Scarborough is a seaside town located on the Yorkshire Coast. Scarborough has been popular with tourists since the Victorian time and is still a widely visited town today. However, it is lesser known that Scarborough was subject to a bombardment in December 1914 which left 18 people dead and 80 injured.
Before the bombardment
Prior to the bombardment, Scarborough was seen as haven for tourists. Scarborough was seen as an idyllic and popular seaside town. Holiday makers came to “take the waters” and by the time of the opening of the railway in 1845, Scarborough was loved by visitors near and far. By the time war was declared on August 4th 1914, the town was well established as a popular seaside destination. However, by late 1914 forewarnings from the Admiral’s intelligence suggested suggested that a British bombardment along the coast was likely.
By the Autumn of 1914, Scarborough had added blockades of sandbags which blocked some of the main roads down to the foreshore. The headmistress at Queen Margaret’s boarding school for girls even suggested parents take their children home as Scarborough may not be safe.
The morning of December the 16th 1914
On the morning of the 16th December 1914, the coastal threat became a reality for Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool. 776 shells were fired on Scarborough from the Von der Tann and the Derflinger battle cruisers which continued north up the coast. In addition, whilst the bombardment of Scarborough took place, a minefield was laid off the coast near Flamborough which would continue to cause tragedy for the years to come, killing around 140 sea men. When the cruisers first appeared on the shore many people assumed they were British vessels. However, whilst the shells were fired many people were at a loss as to what to do, some feared bombardment would be followed by an invasion on land.
Casualties included a family at number two Wykeham Street- Four members of the Bennet family died including one young child. At the parade private hotel a shell burst in through the room injuring two women, both of whom had to have legs amputated. Caitlin’s restaurant along the foreshore was bombed which led to spoons being bent by the blast. A library was also hit during the attack resulting in the death of a maid and shrapnel was found in amongst books.
Other targets included the gas works behind Oliver’s mount, the railway station and the coastguard station alongside other targets on the headland. The lighthouse was also hit leaving a large hole , leading to the demolition and re-construction of the building.
Damage could also be seen to the town’s foghorn which is part of the collection at Scarborough Museums Trust. The small details in the foghorn and the spoons from Caitlin’s really bring home how many pieces of shrapnel were fired that morning and how local the attack really was.
The bombardment was finished by 9.23am by which point 333x15cm shells and 443×8.8cm shells, all high explosive, had been fired.
Following the bombardment on Scarborough, the town and the rest of Britain was largely in shock. Why would the Germans knowingly bomb an innocent civilian seaside town? Was it really a merciless attack from the Germans on an undefended British town or was there more to it than met the eye…
After the attack, Brigadier General N.T. Nicholls oversaw recommendations for the town’s defence. However, a lot of people were not happy with this. One shopkeeper even got into trouble for removing some of the defences without authority! Local scouts helped pass messages between radio stations behind Falsgrave Park and the Coastguard watch station on the cliff tops.
In 1915, Edith Kemp Welch painted “Remember Scarborough” depicting the mythical Lady Britannia rallying troops. The message was used quite heavily to show how this domestic, local attack on Scarborough could not and should not be tolerated. The bombardment on Scarborough was used by the government as a moving propaganda piece. The Prime Minister at the time, Winston Churchill, wrote a telegram to express his sympathy, his term “the baby-killers of Scarborough” was also used as a driving force for recruitment.
The telegraph from Winston Churchill offered his condolences to Scarborough and expressed his anger and disgust at the German actions.
Dear Mr Mayor,
I send you a message of sympathy not only on my own account but on behalf of the Navy, in the losses Scarborough has sustained. We mourn with you the peaceful inhabitants who have been killed or maimed, and particularly the women and children. We admire the dignity and fortitude with which Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool have confronted outrage. We share your disappointment that the miscreants escaped unpunished. We await with patience the opportunity that will surely come.
…We see a nation of military calculators throwing calculations to the wind, of strategists who have lost their sense of proportion, of schemers who have lost their sense of proportion, of schemers who have ceased to balance loss and gain.
Practically the whole fast cruiser force of the German Navy, including many great ships vital to their fleet and utterly irreplaceable, has been risked for the passing pleasure of killing as many English people as possible, irrespective of sex, age, or condition, in the limit of time available. To this act of military and political folly they were impelled by a violence or feeling which could find no other vent.
