Monday, September 21, 2020

Death of a horse-breaker at Medlow Bath - Alfred Hermann FISCHER (c.1896-1917)

 

Alfred Fischer, Internment Camp photo 
National Archives of Australia (NAA D3507 1507)

It is the early hours of Saturday 1st December 1917, the overnight passenger train from the Central West township of Orange is steaming through the night on its way to Sydney. On board two men sit silently in a locked third class compartment. One man wearing civilian clothing lies back on the hard seat trying to sleep amid the constant rocking and clattering of wheels on the iron rails. On his wrists he wears a pair of steel handcuffs. The other man, his guard and escort, wears a khaki military uniform with a corporal’s single chevron, and also dozes fitfully. The guard's name is Brown. The man in the handcuffs is Alfred Hermann Fischer, who along with many of his countrymen and women had immigrated from Germany seeking a new life and new opportunities, dreams now cut short by the momentous events in far-away Europe, where men fight and die over a foot of mud.

By 1914 over 100,000 Germans were living in Australia, comprising around 2% of the population of five million. They were a well-established and generally well-liked community. However with the rising tension between the British and German Empires this began to change and German-Australian communities throughout the country found themselves the subject of suspicion and animosity. When war broke out in August 1914 that changed to outright hostility. Australia was rife with war fever and ordinary citizens were keen for ways to get involved, to ‘do their bit’. The sinking of the German light Cruiser SMS Emden by the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney in the Cocos Islands was one of Australia’s first actions of the war and excited the nation. The event created hysteria about possible German naval attack, immediately establishing cultural and national divisions within the community.

Within a week of the declaration of war, German and Austro-Hungarian residents of Australia were forced to register with the police. A fear of possible German-Australian 'conflicted loyalties' led to several regulations under the War Precautions Act 1914, such as forbidding German-Australians to leave Australia or send money overseas. These immigrants, naturalised subjects and German-speaking Australian-born, rapidly moved in the Australian consciousness from 'our Germans' to 'enemy aliens'.

It is now 3.00 am by the platform clock as the train pulls out of Mt Victoria station at the top of the Blue Mountains range west of Sydney. Alfred Fischer quietly sits up, opens his eyes and checks the station name. He massages his wrists where the handcuffs have dug into the flesh, not long now. At 22 years of age he is a small, quiet man, just 5’6” in height with brown hair, now dishevelled, and calm grey eyes. Beneath his shirt, his arms and chest are covered in tattoos that celebrate his life as a sailor,  horse breaker and stockman. On his right forearm appears a girl's head above a horseshoe, on his left forearm a bucking horse in a stockyard, on his chest a cowboy with a stockwhip and another bucking bronco. On his face a heavy scar runs down the left side where it cuts deep into the cheek bone: a memento of the stockyards and the wild bush horses.

Fischer had left his old life as a sailor and drifted up into Queensland looking for work, where he met up with a fellow German, Ernst Kuhlmann who was only a year older than himself. Both men soon gained the skills of stockman and station hands, well known for their horse breaking among the outback cattlemen and horse breeders. They were sober and industrious, they saved money and things were looking good for the future. Until that fateful day the police called and rounded them up with other German nationals, to be sent down south where they joined over 5,000 of their countrymen in the sprawling, crowded internment camp at Holsworthy military base, near Liverpool in south-western Sydney.

As the Great War progressed and propaganda about the ‘Hun’ German continued, the pressures on German-Australians increased. Many lost their jobs or found their communities no longer safe. Internment without charge or trial was implemented around the Country. By 1918 nearly 7,000 men, women and children had been interned in concentration camps by the Federal Government. 

Police Gazette notice, 21 November 1917 (Ancestry)

It was from Holsworthy, while assigned to a work party outside the camp, that Fischer and Kuhlmann had made a daring bid for freedom two weeks earlier. They made their way over 240 km to the country town of Orange where they hoped to find work on local farms and escape notice from the authorities. But Alfred could not stay hidden for long and was soon victim of an informer. Out of desperation he offered his gold signet ring to Constable Frazer the arresting officer, to let him go free. But the copper stood firm, Fischer was a prize and promotion could follow.

Alfred leans forward in his seat and clears his throat, it is time. “Kaporal, sir, I am needing the lavatory, most urgent, please you help me, yes?” Brown comes fully awake and curses quietly, “Alright now, I suppose you’ll be wantin’ the cuffs off, but mind you, I’ll be waitin’ outside, no tricks d’you hear me?” He quickly releases Alfred’s handcuffs, then unlocks the door of the compartment and the pair shuffle down the darkened corridor to the Gents at the end of the rocking carriage.

