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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Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

If you're looking for deals on items like Keurigs, BISSELL vacuums, and essential oil diffusers, it's usually pretty slim pickings until the holiday sales roll around. Thankfully, Amazon is starting these deals a little earlier with their Big Fall Sale, where customers can get up to 20 percent off everything from home decor to WFH essentials and kitchen gadgets. Now you won’t have to wait until Black Friday for the deal you need. Make sure to see all the deals that the sale has to offer here and check out our favorites below.

Electronics

Dash/Amazon

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HP/Amazon

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DEWALT/Amazon

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NECA/Amazon

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12 Surprising Facts About T.S. Eliot

Getty
Getty

Born September 26, 1888, modernist poet and playwright Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot is best known for writing "The Waste Land." But the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was also a prankster who coined a perennially popular curse word, and created the characters brought to life in the Broadway musical "Cats." In honor of Eliot’s birthday, here are a few things you might not know about the writer.

1. T.S. Eliot enjoyed holding down "real" jobs.

Throughout his life, Eliot supported himself by working as a teacher, banker, and editor. He could only write poetry in his spare time, but he preferred it that way. In a 1959 interview with The Paris Review, Eliot remarked that his banking and publishing jobs actually helped him be a better poet. “I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me,” Eliot said. “The danger, as a rule, of having nothing else to do is that one might write too much rather than concentrating and perfecting smaller amounts.”

2. One of the longest-running Broadway shows ever exists thanks to T.S. Eliot.

Getty Images

In 1939, Eliot published a book of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which included feline-focused verses he likely wrote for his godson. In stark contrast to most of Eliot's other works—which are complex and frequently nihilistic—the poems here were decidedly playful. For Eliot, there was never any tension between those two modes: “One wants to keep one’s hand in, you know, in every type of poem, serious and frivolous and proper and improper. One doesn’t want to lose one’s skill,” he explained in his Paris Review interview. A fan of Eliot's Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats since childhood, in the late '70s, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to set many of Eliot's poems to music. The result: the massively successful stage production "Cats," which opened in London in 1981 and, after its 1982 NYC debut, became one of the longest-running Broadway shows of all time.

3. Three hours per day was his T.S. Eliot’s writing limit.

Eliot wrote poems and plays partly on a typewriter and partly with pencil and paper. But no matter what method he used, he tried to always keep a three hour writing limit. “I sometimes found at first that I wanted to go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory," he explained. "It’s much better to stop and think about something else quite different.”

4. T.S. Eliot considered "Four Quartets" to be his best work.

In 1927, Eliot converted to Anglicanism and became a British citizen. His poems and plays in the 1930s and 1940s—including "Ash Wednesday," "Murder in the Cathedral," and "Four Quartets"—reveal themes of religion, faith, and divinity. He considered "Four Quartets,” a set of four poems that explored philosophy and spirituality, to be his best writing. Out of the four, the last is his favorite.

5. T.S. Eliot had an epistolary friendship with Groucho Marx.

Eliot wrote comedian Groucho Marx a fan letter in 1961. Marx replied, gave Eliot a photo of himself, and started a correspondence with the poet. After writing back and forth for a few years, they met in real life in 1964, when Eliot hosted Marx and his wife for dinner at his London home. The two men, unfortunately, didn’t hit it off. The main issue, according to a letter Marx wrote his brother: the comedian had hoped he was in for a "Literary Evening," and tried to discuss King Lear. All Eliot wanted to talk about was Marx's 1933 comedy Duck Soup. (In a 2014 piece for The New Yorker, Lee Siegel suggests there had been "simmering tension" all along, even in their early correspondence.)

6. Ezra Pound tried to crowdfund T.S. Eliot’s writing.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1921, Eliot took a few months off from his banking job after a nervous breakdown. During this time, he finished writing "The Waste Land," which his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound edited. Pound, with the help of other Bohemian writers, set up Bel Esprit, a fund to raise money for Eliot so he could quit his bank job to focus on writing full-time. Pound managed to get several subscribers to pledge money to Eliot, but Eliot didn’t want to give up his career, which he genuinely liked. The Liverpool Post, Chicago Daily Tribune, and the New York Tribune reported on Pound’s crowdfunding campaign, incorrectly stating that Eliot had taken the money, but continued working at the bank. After Eliot protested, the newspapers printed a retraction.

7. Writing in French helped T.S. Eliot overcome writer’s block.

After studying at Harvard, Eliot spent a year in Paris and fantasized about writing in French rather than English. Although little ever came of that fantasy, during a period of writer’s block, Eliot did manage to write a few poems in French. “That was a very curious thing which I can’t altogether explain. At that period I thought I’d dried up completely. I hadn’t written anything for some time and was rather desperate,” he told The Paris Review. “I started writing a few things in French and found I could, at that period ...Then I suddenly began writing in English again and lost all desire to go on with French. I think it was just something that helped me get started again."

8. T.S. Eliot set off stink bombs in London with his nephew.

Eliot, whose friends and family called him Tom, was supposedly a big prankster. When his nephew was young, Eliot took him to a joke shop in London to purchase stink bombs, which they promptly set off in the lobby of a nearby hotel. Eliot was also known to hand out exploding cigars, and put whoopee cushions on the chairs of his guests.

9. T.S. Eliot may have been the first person to write the word "bulls**t."

In the early 1910s, Eliot wrote a poem called "The Triumph of Bulls**t." Like an early 20th-century Taylor Swift tune, the poem was Eliot’s way of dissing his haters. In 1915, he submitted the poem to a London magazine … which rejected it for publication. The word bulls**t isn’t in the poem itself, only the poem’s title, but The Oxford English Dictionary credits the poem with being the first time the curse word ever appeared in print.

10. T.S. Eliot coined the expression “April is the cruelest month.”

Thanks to Eliot, the phrase “April is the cruelest month” has become an oft-quoted, well-known expression. It comes from the opening lines of "The Waste Land”: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

11. T.S. Eliot held some troubling beliefs about religion.

Over the years, Eliot made some incredibly problematic remarks about Jewish people, including arguing that members of a society should have a shared religious background, and that a large number of Jews creates an undesirably heterogeneous culture. Many of his early writing also featured offensive portrayals of Jewish characters. (As one critic, Joseph Black, pointed out in a 2010 edition of "The Waste Land" and Other Poems, "Few published works displayed the consistency of association that one finds in Eliot's early poetry between what is Jewish and what is squalid and distasteful.") Eliot's defenders argue that the poet's relationship with Jewish people was much more nuanced that his early poems suggest, and point to his close relationships with a number of Jewish writers and artists.

12. You can watch a movie based on T.S. Eliot’s (really bad) marriage.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tom & Viv, a 1994 film starring Willem Dafoe, explores Eliot’s tumultuous marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a dancer and socialite. The couple married in 1915, a few months after they met, but the relationship quickly soured. Haigh-Wood had constant physical ailments, mental health problems, and was addicted to ether. The couple spent a lot of time apart and separated in the 1930s; she died in a mental hospital in 1947. Eliot would go on to remarry at the age of 68—his 30-year-old secretary, Esmé Valerie Fletcher—and would later reveal that his state of despair during his first marriage was the catalyst and inspiration for "The Waste Land."

This story has been updated for 2020.