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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