It is very satisfactory, and should confirm us in our course. Their hate is the measure of their fear. Its senseless expression is a proof of their dishonour. 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.
The use of the bombardment continued across the country, the Cheswick district council contacted Chief Engineer for Scarborough Harry Smith to request shell fragments for use in their local recruitment campaign. However, not only did Britain use the bombardment to fund the war campaign, Scarborough also used the bombardment for a strange new angle of tourism. Lighthouse ornaments featuring the hole created during the bombardment were sold in Scarborough alongside commemorative match box cases and coins of different value. Shrapnel was mounted on pieces of wood or put in brooches and sold. Souvenir booklets were also issued highlighting damage done during the bombardment.
Tourism was a vital part of Scarborough’s economy. Following the German attack, it was necessary for the town to bounce back. The slogan “we are not downhearted” was championed and local businesses were re-opened by the same afternoon. Some enterprising townsfolk were charging people to view damaged properties. Souvenir postcards and mementoes were launched for sale.
The German Perspective
In Germany, the bombardment made an immediate appearance in the press. They span the story of good news of German initiative and daring against a superior naval force and was aimed at raising morale amongst German people. It is said that the Germans expected a retaliation from Scarborough during the bombardment and were surprised that it never came. German authorities were forced to justify their actions as evidence arose to show the town may not have been so heavily defended as was claimed. There was equal dismay on both sides regarding the attack on civilians. The German perspective can be read more in the Scarborough Bombardment book available to buy from the Scarborough Museums Trust – Art Gallery or Rotunda.
So why the attack on Scarborough?
There are a few different theories surrounding why the Germans decided to bomb an unarmed civilian coastal town on December the 16th. The conventional view is that the attack was devised by the German navy to “tempt” part of the British fleet into the North Sea. However, some have suggested that instead it was part of a more sinister attack on the mainland designed to cause damage and civilian casualties. Another suggestion is that the attack was actually a cover to distract British forces whilst the minefield was laid at Flamborough.
It is clear that the attack on Scarborough was based primarily on obsolete information. It therefore may be speculated that had the German naval staff been aware Scarborough was undefended, an alternative course of action would have been taken.
While the Germans felt the bombardment took all due measures in order that the town may suffer as little damage as possible, many in Scarborough felt the attack was aimed at them. The attack on Scarborough could be seen as an unsuccessful attempt by the German High Seas Fleet to break the strategic stalemate in the North Sea.
The Scarborough War Memorial was erected on September 26th 1923 as a procession was led up Oliver’s Mount. The Memorial was completely funded by the public who raised £5000.
“In grateful memory of the men of Scarborough who gave their lives for the King and country in the great war 1914-1919. They were a wall to us both by night and by day.”
Filey Creative Writing Group
In 2015, to mark the anniversary of WWI and the bombardment of Scarborough, Filey Creative Writing Group wrote some pieces on objects central to local people throughout the war. Some of the objects described that have not been shown previously are displayed below.
The Young Recruit
by Samer Awwad
I am going into the unknown, thank God, with my comrades in the army from Filey.
We are the youth; we have to go to protect our country.
I am anxious; I shall miss every corner and piece of Filey.
I never imagined that my first journey abroad would be to go to war, but I am
ready and I will return triumphant. Fortunately, they told me I am going to
France; it has always been my dream to go there.
a haiku by Jo Burton
Another shell bursts
I am weary wet and cold
Who was it this time?
Two Haiku inspired by objects salvaged from the Bombardment of Scarborough
by John Casey
A spoon from The Grand
rattles against a teacup
as the shells explode.
The foghorn wails loud
in the early morning mist
but is soon silenced.
by Pat Cooper
Examination by the white-gloved expert gave the objects some provenance.
“These,” she declared, “are all relics from the First World War.”
1) A German foghorn from the First World War
Who could imagine the panic when it sounded in low visibility?
Who could imagine the manner of its dilapidation as the vessel of war
2) A once-beautiful silver spoon
One could almost visualise the owner’s—or the user’s—horror on the
impact of the blast. How would the hand react, as well as the senses?
