Two little known episodes of WW1 in Australia


In December 1917 Cavaliere Emilio Eles – Consul for Italy in Australasia since 1913 – based in Melbourne, issued the following order:

All Italian conscripts and reservists resident in Australian and born in the years 1874 to 1899 are compulsorily called to join the colours in Italy. Men exempted from military service in time of peace for having been born in a foreign country or were expatriated before being 16 years of age, and who on or before May 21, 1915, reached the age of 32, are not obliged to answer the call. Further instructions will follow for medical examination and embarkation.

Few did show up and then what follow is a little-known, yet dramatic, episode  of his participation to the forced conscription and repatriation of Italian immigrants of military age, which was carried out with the help of the Australian Government. All those who had refused conscription were declared deserters. The largest forced repatriation of Italians men happened at Broken Hill, outside Melbourne, a mining town with a strong community of Italian immigrants, mostly from Veneto and Lombardy. Consul Emilio Eles, together with the Australian police, rounded about 100 Italians and had them dragged on ships bound for Italy.

Here is a detailed study of what happened there:

Emilio Eles, at the end of the war, was nominated Consul General of Italy in Hong Kong from  1919 until 1920.

The date of Emilio Eles’s order marks the dramatic days following the defeat of the Italian army at the Battle of Caporetto, also known as the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo River which saw a successful combined offensive of the Austro-Hungarian and German forces decisively breaking through the Italian lines along the northern Isonzo, catching the Italian defenders entirely by surprise.  Even the Austrian-Hungarian-German were surprised – Erwin Rommel and film director Fritz Lang participated in it – as they called it ‘The miracle of Caporetto’. The Italian defeat brought about a change in Government and the dismissal of General Cadorna as Chief of Staff.

Broken Hill is also known in Australia because the only pitched battle of WW1 on Australian soil was fought there. It has gone down in history as the Battle of Broken Hill.

On one side there were two Afghan or Turkish boys and on the others some picknickers and Australian reservists. It was fought on 1 January 1915 by two local residents who opened fire with their hunting rifles on a trainload of picnickers. They recognised the Sultan of Turkey as their supreme religious leader and were heeding his call for a Jihad against the British Empire and its allies. They produced a Turkish flag using rags – Turkey was allied to Germany and Austria -and attached it to ice cream cart before digging a trench on a hill overlooking the rail line between Broken Hill and the abandoned town of Silverton. When a train passed loaded with holidaymakers, the two ‘patriots’ opened fire, killing four people and wounding several others.

The NSW Police and the Militia were called in, while the two fighters moved to a quartz outcrop known as ‘The White Rocks’ using their ice cream cart to carry rifles and ammunition. Eventually, overpowered by Australian fire, their position was stormed; one of them was dead in the assault, while the other was fatally wounded. Among the bullet riddled cart they found a copy of letter they had sent to the Turkish army seeking enrolment.


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