Australia's first shot fired in the war

 

An Australian gun crew on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria might have fired the British forces' first shot in the war. A German merchant ship SS Pfalz tried to escape from Port Phillip Bay just after Britain declared war on Germany. Australian troops fired a warning shot from a powerful coastal battery gun. The captain returned the Pfalz to port and surrendered.

Declaration of war

When the United Kingdom (UK) declared war on Germany, the decision bound the dominions in the British Empire, including Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa.

War was declared in London at 11:00pm GMT on Tuesday 4 August 1914, which in Melbourne was 9:00am AEST on Wednesday 5 August.

Earlier that morning in Melbourne, a German cargo steamer SS Pfalz was leaving the dock in Port Phillip Bay. Its captain, Wilhelm Kuhlken, received news that Australia might no longer offer safe harbour to German ships. Kuhlken ordered Pfalz to depart. Pfalz was steaming towards Port Phillip Heads to escape Australia at the moment war was declared.

At about 12:40pm AEST, Pfalz had been released from naval inspection near Portsea and was close to the Heads. Then the garrison at Fort Queenscliff, on the opposite side of the Heads, received news that war had begun.

Actions to stop Pfalz

Fort Queenscliff controlled the coastal gun batteries at Forts Nepean, Pearce and Queenscliff. Its commander ordered the crews at Fort Nepean, by telephone and heliograph, to stop Pfalz.

Pfalz ignored the first flag signal from Fort Nepean for the ship to 'heave to' and continued to make towards the Heads.

When Pfalz ignored the signal, a sailor on the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) examination vessel Alvina took quick action. Midshipman Richard 'Stan' Steele hoisted the international maritime signal flag, H.

The 'H' flag told Fort Nepean that Pfalz was a hostile vessel. This effectively gave the order to fire a warning shot across the bows of the ship.

The coastal gun crew fired a shot from Gun Emplacement No 6 at about 12:45pm on Wednesday 5 August 1914. In London, it was 2:45am GMT on 5 August.

The 6-inch Mark 7 naval gun had been loaded with 123lbs (56kg) of cordite and a 100lb (45kg) projectile.

Soldiers on the deck of ship preparing to fire a large gun
The crew at the 6-inch coastal gun, which fired on the German merchant ship, SS Pfalz, at 1245 hours, 5 August 1914. AWM A01184

Surrender of ship and crew

The warning shot was effective. Pfalz changed course. Captain Kuhlken and his crew surrendered and were taken as prisoners. The ship was retained as a prize of war, and later it was put back into service for the British Empire.

Midshipman Stan Steele, who ordered the firing of a warning shot, spent 44 years in the RAN. He volunteered to join the Australian Naval Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) to serve in New Guinea, and he undertook other naval duties in both World Wars.

An excerpt from The History Channel documentary Tony Robinson Explores Australia. Courtesy: Parks Victoria

Disputed claim

The round fired by the Royal Australian Garrison Artillery at Fort Nepean has been widely proclaimed as the first shot fired by the British Empire in World War I. Although this claim has been contested.

Some cite the first bullet fired by a soldier in British service. Contenders for this title are either:

  • Alhaji Grunshi of the Gold Coast Regiment in Togoland (now Ghana), or
  • Private Ernest Edward Thomas of the 4th Dragoon Guards in Casteau, Belgium

Both men fired their rifles in the early hours of 22 August 1914.

Australians in military service did not fire their rifles in World War I until the Battle of Bita Paka in New Guinea on 11 September 1914. Official historians did not record the name of the AN&MEF man who fired first.

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