After crossing the International Date Line, the sun touches the east coast of Australia before starting the day for the rest of the world. It was this geographical fact that, the day after the declaration of war, according to Sir Robert Garran, gave Australia the supposed distinction of having fired ‘possibly the first shot on either side in the war’, setting aside the catalyst for hostilities – the assassinations in Sarajevo which precipitated the war on August 1914. Though it was a dubious distinction and has been contested, Garran explained the reason for his belief.
The German ship SS Pfalz, docked at Melbourne the day before war was declared in Britain, had gained clearance to leave Port Philip before the declaration. With an Australian pilot on board, she was steaming down the deep channel toward Port Philip Heads when signals demanding that she turn back and surrender were delivered from the fort at Queenscliff.
According to Sir Robert Garran, the architect of the War Precautions Act that gave special powers to the government in office, there was confusion about whose job it was to issue an order to put a shot across the Pfalz’s bows. After several hurried phone calls, Garran determined that he had the power to give such an order, and a shot was fired from a large gun at Point Nepean. Because of the required low trajectory of the shell, gunners waited until the Pfalz was north of their position in order to avoid the possibility of the shell striking the Queenscliff Fort. As Head of the Attorney General’s Department, Garran was a close confidant of Prime Minister Hughes. He advised the government at the commencement of the war, continuing in this role throughout the war, then assisted with negotiations at its end but in his own writings suggested that he thought this incident a special responsibility.
Though there had been a scuffle on the bridge involving the ship’s company and Captain Robinson, the Port Philip pilot, the Pfalz stopped, quickly complied and returned to Williamstown.
The German mariners on board were duly removed from the ship and interned, some of them at Berrima, NSW. There they enjoyed considerable freedom and were generally treated with courtesy and sometimes affection by the local people. Wilhelm Kösta’s scrapbook and Merchant Officer’s Service Record Book are held in Berrima Museum, where they are part of a graphic display of life as a prisoner of war. (See the Framed Memento of the Berrima Guard story here.)
Visitors to Point Nepean today can stand on the gun emplacement where the shot was fired.