Armistice 100. Deaths and destruction on East Coast

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As daylight broke on December 16, 1914, people in three East Coast towns awoke to what appeared to be the sound of violent thunder raging overhead.

Until then the residents of unarmed seaside towns had no reason to fear enemy attack, 400 miles away from the battlefields of France. But now the lines had become irreversibly blurred.

The Grand Hotel in Scarborough after the 1914 German bombardment. Scarborough Museums Trust.

The Grand Hotel in Scarborough after the 1914 German bombardment. Scarborough Museums Trust.

Just after 8am, German naval guns poured over 1,500 shells into Hartlepool and Scarborough and then Whitby. Two-and-a-half hours later as the attackers sailed off to celebrate, 137 civilians, including many women and children, were dead and nearly 600 were wounded.

The Scarborough Evening News reported that many residents were still in bed when the first direct attack on British soil in the First World War began. “The real character of the visitation was quickly realised as debris began to fall about and shells burst with destructive effect in all parts of the town,” it added.

A turret of the Royal Hotel in the town was blown away and part of the seaward front of the Grand Hotel was destroyed. The lighthouse, the Old Barracks, schools, shops, churches and many homes were also hit. A postman and a maid at Dunollie on Filey Road were killed instantly when a shell landed between them.

Adding insult to injury German Rear-Admiral Franz von Hipper’s battlecruisers managed to escape scot-free.

As well as generating criticism for the Royal Navy, it acted as a huge rallying cry against Germany. “Remember Scarborough” urged army recruitment posters.

Just over a month later, on January 19, 1915, Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn were subjected to the war’s first airborne attack on British soil, leaving five dead.

For nearly four years, cities up and down the country would be regularly terrorised by the infamous Zeppelins – which could travel at 85mph and carry up to two tonnes of bombs – and huge Gotha and Giant bomber aircraft.

On the night of June 6/7 bad luck brought the L-9 Zeppelin to Hull. Bound for London, it turned to Hull instead, because of weather conditions.

In just half an hour it dropped 40 bombs on the city. An incendiary falling through the roof of number 50 South Parade into a bedroom burned to death two children. In all 24 people died and 40 were wounded.

Troops and firefighters were credited with saving Holy Trinity Church – now Hull Minster – where people had worshipped for 600 years, from catching fire.

In September 1916 nine men, 10 women and 10 children died when bombs dropped from a Zeppelin missed Sheffield’s munitions factories by a mile and dropped on half a dozen rows of houses instead.

Harry Smith, a schoolboy at the time, later recorded the mad stampede to the countryside that ensued. “First field we got to was solid up with people on rugs and bedding on floor. But if they’d dropped a bomb on there, they’d have killed hundreds because they were so – they’d no idea what to do or how to behave and treat it.”

For a nation that had believed itself to be protected by the English Channel and the might of the Royal Navy, the attacks provoked both public outrage and government embarrassment.

By 1918, airship raids on England had claimed over 500 lives and injured more than 1,000 people.

A fraction of the carnage on the front, it was still shocking that civilians were dying in the hallowed safety of their own homes.