Who fired the first shot of World War 1?

Nowadays, it’s widely believed that the first British soldier to fire a shot in anger on the Western Front was Drummer Edward Thomas, of the 4th Dragoon Guards, who at 7am on the 22nd of August, 1914 spotted an enemy cavalryman ahead and opened fire on him.

The picture was not always so clear, however.

Eleanor Broaders, one of our eagle-eyed Citizen Historians, found an intriguing entry in the diary of the 3rd Division’s Cyclist Company, dated 12th of November, 1915. In it, the commanding officer, Captain Eric Swaine, writes:

In the Field Almanac 1915 (Official Copy) it states that “First shot fired between German and British Forces took place at 12.40pm August 23rd, 1915.”

This Company exchanged shots with German Cavalry before noon on August 22nd, 1915. One German Uhlan was wounded and his lance captured.

There are some obvious errors in Captain Swaine’s account. He records the year as 1915, for example, rather than 1914 and by 12.40pm on August the 23rd, the Battle of Mons was already well underway. However, if you allow for the fact that this entry was probably written in haste over a year after the events by a man in the midst of war, it still makes for some very interesting reading.

Image © IWM (Q 2103) - Cyclists moving up to the forward area

Image © IWM (Q 2103) – Cyclists moving up to the forward area

Whatever really happened, it’s true that, 100 years ago today, Captain Swaine’s Cyclist Company would have been amongst the first British units in action on continental Europe since the Napoleonic Wars of the previous century. Lightweight and mobile, the cyclists made excellent reconnaissance troops and would have been amongst the first units to encounter the enemy. In fact, another cyclist, Private John Parr, became the first British soldier to be killed on the Western Front the day before Captain Swaine’s Company captured their German lance, after he and a companion encountered a German cavalry patrol in the village of Obourg, north-east of Mons. It’s believed Private Parr stayed behind to hold the enemy unit off, while his comrade withdrew to warn the rest of the British troops that Germans were in the area.

With 100 years of history between us and the events of the 22nd of August, 1914, it’s easy to forget how confused things were in those early days of the war, when the armies were still mobile and the deadlock of trench warfare had yet to emerge. Why not get involved at Operation War Diary and uncover history as it was written.

You can read Captain Swaine’s diary entry here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD00014ea

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5 responses to “Who fired the first shot of World War 1?”

  1. Susan Chan says :

    This headline should read ‘who fired the first shot of WWI on the western front’, to be accurate. According to the Official Histories of the Great War, http://www.greatwar.co.uk/research/books/ww1-official-history.htm, the first shot in WWI was by Regimental Sergeant-Major Alhaji Grunshi DCM MM, Gold Coast Regiment RWAFF. It was on 12 August 1914 near Kogblekove. He fired the first shot in the Togoland campaign and apparently the first shot fired by any soldier of the British Army in the Great War. There is a photograph of Grunshi, together with this description.

    • aspoz says :

      Actually, the first shot fired by British Empire forces in world war one was by a coastal gun battery at Pt Nepean in Victoria on 5 August 1914. They were firing at a German merchant ship which was trying to escape internment.

  2. Steve Blackwell says :

    If the question is who fired the first shot between forces of the Brittish Empire and Germany then it is worth noting that 4 hours after war was declared on August 4th the German merchant ship SS Pfalz attempted to leave Port Phillip Bay in Victoria, Australia and was fired upon by the gun at Fort Nepean manned by Sergeant John Purdue. Interestingly the same gun is believed to have fired the first shot of the Second World War.

  3. Patrice Ayme says :

    By the time of the British “first shots”, dozens of thousands of soldiers had already been killed, on the French side alone. On August 22, 1914, the French army suffered 27,000 killed in combat, in 24 hours.
    http://www.france24.com/en/20140822-august-22-1914-battle-frontiers-bloodiest-day-french-military-history

    The Brits came to the rescue late and few, but it was nice nevertheless!

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