Minggu, 03 Agustus 2014

Family marks centenary of first WWI shot (AAP)

One hundred years ago the war to end all wars began - at the bottom of the world.

An Australian soldier fired the British Empire's first shot of World War I - not on the battlefields of Europe but from a bleak, wind-swept gun emplacement south of Melbourne.

On Tuesday, a century on, his grandchildren will mark that moment in Australian and British Empire history and the role the man they knew as Pa played.

They will join other descendants and dignitaries at The First Shot, a commemorative service near the historic site.

John Purdue, 24, then a sergeant with the army's Royal Australian Garrison Artillery, was stationed at Fort Nepean, on the narrow strip of dunes between Port Phillip Bay and Bass Strait at the eastern entrance to the bay.

At 12.45pm on August 5, 1914, he fired on German merchant ship SS Pfalz to stop it from escaping the bay, less than four hours after hostilities officially began.

From his gun emplacement, and with support from his team, Sergeant Purdue blasted a shell from his six-inch Mark VII cannon across the bow of the Pfalz.

The ship, 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 that shot and the first moments in a war that shaped much of the 20th century.

But grandchildren John Purdue, Carolyn Smyth and Louise Nicol knew little of the event.

They grew up in the Melbourne suburb of Reservoir, a long way from the soldier's home at Anglesea, on the southwest coast.

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

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

"He certainly made us feel special when we were down there, but we were always told you must keep quiet."

Ms Smyth laughed: "One lemonade and one biscuit.

"Until we get older, too, the significance of an event like this doesn't hit you, until a certain point in your life."

Mr Purdue agreed. "We didn't talk about war stories, but we understood his significance (in the military).

The older John Purdue was a career soldier who rose to the rank of colonel.

"He was a VIP, basically," Mr Purdue said. "He was always `the colonel' to people."

A munitions expert who studied metallurgy and chemistry, in 1944 he was put in charge of the inspection of the Commonwealth's munitions manufacturing, commanding more than 8000 workers.

He was admitted to the Order of the British Empire in 1952, retired in 1955 and died in 1980, aged 90.

The three grandchildren will be among the guests of honour at The First Shot service.

Mr Purdue said the siblings always intended to visit Fort Nepean on the anniversary and were surprised by the public interest in the commemoration.

Ms Smyth said: "I think we all feel very proud and I think until all this came around, none of us knew a lot about it because it's not well documented, this first shot.

"Just talking at work the other day, a lot of people didn't know the first shot was fired here."

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

"When you're growing up, it's a little bit surreal to see a photograph of a man in a hat and medals on a wall," she said.

"This will be part of our history, and our children's history, forever."

The First Shot service is on Tuesday at 11am at the parade ground at the old officer cadet school, Portsea, in the Point Nepean National Park. Details: www.anzaccentenary.vic.gov.au.

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