A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The day they shelled Scarborough

For much of 1914, the conflict remained a remote, almost abstract concept for people in Britain. Then, just  before Christmas, the German navy struck. Jonathan Brown recalls the attacks that shocked the nation

The sound of the heavy guns woke John Shields Ryalls shortly after 8am. In an attempt to calm him, the tiny 14-month-old infant was taken upstairs. Meanwhile, panic and terror began to spread in the streets surrounding the mid-terrace house in Westbourne Park, a few hundred yards from Scarborough seafront.

Moments later, a shell burst through the roof and smashed into the bedroom, leaving  the child and his nanny with fatal injuries.

Sixty miles further north, in Hartlepool, Norman Collins, a 17-year-old apprentice, was having breakfast when “a tremendous explosion rocked the house followed by an inferno of noise and the reek of high explosives”. He ran out on to the seafront, and was “amazed to see three huge, grey battle-cruisers which looked to be only a few hundred yards from the end of the breakwater. Their massive guns were firing broadsides and in the dull light of a winter’s morning it was like looking into a furnace.”

Both towns (along with Whitby, halfway up the coast between them) were undergoing a full-scale bombardment from the German navy – the first foreign attack on British soil for centuries.

A few days later, a letter to Scarborough’s mayor from the then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, expressed the sense of mounting national and international outrage at the tragedy. “Whatever feats of arms the German navy may hereafter perform, the stigma of the baby-killers of Scarborough will brand its officers and men while sailors sail the sea,” Churchill wrote.

It was a typically vituperative response by the wartime leader – skilfully evoking reports of German soldiers bayoneting babies in occupied Belgium but transporting the horror to the genteel English seaside. Yet Churchill was later to be accused of sacrificing Scarborough and the other east coast ports of Whitby and Hartlepool that fateful Wednesday morning of 16 December 1914. It was alleged that he had ignored intercepted signals of the Imperial German Navy’s mission – although history would eventually establish that the intelligence reports had been incomplete.

The intention behind that mission had been to lure a section of the Grand Fleet into a North Sea confrontation. A full-scale battle would eventually be fought later that winter, at Dogger Bank. Meanwhile, the assault on the three towns – which resulted in the deaths of 122 people, including baby John – was to prove a propaganda coup for Britain, galvanising the will of a general population as yet unscathed by war.

These were the first lives to be lost on home soil in fully fledged conflict since the Battle of Culloden in 1746 – and the first in England since the Monmouth Rebellion more than 60 years before that. The bombardment was a forerunner not just of the Zeppelin raids that were still to come in this World War but also the horrors of the Blitz in the next. In the short term, however, it spawned one of the most evocative recruiting slogans of the conflict: “Remember Scarborough.”

The attack on the undefended spa town, as it roused itself from its pre-Christmas slumbers, lasted just 30 minutes. Most residents mistook the sounds of the guns – initially at least – for thunder. Two German battle cruisers and a light cruiser opened fire in a blanket of mist just a few hundred yards off the promenade, killing 18 people, damaging the castle and the Royal Hotel and causing local people to flee inland in their thousands. Many packed into trains to Leeds or sought refuge in surrounding villages, as rumours of a full-scale invasion spread.

The German formation then turned northwards, sailing at high speed before pausing to deliver another short, devastating fusillade at Whitby. More than 100 shells fell in seven minutes on the old whaling port, killing a railwayman in a horse and cart and the local coastguard as he hoisted the Royal Ensign. Casualties would have been much higher had the bombardment started a few minutes earlier, as many of the bombs hit an area used by children on the way to school. The sound of the guns was audible more than 20 miles inland.

More serious, although less mythologised, was the attack on Hartlepool, one of the country’s busiest industrial ports and a strategic target. There, three German ships, armed with 32 massive guns, opened fire simultaneously with the raid at Scarborough.

Although the Royal Navy had a flotilla stationed on the mouth of the Tees, its four destroyers were all at sea. One had sighted the attacking Germans but it had been outgunned and had retreated. Two British vessels, including a submarine which did manage to stoke up in time to get out of port, were soon run aground.

What resistance there was came from the gunners of the volunteer regiments manning the Heugh and Lighthouse batteries, an old defence dating back to the times of the Napoleonic Wars. As more than 1,000 shells rained down on the town behind them, killing 102 people including 15 children, leaving 467 wounded and damaging hundreds of houses, churches and hotels, they fired back. Despite mistiming guns and substandard ammunition, the gunners damaged one of the attacking ships, killing nine on board and earning the war’s first military medals.

At 8.52am, as unexpectedly as the attack had begun, the guns fell silent, and the German ships slipped back into the mist quietly evading the encircling Royal Navy.

Hartlepool, like Scarborough and Whitby, was left a scene of devastation. Hundreds had fled to the open space of the local park, while some victims had literally been blown out of their beds.

For the British public, this coastal raid was to prove a decisive moment, just as the sinking of the Lusitania would the following spring, in fuelling warlike patriotism.

In Germany, meanwhile, sections of the press enthused about the raid as having shattered the myth of British invulnerability. They dismissing Churchill’s rhetoric and accused him of being the real warmonger.

For the Admiralty, however, the attacks were devoid of military significance. “They may cause some loss of life among the civilian population, and some damage to private property, which is to be regretted, but they must not in any circumstances be allowed to modify the general Naval policy which is being pursued,” it said.

On the Yorkshire coast, the dead were buried and the shattered buildings slowly restored, and 16 December became a day of annual mourning – recalling that tragic hour when these quiet communities unexpectedly found themselves on the front line of the war to end all wars.

In association with the Imperial War Museum

The series can be seen at independent.co.uk/greatwar