World War I First Shot in Melbourne

A surprising aspect of the history of Melbourne comes the news that the first shot fired by the British Empire in World War I was not on the battlefields of Europe, it came from a windswept fort south of Melbourne, half a world away.

That moment - 100 years ago on Tuesday 5th August 2014 - will be marked with a ceremony at the former military base where a 24-year-old Australian soldier fired on the German merchant ship, SS Pfalz, which was attempting to flee Melbourne less than four hours after hostilities began.

The ceremony is one of a national series of events marking the centenary of World War I. John Purdue, a sergeant with the army's Royal Australian Garrison Artillery, was stationed at Fort Nepean on the Mornington Peninsula.

At 12.45pm on August 5, 1914, he was ordered to fire on the Pfalz to stop it escaping Port Phillip Bay into the open sea. From his gun emplacement, and with support from his team, he blasted a shell across its bow.

The Pfalz, which was carrying German consular officials and contraband , was captured and used as an Australian troop ship in the war. Its crew was interned as prisoners of war. A small plaque at the fort commemorates the shot and the first moments in a war that shaped much of the 20th century.

Sergeant Purdue's grandchildren John Purdue, Carolyn Smyth and Louise Nicol, who will be among descendants and dignitaries at the ceremony , knew little of his role in history . They grew up in Reservoir, a long way from his home at Anglesea.

The family visited him for special events and marked Anzac Day together , but distance, geographical and generational, was a barrier to their learning more about his place in history.

'' Pa was a very strong individual. Very army. Very correct. Very stern,'' John Purdue said. ''[ In those days] you didn't sit down and have a conversation with your parents and your grandparents.''

Ms Smyth added: '' Until we get older, too, the significance of an event like this doesn't hit you ... ''

Ms Nicol said the ceremony would strengthen their connection to their grandfather.

Sergeant Purdue, a career soldier, rose to the rank of colonel and in 1944 was put in charge of inspecting the Commonwealth's munitions manufacturing, commanding more than 8000 workers. AAP

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World War I First Shot in Melbourne 

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