Picture of the picnic train upon departure from Sulphide Street on 1 January 1915. Photo: Sulphide Street Station Railway Museum, Broken Hill.
Former Silverton Tramway Company steam locomotive Y12, National Railway Museum, Port Adelaide, South Australia, 18 July 2009. This engine hauled the picnic train on 1 January 1915.
The Battle of Broken Hill
19 April 2020
The Battle of Broken Hill commenced with a gun attack on a train in 1915. Shooting continued afterwards, and the episode resulted in the deaths of six people, including the two attackers.
The Picnic Train
On Friday 1 January 1915 a picnic train departed Broken Hill’s Sulphide Street station for Silverton, a distance of 15¼ miles (24.5 km). The Silverton Tramway Company operated a narrow gauge railway from Broken Hill to the New South Wales/South Australian border. Its line ran through Silverton and on to the border at Cockburn.
The picnic train consisted of locomotive Y12, 40 ore wagons and two brake vans, one at each end of the train. Y12 was one of 17 Y class 2-6-0 steam locomotives that entered service with the Silverton Tramway Company from 1888 through to 1907. Built by Beyer Peacock & Company, the Y class used the same design as the Tasmanian Government Railways’ C class and the Y class of the South Australian Railways. Y12 had the Builder’s Number 3536 and commenced service in 1893. The ore wagons on the picnic train were small four-wheel wagons usually used for conveying ore from Broken Hill to Port Pirie. On this day the ore wagons contained around 1200 passengers heading to Silverton. Wooden benches had been placed inside the wagons to provide temporary seating.
The picnic train was scheduled to depart from Sulphide Street station at 10.00 am. Passengers were heading for the annual Manchester Unity picnic to be held at Penrose Park in Silverton. Shortly after beginning its journey a stop was made for five minutes at Railway Town station. Locomotive Y12 was running tender first, and the crew had been instructed to travel slowly because of a build-up of sand on the railway line the previous week. About three quarters of a mile (approximately 1.2 km) further on from Railway Town some passengers on the train noticed two men on the northern side of the line, opposite the cemetery. Near the men was a white ice cream cart. The two men wore turbans, while the cart was flying a small red and white flag. These men, Gool Mahommed and Mullah Abdullah, were known to some of the passengers on the train, particularly Gool Mahommed, who sold ice cream from his white cart around the streets of Broken Hill. The two men were in the trench housing a pipeline, and were about 50 yards (45.7 metres) from the railway line.
Suddenly, the train came under fire. Passengers on the train saw that the two men had rifles. At first some passengers thought the men were firing blanks and that it was a New Year’s greeting; others thought they were shooting at rabbits. Quickly the reality of the situation became clear: the men were shooting at the train. Rifle fire continued as the train passed, with 20–30 shots being fired in total. The first shots were fired towards the engine but missed the locomotive crew. Passengers in the open wagons had little protection, and those towards the front of the train became the next targets. Alma Cowie, a 17-year-old passenger on the train, was hit by a bullet, dying about 45 minutes later. William Shaw was shot and then then fell forward into his wife’s arms. Other passengers came to his assistance but he died a short time later. Six other passengers on the train were wounded. Alfred Millard had been riding a bicycle next to the railway line as the train passed. He was shot in the back and died.
When they realised the danger, the locomotive crew hurried to move the train beyond the attackers. The train proceeded a further 1.23 miles (1.98 km) towards Silverton, before stopping at the Silverton Tramway Company’s reservoir. An assistant guard ran ahead to the Company’s pumping station, where an urgent telephone call was made for help to be sent from town. Three wounded passengers were removed from the train to await medical personnel to arrive. The train then returned to Broken Hill.
A relief train consisting of an engine and brake van, and containing an ambulance box and stretchers, was quickly formed. Some men with rifles were also on board. The relief train was despatched from the Silverton Tramway Company’s Railway Town yard about ten minutes after the call had been received regarding the attack.
After their attack on the train, Mullah Abdullah and Gool Mahomed fled the scene. Gunfire was exchanged with police, who retreated but continued their pursuit from a distance. The attackers then took cover at an outcrop of white quartz rocks. Shots were fired towards them and they returned fire. James Craig, who had been chopping wood at his home around 500 yards (about 457 metres) away, was hit by a stray bullet and later died. More men arrived and shooting continued around the rocky outcrop. About 1.00 pm a group rushed towards the rocky outcrop. The two men were found lying on the ground, both with numerous gunshot wounds. Mullah Abdullah was already dead; Gool Mahomed was taken to hospital and died a few hours later.
