalion, ten policemen, members of the Volunteer Rifles – and basically “anyone with a gun who wanted to have a lash”, according to a man I met in the Broken Hill library whose grandfather was on the train. This was a militia, in the words of a local reporter, “desperate in its determination to leave no work for the hangman”.

. . .

Just before 1 pm, an armed mob surged to the top of the hill to inspect the two bodies that lay ten metres apart. Mullah Abdullah had been shot through the temple. Gül had 16 bullet wounds and was still breathing – he died shortly after in hospital. From start to finish, the Battle of Broken Hill had lasted three hours, leaving six dead (the sixth was Jim Craig, hit by a stray bullet as he chopped wood in his backyard) and seven injured, including a 23-year-old tailoress who had been hit by a fragment of bone from Alma Cowie’s skull.

The following night, police prevented a lynch mob from attacking Broken Hill’s Muslim population. Instead, the mob burnt down the local German Club, seeing the tragedy as the fault of “enemy aliens” more generally.

There’s much more at the link.  Interesting from historical, cultural and religious perspectives.

I think it’s appropriate, after the passage of a hundred years, to pray for the souls of all those who died in the ‘Battle of Broken Hill’.  It was a tragedy for all concerned.  May their sins be forgiven them.



  1. We have had our moments….

    One of them being the firing of the first shot in that conflict by British and Dominion forces – a single warning shot from one of the coastal defence guns at Fort Nepean at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay . The target was a German freighter attempting to escape internment.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *