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Centenary of first shot at sea in the First World War marked by sail past by Royal Navy at Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week

Image: left to right Simon “Jeff” Hurst Leading Seaman; Lt Cdr David Gillet, Commanding Officer of HMS Mersey and Kim Smith, Able Seaman.


One hundred years after the first shot at sea was fired by the Royal Navy a day after the First World War in Britain was declared, the National Museum of the Royal Navy will mark the centenary by inviting a sail past by RN patrol vessel HMS Mersey off the Royal Yacht Squadron during Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week.

It was on August 5th 1914 that the first shot at sea was fired from the gun of HMS Lance in the North Sea. The gun is now a permanent exhibit in the HMS - Hear My Story gallery at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth Historic Dockyar

On Tuesday August 5th, 2014, a single cannon will be fired from the Royal Yacht Squadron at 1000hrs and spectators and competitors will join together for a one minute silence in memory of all those who have served in defence of the nation. A further cannon will signify the end of the silence. In addition, this year’s race for The Britannia Cup, run by the Royal Yacht Squadron, will be held in commemoration of the centenary of the Great War at Sea.

The Royal Yacht Squadron played an important supporting role during the First World War.  Members who owned large steam yachts were quick to offer their vessels to the Admiralty when war was declared and 38 were requisitioned.

Once an owner had agreed to lend his yacht for the duration of the war, his vessel was taken to a naval dockyard - usually Portsmouth - to be fitted out for war service.  Valuable items were removed and replaced by guns, the decks were strengthened to take them and, of course, they were painted grey. 

Of the 38 yachts, four were sunk by mines, one was lost in a collision, one was wrecked while chasing a submarine in heavy weather and all the others survived the war. Four other yachts served as Hospital Ships and the club’s headquarters (the Castle at Cowes) was opened up to convalescent naval officers.

Professor Dominic Tweddle, Director General of the National Museum of the Royal Navy said: “It is commonly believed that the First World War was fought entirely in the trenches, however our naval forces were engaged in battle across the world. Some 43,244 naval personnel lost their lives during the war. That single shot from HMS Lance signified the start of a campaign at sea that came at considerable human cost.”

“Cowes Week is acknowledged the world over as one of the most prestigious sailing events and we are touched that the organisers and the Royal Navy join with us in marking this sombre and thought-provoking centenary in a time-honoured fashion.”


Baker. Soldier. ‘Sailor’

The story of Alfred Smith as a baker, a soldier and a ‘sailor’ is told in the different items kindly donated by his family. When the First World War broke out Alfred Frank Smith was a baker in Sussex; to 'do his bit' he joined the local Volunteer Training Regiment - a sort of Home Guard - but then in 1916 he opted to join the Royal Navy and go to sea.

However, instead of joining a ship he became an infantry soldier in the Royal Naval Division and, despite being a married man of 26, he was classified as a Boy Sailor! He was assigned to the 'Hood ' Battalion as a Lewis Gunner and sent to fight in the trenches in France. On the 28th September 1918 he was hit in the chest by a German bullet which lodged itself close to his heart. Luckily the bullet was at the end of its flight and it didn't cause serious damage. It was enough though to take Alfred out of the fight and into a convalescent camp at Blandford in Dorset where, wearing his blue hospital uniform, the local people would take him into their homes for meals. Demobilised in 1919 Alfred bought a Newsagent & Tobacconist shop in Lewis. He had 10 children and died in 1974 with the German bullet still lodged close to his heart.