The minutes tick by as the train speeds downhill towards the small village of Medlow Bath, dominated by the new grand hotel Hydro Majestic established by society notable, yachtsman and department store owner Mark Foy. Then come the sounds of rising panic in the corridor, Brown is shouting and swearing and banging on the toilet door, whistles blow, heavy boots thump through the carriage; all to be drowned out by the roar of the passing west-bound goods train, rattling and buffeting the carriage windows in the night.

In the light of early dawn a group of railway fettlers find the broken body of a man lying on the rails just outside Medlow Bath station. The police and the undertaker are summoned from the nearby township of Katoomba and the plain wooden coffin is conveyed by cart to the police lockup at the courthouse, where the local G.P., Dr Alex Allen makes his examination.

The coroner brings down a verdict of ‘shock the result of injuries accidentally received through jumping from a train whilst endeavouring to escape from military custody’.

The burial at Katoomba cemetery on Monday 3rd December is a simple affair with no minister present. The undertaker records the place of death as ‘Killed on Railway Medlow Bath NSW’ and the informant as ‘Katoomba Police’. In December 1918, the authorities in Berlin issue an official German death certificate, on it the words ‘Medlow in Australier’ and the death date ‘1 Dez 1917’ can be read. The informant was his mother who reported that her son, a sailor and bachelor, 21 years of age of unknown religion, a resident of Dresden, was found dead in the region near Medlow Bath in Australia, hour of death unknown. 

German death certificate (Ancestry)

 
And there he lay as the decades passed, the moss-covered grave unmarked and soon forgotten in the bushland cemetery, out past the site where the foundation stone for the Blue Mountains District ANZAC Memorial Hospital would be laid in October 1925, under the shade of flowering gum trees, while above the chattering of parrots and the early morning warbling of magpies.

Graves Registration Certificate (Ancestry)

Following the cessation of hostilities at the end of WWII, the Commonwealth  War Graves Commission realised the need to consolidate the graves of enemy combatants and internees who had died in Australia and its territories in both World Wars. A site was identified near the Victorian town of Tatura where there had been a large WWII concentration camp for enemy aliens and POWs. A fine, new, purpose built German Military  Cemetery was established, which is now under the care of the Office of Australian War Graves. This cemetery contains the graves of 1 Turkish civilian,  190 German civilian internees of the 1914-1918 War and 60 German Army, German Air Force and German civilian internees of the 1939-1945 War.

Alfred Hermann Fischer
Tatura German Military Cemetery

In April 1961 the remains of Alfred Hermann Fischer were exhumed from Katoomba cemetery and re-interred in the Tatura German Military Cemetery, in a simple grave marked with a brass plaque, set in a wide, green lawn. Though far from his native land, the horse-breaker had regained his identity and could rest in peace.

Ernst Christian Kuhlmann, Internment Camp photo 
National Archives of Australia (NAA D3507 1509)

Alfred's companion and fellow escapee, Ernst Christian Kuhlmann was rearrested on the night of Saturday 29th January 1918 at Clermont near Summer Hill Creek outside Orange, where he had been working for a Mr Gazzard, an orchardist, he had enjoyed 43 days of liberty. Along with the other surviving internees, he was deported to Germany following the end of WWI.

 *****

John Merriman, Local Studies Librarian

 

Acknowledgements

Sue Schmitke at Tatura Irrigation and Wartime Camps Museum assisted with the death certificate translation

Shane at Find a Grave.com

 

Sources

Coroner’s Reports, AncestryLibrary.com.au

National Archives of Australia:  D3597:Album of identification photographs of enemy aliens (civilian and prisoner of war) interned at Liverpool Camp, NSW during World War I (with index) see:  https://trove.nla.gov.au/search/category/images?keyword=enemy%20aliens%20liverpool%20camp

Wood Coffill (Katoomba) Burial Index 1916 to 1945, Blue Mountains Family History Society.

Newspapers on Trove

Escaped Prisoners of War. (1917, November 21). New South Wales Police Gazette and Weekly Record of Crime (Sydney : 1860 - 1930), p. 502. Retrieved September 8, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article251744845

GERMAN ESCAPEE RECAPTURED. (1917, December 31). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 5. Retrieved September 8, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article15789253

GERMAN REARRESTED. (1917, December 31). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), p. 6. Retrieved September 8, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1671721

Apprehensions. (1918, January 16). New South Wales Police Gazette and Weekly Record of Crime (Sydney : 1860 - 1930), p. 34. Retrieved September 8, 2020, from https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/251745077/27983193  

HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE (1918, January 4). The Albury Banner and Wodonga Express (NSW : 1871 - 1938), p. 19. Retrieved September 8, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article101399952

ESCAPED INTERNEE ARRESTED. (1917, November 30). Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga, NSW : 1911 - 1954), p. 3. Retrieved September 8, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article142586207

 

Other Websites

The Office of Australian War Graves

AWM War graves

Tatura War Cemetery on Find a Grave

 

 

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