It was reported at the time that the two men who had attacked the train were Turks, and the flag flown from the ice cream cart was certainly the flag of Turkey. However, although the men had come to identify with Turkey and its Sultan, they were of Afghan origins. Mullah Abdullah was born around 1855 in Afghanistan or a nearby region across the border in India. He had arrived in Australia about 1890, and from around 1899 he worked in Broken Hill as a camel driver. Later he was the spiritual leader of the local camel men. Gool Badsha Mahomed was an Afridi tribesman born in the mountainous Tirah region of Afghanistan around 1875. He had come to Australia in his youth, but then joined the Turkish army and fought in a number of campaigns. He returned to Australia about 1912 and spent some time in the mining industry in Broken Hill before being retrenched. Afterwards he started working as an ice cream vendor and was frequently noted pushing his ice cream cart around the streets of the town.
Letters found afterwards near the white quartz rocks stated the beliefs of the attackers that they must kill others and die for their faith by order of the Sultan. Australia had supported the British Empire by entering the First World War; consequently, Australia was at war with Turkey. Within four months of the Battle of Broken Hill, on 25 April 1915, troops of the British Empire, including many Australians, would land on Turkish soil at Gallipoli.
An inquest was held in Broken Hill before the District Coroner, and returned the following verdict:
That Alma Priscilla Cowie, William John Shaw, Alfred Elton Millard, and James Craig, on the 1st January, 1915, died from shock, the result of gunshot wounds feloniously inflicted on them by Gool Mahommed and Mulla Abdullah.
That Gool Badsha Mahommed and Mulla Abdullah, on the 1st January, 1915, died from shock due to gunshot wounds inflicted on them on the same day by some person or persons unknown, and that the shooting which inflicted such wounds was justifiable.
Locomotive Y12 was around 68 years old when it was withdrawn from regular service on 17 July 1961, after covering 691,666 miles (1,113,129 km). In 1965 Y12 was moved to the railway museum at Mile End in Adelaide, and is now an exhibit in the National Railway Museum at Port Adelaide.
Today, the Sulphide Street railway station, from where the picnic train departed, is a museum which includes displays regarding the picnic train attack. The site of the attack is marked by an open wagon used to demonstrate the type of wagons used on the picnic train. A replica of Gool Mahomed’s ice cream cart is placed near the outcrop of white quartz rocks where the battle reached its conclusion.
‘Broken Hill tragedy’, Daily Telegraph, 4 January 1915, p. 8.
‘How Miss Cowie and Mr. Millard were shot’, Barrier Miner, 2 January 1915, p. 8.
‘Locomotives of the Silverton Tramway Company Limited’, Here and There, Supplement to Bulletin, no. 294, April 1962, pp. 56-7.
McNicol, S, Locomotives of the Silverton Tramway, Railmac, Elizabeth, SA, 1990.
‘Murder and homicide’, New South Wales Police Gazette, 17 February 1915, p. 1.
‘New Year’s Day tragedy’, Barrier Miner, 3 January 1915, p. 4.
‘New Year’s Day tragedy’, Barrier Miner, 7 January 1915, p. 2.
‘New Year’s Day tragedy’, Barrier Miner, 12 January 1915, p. 3.
‘On the footplate’, Barrier Miner, 8 January 1915, p. 3.
Stevens, C, ‘Abdullah, Mullah (1855–1915)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,
published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 1 September 2014.
Stevens, C, Tin mosques and Ghantowns: A History of Afghan Cameldrivers in Australia, Paul Fitzsimons, Alice Springs, 2002, p. 161.
‘War in Broken Hill’, Barrier Miner, 1 January 1915, p. 2.
Replica ice cream cart modelled on that used in the Battle of Broken Hill on 1 January 1915, White Rocks Reserve, Broken Hill, 22 September 2015.
Tickets issued for travel on picnic train on 1 January 1915, Old Gaol Museum, Silverton, 22 September 2015.
A longer version of this article appeared in Australian Railway History, January 2015.