What would a film-maker—say Hitchcock—make of this?
3) A book, darkly yellowed
A deeply wounded object—so battered and, ironically, possibly more
valuable now because of the history surrounding its dilapidated state.
What mystified them most, though, was what looked like a keyring with two
rather ugly “charms”, almost demonic, and worn, as though fingered a lot—
but, most curiously, also hanging on this keyring was a quite beautiful cross.
Speculation about this strange combination may lead to a duplicitous life, or
perhaps a reformed character, like a German battleship’s bell, now ringing on
the roof of a Scottish island’s church.
by Rodney Court
My name is Karl and I am a Seaman Gunner serving on one of the
Fatherland’s newest cruisers. I was always proud to be in The Reichsmarine
until that fateful day of 16th December,1914.
We had sailed from Bremen in company with two other ships under secret
orders to attack England’s thought-to-be fortified positions on their East
Coast. My position was as a Loader in one of our secondary gun turrets—a
hot and exhausting job as the shells had to be man-handled and were very
heavy. It was the first time that my ship had gone into action against the
enemy and I was very proud to be attacking their defences. We fired several
hundred shells before moving to different targets.
Imagine my shame when, several months later, I found out the truth; these
were not fortifications but holiday resorts and fishing ports. We had killed
eighteen innocent civilians including a baby and severely injured one
I will have this day of shame in my memory until the day that I die.
Small Objects with Histories
by Tony Green
A Fragment of Shell
A relic of a fateful day. Riven by heat and force, it is a past reminder of that tragic
day, forever treasured in its own way as a link to the past.
After death and mayhem, the children were quick to seize fragments and
mementoes, as were the commercially-minded, for some profit.
A book, cleaved in a twinkling by hot metal; such a fragile item that suffered so little
damage by a mighty force.
Trinkets and mementos assembled as good luck talismans or charms to either bring
good luck or ward off bad times. All have their purpose for the superstitiously
inclined—a shoulder for them to lean on, perhaps.
Here is a solitary reminder of a once mighty and powerful man-made construction
that decided the life and death of the objects of its purpose.
A mighty warship, conceived on a draughtsman’s drawing board and constructed in
noise, heat and exacting calculations, featured an anonymous brass plaque
describing the operation of a mundane lift. This obscure item was one part of a
greater thing, having little importance or, perhaps, not attracting any attention at
all. It fulfilled a statutory requirement of the day to inform the well-briefed
personnel of the obvious.
This plaque lived with the ship, perhaps being polished occasionally, while
absorbing every living vibration of the beast—a silent witness. Now the ship is no
more and nothing remains of the leviathan, thus elevating this anonymous item to a
focus of interest and wonder. The last tangible thing left of a mighty industrial and
by Lisa Hayder
(1) The Bell
The bell of the German battleship, Von der Tann, was one of only a few
things that was salvaged from the scuttled vessel. It managed to survive, and
started a new life when it was moved to a church. In fact, the bell was more
than lucky; it was now in a safe place, and employed in a much better job, as
its sound now symbolised peace rather than fear and war.
A shop in Scarborough was preparing for Christmas….
Unfortunately, neither the shop nor Scarborough managed to continue their
celebrations; Christmas lights were replaced with shells and the Christmas
tree, which was at the entrance of the shop on the corner, was destroyed and
became a part of the wreckage of the targeted shop.
16th December 1914
by Judy Jukes
Early this morning, without warning, the coastal town of Scarborough was
attacked by a fleet of German battle cruisers. Scarborough had no means of
defence against the onslaught, which resulted in the deaths of 18 civilians.
Among those who perished was 14 months old John Shields Ryalls who died
in the arms of his nanny, Miss Bertha McIntyre aged 42. Also, five members
of the Bennett family died in the raid.
The whole town is in turmoil with devastation everywhere, including the
lighthouse, Scarborough Castle, three churches and a school.
Four Haiku inspired by WW1
by Jeanne Rodgers
barbed wire in the mud
sobs of despair in the night
dying cries of fear
fires burning in the dark trench
wet clothes on damp skin
copper horseshoe charm
given with hope, faith and love
to return to home
little red devil
on a tent in Flanders Field
strikes fear into Fritz.