German Navy Bombards British Towns

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 158th installment in the series. Would you like to be notified via email when each installment of this series is posted? Just email RSVP@mentalfloss.com.

December 16, 1914: German Ships Shell Scarborough, Hartlepool, Whitby 

Protected by the English Channel and the North Sea, the British Isles had passed through almost a thousand years of European strife largely untouched. The First World War changed all that, as the British experienced hostile fire on their own soil for the first time in living memory thanks to high-powered modern weaponry, including long-range naval guns, zeppelins, and heavy bombers.

After a mostly symbolic (meaning ineffective) raid on Yarmouth on November 3, the real wakeup call came on December 16, 1914, when German cruisers shelled the northeast seaside towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool, and Whitby, killing 137 people and injuring another 592. Many of the victims were civilians, including a number of children, sparking outrage across Britain. The shelling of Scarborough and Whitby, both widely known as pleasant resort towns, struck many observers as especially perverse (below, a prewar postcard showing the Scarborough waterfront).

The raid was carried out by four German battle cruisers and an armored cruiser, apparently as part of a broader plan to lure British ships into a trap; any British ships pursuing the raiders would run into the main dreadnought force of the High Seas Fleet lying in wait east of Dogger Bank, a collection of shoals and sandbanks in the North Sea. Meanwhile, the British Admiralty, which had access to captured German codebooks, knew the Germans were planning something and put a smaller force of dreadnoughts and cruisers on alert south of the Dogger Bank, hoping to catch the German raiders coming or going.


However, it was the British who were caught unprepared. In the early morning hours of December 16, the cruisers approached the North Yorkshire coast, emerging out of the fog to take the inhabitants completely by surprise. At 8 a.m., two cruisers began shelling Scarborough, hitting landmarks including the Scarborough Castle and Grand Hotel, killing 18 people and triggering panic in the defenseless town (below, damage at the Scarborough Castle Barracks).

Reginald Kaufmann, an American living in Britain who happened to be visiting Scarborough, recalled the sudden rain of high explosives on the seaside resort:

From one end of it to the other, the shells were falling. Westborough, as the central portion of the chief business street is called, was full of darting bits of iron; men and women had dropped by the curb; to north and south, the entire city was being lashed with a whip of iron thongs… Portions of roofing danced through the air; chimney-pots flew around like so many kites…

According to Kaufmann, residents fled the town by any means they could. “There were children astride of donkeys once rented to excursionists for five minutes’ ride on the South Sands; wives still in the aprons they had been wearing in the kitchen when the first shell exploded; collarless husbands in smoking-jackets and carpet-slippers; even a few late-rising children, barefooted and wrapped in blankets.”

A few minutes later at 8:10 a.m., the other cruisers began shelling Hartlepool, firing a total of 1,150 shells over 40 minutes and killing 86 people in a rain of steel that hit hundreds of houses and seven churches in addition to factories, utilities, and railroads (top, damage at Hartelpool). Several naval artillery guns guarding the Hartlepool harbor on land scored a few hits against the German ships, but inflicted minimal damage. By the same token, because the German ships were firing at relatively close range, the fuses on a number of shells failed, leaving the inhabitants of Hartlepool with some chilling souvenirs (below).

Around 9:30 a.m., the first cruisers moved on from Scarborough to Whitby, shelling a coastguard station and damaging Whitby Abbey, a Benedictine monastery famous, among other things, for helping inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula. However, Stoker’s Victorian Gothic tale paled in comparison to the horror of modern warfare. One grade school student in Whitby was playing outside when the shelling began:

“First we heard a sound like thunder echoing across the playground. I looked up to see a shell hit a building across on the Westside, sending slates and masonry flying. Our teacher, clearly petrified, ushered us back to the classroom. That was the first we knew that the Germans were attacking Whitby!”

After two hours of terror, the bombardment ended and recovery efforts began, led by dazed civilian officials and volunteers. Kaufmann observed the aftermath in Scarborough:

Towards the hospitals, through many a street, were moving little processions of Boy Scouts bearing stretchers on which lay figures swathed in bloody bandages, the faces ashen, the eyes glazed… I walked for some hours through the town [seeing]…[t]ottering chimneys, tiles trembling on roof-edges, rows upon rows of splintered windows, roofs open to the sky, brick walls crushed to powder, house-fronts stripped away, and the interiors of bedrooms bare to the sight as if they were stage scenes…

The raid fueled public outrage at Germany for targeting civilians and immediately became a favorite theme of recruitment efforts in Britain, where the government still relied entirely on voluntary enlistment and soon realized the value of combining emotional and patriotic appeals (below).

The shelling of Scarborough, Hartlepool, and Whitby also spurred fresh criticism of the Royal Navy, which had failed in what many viewed as its main mission—defending British soil. Even worse, the returning German flotilla managed to elude the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet, which belatedly sailed from its base in Scapa Flow off the coast of Scotland in pursuit. The British ultimately missed several chances to engage the outnumbered enemy due to excessive caution combined with muddled communications between ships at sea.

In truth, the Royal Navy was tasked with duties much larger and more complex than simple coastal defense, chief of which was securing Britain’s connections to the Empire and protecting international maritime trade routes. But for ordinary Britons, the hit-and-run attack on British home territory was a visceral humiliation and affront nonetheless.

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Can You Guess J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beast From Its Magical Power?

The Many Lives of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

In the late 1970s, Leonard Cohen sat down to write a song about god, sex, love, and other mysteries of human existence that bring us to our knees for one reason or another. The legendary singer-songwriter, who was in his early forties at the time, knew how to write a hit: He had penned "Suzanne," "Bird on the Wire," "Lover, Lover, Lover," and dozens of other songs for both himself and other popular artists of the time. But from the very beginning, there was something different about what would become "Hallelujah"—a song that took five years and an estimated 80 drafts for Cohen to complete.

