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Sunday, 3 August 2014

The first shot in the Great War

I have written military history in the past, but I don't particularly enjoy it. Basically, I am not a military person, and some of the contemporary enthusiasms I encounter for past wars horrify me. I also find some of the bizarre antics of "patriotic" civilians rather appalling.

When I wrote a history of the Kokoda Track campaign, it won awards and plaudits, and I was asked to do another one, but I declined because I might have to touch again on the life of that nasty, cowardly, lying, thieving bully and drunkard Thomas Blamey.

That man was the embodiment of all that is inglorious in war, and I have chapter and verse on his one and only "experience of combat".  Like Douglas Macarthur, known to his troops as "dugout Doug", Blamey stayed well away from fighting of any sort.

I interviewed a former member of Blamey's WW II staff, and he summed up Blamey with a squatting motion, a thumbs-down and the phrase "brilliant but a bastard!".  Of course if you say that sort of thing in a book, the trolls will issue forth from their cowards' castle, screaming abuse, so I write about other things.

So I have no intention of Mentioning the War again.  That means I won't be mentioning the many brave and gallant women who gave their lives, as they saw it, for their fellow humans. Nor will I write about the brilliant and valiant leaders who did the right thing, and normally got stabbed in the back by scum like Macarthur and Blamey, who both led from the rear, so as to have more backs in their sights.

Still, I would like to throw in one example of the sort of thing that happens when a writer is given a commission, as I was for The Big Book of Australian History.  The commission came with a long list of things that were wanted: I had about 60% well in hand, about 30% I knew enough about to get started, 8% I had heard of.  I also added a couple that I knew about and they didn't. That left 2% that were unknown, and those needed research.

The Pfalz case was one of the 2%. What follows is based on what I wrote after I dug into it.  If you want to dig for yourself, I created a list of relevant newspaper articles that is online.

The first thing to note is that Australia never declared war on Germany in 1914. When Britain declared war on Germany, our nation was automatically at war with Germany as well, because we were part of the British Empire.  The same thing happened in 1939, and to the best of my knowledge, Australia has never declared war on any other nation: we just tag along.

Australia's Great War began when the Governor-General received a telegram from London. He then summoned the Prime Minister (Joseph Cook), and telegrams were sent to the State premiers telling them that a state of war existed between England and Germany. That was all that was needed.

With no radio or television broadcasts and no internet in 1914, the news spread more slowly than it does today, and there was more room for confusion.

Still, everybody knew war was coming, and the Royal Australian Navy had been founded in 1913 to take part in the coming war, and Captain Kuhlken of the Norddeutscher Lloyd ship SS Pfalz could see what was coming.

He made a decision that put Australia in the record books as the place where the first shot was fired in the Great War.

On the morning of August 5, 1914, Kuhlken dropped the rest of his cargo that he was due to take to Sydney, cast off from the wharf at Williamstown near Melbourne and sailed across Port Phillip Bay towards the Heads. He was on his way back to Germany to save his ship and to avoid internment.

All was well and the pilot saw nothing wrong, until he heard a shot, and saw a splash, 50 yards astern. He took this as a slightly inaccurate "shot across the bows", and looking across to the signal station on the Queenscliff fort, he saw a signal ordering the ship to turn around.

I have to say that if a shot across the bows  went 50 yards astern of my ship, I would be tempted to wonder what chance they had of hitting me before I got out of range, but the pilot was Australian, and he took the ship around, and back to port.

If you read the newspapers of that day, the reports are mostly fictional, so there are various versions of what happened after that, but with or without argument from the captain, the pilot (Captain Robinson) turned the ship around and steamed back to the wharf.

Australia was in the record books, and Pfalz was in the Australian merchant marine, and saw wartime service as a troop carrier under the name HMT Boorara. She was torpedoed twice in British waters, but survived until 1937, when she was wrecked under the name SS Nereus.

A couple of notes: the captain was widely reported as Kuhiken at the time, but he was actually Kuhlken. He was interned in Berrima during the war, but returned as master of the Grandon in 1930, and visited his old haunts at Berrima. The newspapers in 1930 all got his name right.

So, Australia never declared war on Germany, but an Australian gun fired the first shot, though not with the accuracy one might have hoped for.

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