Today, I visited the Yorkshire seaside resort of Scarborough. An odd thing to do in the middle of December, I agree, but it gave me the opportunity to reflect on a significant and still-controversial event from 102 years ago this week.
Around the turn of the last century, Britain had the largest and most powerful naval force in the world; its “two power standard” ensured that it was at least the equal of the next two strongest navies in the world combined. After the declaration of the Great War in August 1914, Germany was forced to accept that its Kaiserliche Marine – its Imperial Navy – was simply no match. Consequently, as the war evolved, they were forced to take to less conventional means when it came to naval warfare – in general, ones which did not pit the two navies head-to-head.
One early tactic of the Germans was to send groups of their warships to less strategic harbours, where they could attack British vessels whilst outnumbered, they could “draw the fire” of the British forces allowing other ships to lay mines in waters further out, and ultimately compel the Royal Navy to alter the disposition of its vessels in order to better defend some of these more unlikely locations.
A raid on Great Yarmouth had occurred in November 1914, but did not cause much damage to the town itself. An attack further up the east coast on the morning of Wednesday 16th December 1914 was to feature many of the same vessels but, from a German perspective, was to be more successful.
The battlecruisers SMS Derfflinger and SMS Von der Tann were tasked with attacking Scarborough followed by Whitby, whilst SMS Seydlitz, SMS Moltke and the armoured cruiser SMS Blücher headed for Hartlepool, and SMS Kolberg set to work laying a field of 100 mines in the North Sea waters off Flamborough Head.
Scarborough, along with Hartlepool, was attacked as dawn broke at approximately 08:00, with very little warning for the people that lived there. The defenceless town was just beginning its day when 29 minutes of solid bombardment began, seeing a whopping 776 shells launched at it (that’s nearly 26 per minute!). Initially the people did not recognise the gravity of the situation; as the Scarborough Mercury reported at the time, “numbers of people, in order to obtain a good view of what they thought was a naval battle, took up positions which they afterwards recognised placed them in great peril”.
Ultimately, 18 people died – tragically, 4 of them from the same family – ranging from 65 years old to just 14 months. Many buildings were damaged; among them, three churches, the castle and the Grand Hotel, as well as two schools – but, luckily, the children had not yet arrived. Scarborough harbour did not even contain any warships – just four fishing vessels, the coastguard station and the lighthouse constituted the attack’s maritime casualties.
The terrified townspeople took to the roads leading away from the town, and also its railway station, boarding trains to escape to towns and cities further inland. Remarkably, they were passed in the other direction by daytrippers who had heard news of the attack, and obviously saw the opportunity to see “the war” at first hand as one not to miss.
We might run the risk of judging these people too harshly with the benefit of a century of hindsight. Even by this stage in the war, very little had been fed back to Britain regarding actual conditions in the trenches – the war was still commonly expected to be over imminently, and the papers were full of propagandistic depictions of naïve young men heading away with smiles on their faces, expecting simply a great adventure with their friends. Most people had no idea of the horror unfolding on the continent, much less the horror that was to come on the “Home Front” at various times over the next 30 years.
The British propaganda machine reacted to the Scarborough raid immediately; focusing on it much more than the far more effective Hartlepool raid. This shouldn’t really be surprising – Scarborough saw almost entirely civilian casualties, and numerous deaths of women and children, as well as being a holiday destination familiar to many. It could be considered to have brought the war to familiar shores for the first time. Posters implored young men to “Remember Scarborough” and enlist for the armed forces. In this respect, it could be considered to have been a long-term failure for the Germans, as it was ultimately used to recruit even more people to fight against them, and gave them something tangible to avenge.
All but one of the German vessels involved in the operations of 16th December 1914 survived the war, mostly to be scuttled by their crews at Scapa Flow in 1919. The exception was SMS Blücher, which was sunk during at Dogger Bank in early 1915. There, its unfortunate crew were the victims of German ingenuity – the vessel itself was intended by the Germans effectively as a copy of the Invincible-class battlecruisers of the Royal Navy; but whilst Royal Navy ships and crews were engaged in rescuing its crew, a German Zeppelin actually mistook the stricken and doomed SMS Blücher for a British ship and commenced bombing, leading to the withdrawal of the British ships and the needless deaths of hundreds of their own men. However, that is a story for another time.