March 04, 2015

Horse 1851 - The First Casualty of War

On the 4th of August 1914; after the great powers of Europe had finally decided that their differences were irreconcilable, the master ditherer Britain, finally declared war on Germany. As a result of Britain declaring war, Australia's declaration of war was implied and approval from the Prime Minister and the Governor-General were mere formalities.

On the morning of the 5th of August and as the news appeared in print media, a fight broke out on a northbound tram heading up George St in Sydney.
The scuffle occured between a Mr Matthias Schoenhoorn and Mr Edwin Sims. Mr Schoenhoorn was a 23 year old German national who had migrated to Australia, to work as a machinist for a typewriter company which operated in The Rocks. In Germany he had been a fourth generation clockmaker and the skills he'd learned whilst working with the intricacy of small parts, translated nicely to typewriters.
Mr Sims on the other hand was a 34 year old builder's labourer with a criminal conviction for assault and for domestic violence in the days when matters inside the home were far more private than they are today.
Mr Sims was accidentally knocked off the tram and into the path of a southbound tram coming the other way. He was killed instantly.

This story is related in a newspaper a few weeks later, upon the sentence handed down in court. Mr Schoenhoorn was to be hanged until he was dead.
The judge who handed down the sentence said that:
"Since Australia is at war with Germany, Australians are also at war with her subjects. We must remember that our nations are at war and that small events are but shadows of a larger panorama."

Over the next five years, Australia would round up many German migrants, as well as the children of migrants, some of whom could only speak English and had never even set foot outside Australia;  and would place many of them into internment camps. Almost 7000 of these so called "enemy aliens" would find themselves in places like Holsworthy because somehow, they were considered to be a threat to Australia's national security.
With the sounds of war being heard off the coast of what was then German New Guinea, the Australian public who had never been to war as a nation, set off running at full tilt down the roads of nationalism and paranoia.

Precisely because Mr Schoenhoorn was a German national his death was considered just, in the light of two nations being at war. His name appears only as a few blackened words in a hundred year old newspaper and I don't know how many if any Australians mourned his passing. He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Except that some of the above story is a lie.

On the 5th of August 1914, on the morning that Australia was waking up to the news that it was at war, a fight did break out on a northbound tram, heading up George St.
Instead of it being Mr Sims who was killed, it was Mr Schoenhoorn and instead of it being an accident, it was deliberate. Instead of a hanging, no conviction was recorded despite Mr Sims previous history of assault and domestic violence. In other words, Mr Sims who saw Mr Schoenhoorn that morning, deliberately threw him in front of a passing tram and killed him.

The judge's remarks at the end of case are true though. He really did see the death of a German as part of a larger panorama. Was  Mr Schoenhoorn, a machinist for a typewriter company, the first person killed by the British Empire in World War One?
Where does this lead us?

The first casualty of war is truth.
The second casualty of war is humanity.
The third casualty of war is justice.

If what the judge said was correct and Mr Matthias Schoenhoorn's death was part of the larger panorama of the First World War, then he becomes the first enemy killed by Australia in the conflict. It didn't happen with a bullet, it happened with a tram. It didn't happen on some far flung field of Europe, it happened right in the middle of Sydney.

Because that's the unwritten and ugly side of the Anzac spirit that we never tell ourselves about. We're too small  to start wars but we're certainly prepared to get in and throw a few punches. We've been doing it ever since. World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, Malaya, Afghanistan and Iraq, twice.
We'll even throw someone under a tram at the first opportunity if we get the chance.

Except that that some of the above story was also a lie... the newspaper never even does the dignity of recording the German man's name. He died nameless.

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