Historic shot echoes a century later

BILL Carlin wanted to be a policeman, but his decision to join the garrison artillery instead ensured that the lad from up Casterton way would take part in an event that earned him a special place in history.

Warrnambool’s Mary Williams (left) and Fonce Murnane with their father Bill Carlin’s dress coat which was part of his Royal Australian Garrison Artillery uniform.140627LP20 Picture: LEANNE PICKETT

Warrnambool’s Mary Williams (left) and Fonce Murnane with their father Bill Carlin’s dress coat which was part of his Royal Australian Garrison Artillery uniform.140627LP20 Picture: LEANNE PICKETT

At 12.45pm on August 5, 1914 as the German steamer Pfalz made a run for open water from Victoria Dock through Port Phillip Heads just as Britain declared war on Germany, 25-year-old Gunner Carlin was on duty at Fort Nepean with his Royal Australian Garrison Artillery (RAGA) crew. 

It was Victoria’s first line of defence against sea attack, two Mark V11 guns with a nine-kilometre range were poised for action.

When the steamer ignored signals to stop, the order came down the line to “Stop her or sink her”. 

Little did the young gunner know that the shots his crew fired across the bow of the fleeing ship, thwarting her escape, would go down in history as the first for Australia and the British Empire, in a war that would rage for four years at a terrible human cost.

Nor could he have imagined that 100 years later, three generations of his family would return to that windswept fort in his honour. 

Tomorrow Bill’s daughter, Fonce Murnane, her children, grandchildren and extended family members will make the trip from Warrnambool to Fort Nepean for a ceremony commemorating that pivotal day in Australian history.

“It will be very heart-wrenching. I think it will bring back a lot of memories of Dad, who I loved dearly,” said Mrs Murnane, 81, ahead of the anniversary.

“We’re doing it to honour his memory. 

“It’s going to be a big day — I think he would be proud, probably a bit embarrassed, but proud.

“Dad never built himself up,” recalled Mrs Murnane of the humble soldier who went on to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for his bravery on the Western Front. 

“We knew about the first shot, but as far as Dad was concerned, it was just ‘oh, we fired the first shot’.”

In fact, in the 18 years she spent with her father before his death, Mrs Murnane can’t recall him proffering more than a passing mention of his wartime experiences.

As kids, she and her sister Mary and brother Frank took for granted the row of shiny medals he pinned to his chest for the Anzac Day march to Hawkesdale’s war memorial up the road from their soldier settlement farm. 

Warrnambool’s Mary Williams (left) and Fonce Murnane with their father Bill Carlin’s dress coat which was part of his Royal Australian Garrison Artillery uniform.140627LP20 Picture: LEANNE PICKETT

Warrnambool’s Mary Williams (left) and Fonce Murnane with their father Bill Carlin’s dress coat which was part of his Royal Australian Garrison Artillery uniform.140627LP20 Picture: LEANNE PICKETT

Nor did they think much about the heavy black military tunic with the brass buttons and fancy red and gold trims that hung in his wardrobe.

When the lingering effects of the mustard gas he inhaled in the trenches of northern France finally claimed Bill Carlin at age 63, too few would have been aware of his contribution to and place in Australia’s Great War history.

Today, the tunic that he wore a century ago as part of his garrison dress uniform during three years of RAGA service, hangs proudly in Mrs Murnane’s wardrobe. Still in remarkably good condition, along with her father’s DCM, it is one of her most treasured possessions.

Born at Tahara near Casterton, Bill worked as a farm labourer as a young lad before entertaining the idea of joining the police force. 

But on learning that he would be obliged to arrest his mother in the line of duty, should the need ever arise, he dismissed the idea, opting instead to enlist in the Queenscliff-based RAGA in 1912.

The young gunner’s involvement in the historic first shot of the war is well documented in a much-reproduced black-and-white photograph of his crew positioned at the fort battery, ready for action.

Less than a year later, Bill was in the thick of it on the Western Front, serving with the 55th Battery, 36th (Australian) Heavy Artillery Brigade. 

For his “devotion to duty and courageous behaviour from February 1916 onwards and for gallantry under fire on January 23, 1917, when acting as linesman at Courcelette,” the acting bombardier was awarded a DCM.

Bill’s bravery couldn’t shield him from the enemy’s toxic mustard gas, but despite the lasting effect on his health, any psychological scars he carried from the war he kept to himself, or those with whom he shared the soldier’s bond.

“He was never bitter. I think his experience of the war made him appreciate life more,” Mrs Murnane reflected. 

“He laughed a lot and he loved people. He would give you the shirt off his back.

“He only ever spoke about the war a little bit, except when he met my husband-to-be, Frank, a Rat of Tobruk. 

“They would sit and talk till one or two o’clock in the morning,

“It was something only they could share.”

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