In the 35 years since it was originally released, "Hallelujah" has been covered by more than 300 other artists in virtually every genre. Willie Nelson, k.d. lang, Justin Timberlake, Bono, Brandi Carlile, Bon Jovi, Susan Boyle, Pentatonix, and Alexandra Burke—the 2008 winner of the UK version of The X Factor—are just a few of the individuals who have attempted to put their own stamp on the song. After Burke’s soulful version was downloaded 105,000 times in its first day, setting a new European record, “Hallelujah” soon became a staple of TV singing shows.

It's an impressive feat by any standard, but even more so when you consider that "Hallelujah"—one of the most critically acclaimed and frequently covered songs of the modern era—was originally stuck on side two of 1984’s Various Positions, an album that Cohen’s American record label deemed unfit for release.

“Leonard, we know you’re great,” Cohen recalled CBS Records boss Walter Yetnikoff telling him, “but we don’t know if you’re any good.”

 

Yetnikoff wasn’t totally off-base. With its synth-heavy ’80s production, Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” doesn’t announce itself as the chill-inducing secular hymn it’s now understood to be. (Various Positions was finally released in America on the indie label Passport in 1985.) Part of why it took Cohen five years to write the song was that he couldn’t decide how much of the Old Testament stuff to include.

“It had references to the Bible in it, although these references became more and more remote as the song went from the beginning to the end,” Cohen said. “Finally I understood that it was not necessary to refer to the Bible anymore. And I rewrote this song; this is the ‘secular’ ‘Hallelujah.’”

The first two verses introduce King David—the skilled harp player and great uniter of Israel—and the Nazarite strongman Samson. In the scriptures, both David and Samson are adulterous poets whose ill-advised romances (with Bathsheba and Delilah, respectively) lead to some big problems.

In the third verse of his 1984 studio version, Cohen grapples with the question of spirituality. When he’s accused of taking the Lord’s name in vain, Cohen responds, hilariously, “What’s it to ya?” He insists there’s “a blaze of light in every word”—every perception of the divine, perhaps—and declares there to be no difference between “the holy or the broken Hallelujah.” Both have value.

“I wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world,” Cohen once said. “The Hallelujah, the David’s Hallelujah, was still a religious song. So I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”

 

Amazingly, Cohen's original "Hallelujah" pales in comparison to Velvet Underground founder John Cale’s five-verse rendition for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Cale had seen Cohen perform the song live, and when he asked the Canadian singer-songwriter to fax over the lyrics, he received 15 pages. “I went through and just picked out the cheeky verses,” Cale said.

Cale’s pared down piano-and-vocals arrangement inspired Jeff Buckley to record what is arguably the definitive “Hallelujah,” a haunting, seductive performance found on the late singer-songwriter’s one and only studio album, 1994’s Grace. Buckley’s death in 1997 only heightened the power of his recording, and within a few years, “Hallelujah” was everywhere. Cale’s version turned up in the 2001 animated film Shrek, and the soundtrack features an equally gorgeous version by Rufus Wainwright.

In 2009, after the song appeared in Zack Snyder's Watchmen, Cohen agreed with a critic who called for a moratorium on covers. “I think it’s a good song,” Cohen told The Guardian. “But too many people sing it.”

Except “Hallelujah” is a song that urges everyone to sing. That’s kind of the point. The title is from a compound Hebrew word comprising hallelu, to praise joyously, and yah, the name of god. As writer Alan Light explains in his 2013 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah,” the word hallelujah was originally an imperative—a command to praise the Lord. In the Christian tradition, it’s less an imperative than an expression of joy: “Hallelujah!” Cohen seemingly plays on both meanings.

 

Cohen’s 1984 recording ends with a verse that begins, “I did my best / It wasn’t much.” It’s the humble shrug of a mortal man and the sly admission of an ambitious songwriter trying to capture the essence of humanity in a pop song. By the final lines, Cohen concedes “it all went wrong,” but promises to have nothing but gratitude and joy for everything he has experienced.

Putting aside all the biblical allusions and poetic language, “Hallelujah” is a pretty simple song about loving life despite—or because of—its harshness and disappointments. That message is even clearer in Cale’s five-verse rendition, the guidepost for all subsequent covers, which features the line, “Love is not a victory march.” Cale also adds in Cohen’s verse about sex, and how every breath can be a Hallelujah. Buckley, in particular, realized the carnal aspect of the song, calling his version “a Hallelujah to the orgasm.”

“Hallelujah” can be applied to virtually any situation. It’s great for weddings, funerals, TV talent shows, and cartoons about ogres. Although Cohen’s lyrics don’t exactly profess religious devotion, “Hallelujah” has become a popular Christmas song that’s sometimes rewritten with more pious lyrics. Agnostics and atheists can also find plenty to love about “Hallelujah.” It’s been covered more than 300 times because it’s a song for everyone.

When Cohen died on November 7, 2016, at the age of 82, renewed interest in “Hallelujah” vaulted Cohen's version of the song onto the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. Despite its decades of pop culture ubiquity, it took more than 30 years and Cohen's passing for “Hallelujah”—the very essence of which is about finding beauty amid immense sadness and resolving to move forward—to officially become a hit song.

“There’s no solution to this mess,” Cohen once said, describing the human comedy at the heart of “Hallelujah. “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say 'Look, I don't understand a f***ing thing at all—Hallelujah! That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”

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