Yorkshire civilians on the East Coast got a bitter taste of modern warfare only a few months after the nation declared war on Germany. Andrew Robinson reports.
JUST after 8am on December 16, 1914, Scarborough coastguard Arthur Dean looked out of his home and saw debris falling from the castle walls.
To his horror, he then saw two German battle cruisers firing shells at the coastal resort as they headed towards South Bay. Around the same time three German cruisers opened fire on Hartlepool and by 9am Whitby was under attack by the battleships which had devastated Scarborough.
When the terrifying bombardment was over, the three towns were counting their dead and injured. Eighteen people, including 14-month-old John Shields Ryalls, were killed in Scarborough, three at Whitby and more than 100 at Hartlepool.
Around 1,500 shells had fallen in total and more almost 600 people were wounded. Within hours, a stream of refugees, some still in their nightclothes, were packed into trains for Hull, York and Leeds. Roads inland became clogged with families, some on foot, as the fear of a German invasion gripped coastal communities.
A century on, poignant stories from that day – the first fatal attack on British soil since the start of the Great War – are still being remembered.
Scarborough man Geoffrey Horsley has a special reason to remember as his parents, Richard and Winifred, got married on that very afternoon – despite the church, St Martin-on-the-Hill, suffering bomb damage.
His mother was at Holy Communion at 8am when loud booming noises were heard. The vicar continued the service when, suddenly, two very loud explosions shook the church and a hole appeared in the roof as masonry could be heard falling outside.
Mr Horsley, now in his 80s, still has the jagged piece of shrapnel which his mother found between the pews and kept in a cabinet for 50 years.
After the bombardment, the couple were married in the damaged church. “They went through with it and the vicar was quite in agreement,” says Mr Horsley. “It seems amazing that two 21-year-olds were not to be put off by it. The marriage continued for over 50 years so it was well worth it.”
After the service, the newlyweds headed off on honeymoon on a motorbike with a ‘wicker basket’ style sidecar. As they left Scarborough the Horsleys had to weave around the crowds fleeing from the non-existent invasion.
Sadly, some residents did not live to tell the tale. The outbreak of war in August had already prevented the marriage of Ada Crow and Sergeant G.R. Sturdy, who had been away on service in India for eight years. The couple had been looking forward to being reunited when tragedy struck. Miss Crow, of Falsgrave Road, Scarborough, was hit in the chest by shrapnel after apparently going to the front door for some reason. She had previously been upstairs and expressed the view that “they” were only practising.
A few hours later Sergeant Sturdy arrived in Scarborough, not knowing that his fiancée had been killed that morning. It is believed the pair would have married on the day of her funeral.
The bombardment killed John Shields Ryalls, 14 months, and Bertha McEntyre, 43, believed to be his nanny. When the bombing began, baby John began to cry and was moved into a bedroom by Miss McEntyre, only for a shell to hit the room and kill them instantly.
The propaganda value of civilian casualties was quickly realised and recruiting offices reported a surge in men signing up. The attack caused a great public outcry and ‘Remember Scarborough’ became the slogan for a recruitment drive.
There was also anger that the Royal Navy had failed to prevent the raids on undefended towns such as Scarborough and Whitby – and then failed to engage the fleeing German ships.
The Recruiting Department’s statement, published in newspapers soon afterwards, declared: “Avenge Scarborough – Up and at ’em now.
“The wholesale murder of innocent women and children demands vengeance. Men of England, the innocent victims of German brutality call upon you to avenge them. Show German barbarians that Britain’s shores cannot be bombarded with impunity. Duty calls you now. Go to-day to the nearest recruiting depot and offer your services for King and home and country.”
Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, told the Mayor of Scarborough in a letter that the bombardment was an “act of military and political folly,” adding: “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 on the sea.”
As part of the centenary commemorations there will be a Great War exhibition at Scarborough Art Gallery from July 26. Esther Graham, who is leading the ‘Remember Scarborough’ Arts Council-funded project, says the exhibition would include propaganda material produced in the aftermath of the bombardment.
There will also be Scarborough postcards depicting the shell-damaged town which might be considered to be “disaster tourism” souvenirs. “Although more people were killed in the raid on Hartlepool, Scarborough had more propaganda value. We are working with a research consultant who is carrying out inquiries in Germany to discover more about why the bombardment was carried out.”
One theory is that the German Navy may have been seeking revenge for the Battle of the Falkland Islands, a British naval victory on December 8 when four German cruisers were sunk with the loss of 2,200 German sailors.
The civilians killed on December 16 are also remembered in a commemoration project led by the Friends of Dean Road and Manor Road Cemeteries in Scarborough. Seventeen of those who died in Scarborough are buried in the town.
Jan Cleary, chairman of the Friends, said all 17 graves had now been located. Many were hidden among undergrowth, some were damaged and half were unmarked.
The grave of Ada Crow – the bride-to-be killed just before her wedding – was hidden in a thicket of brambles. “The brambles were cut back to reveal a beautiful but broken angel. We will repair that and put it back in time for the centenary date.
“We have secured council funding for a memorial stone to all 18 victims. It will be a single stone memorial in Manor Road Cemetery that will record all the victims and remember the bombardment of Scarborough.
“The fact that half of them don’t have a headstone tells us that they were ordinary working folk who were killed just going about their daily business.”
One of the newly-found headstones bears the names of baby John Shields Ryalls and Bertha McEntyre. The stone had toppled but when it was placed upright, a verse to baby John could be seen.
It reads: “Oh what a happy life was his. To my dead baby given. Just one short year of earthly bliss and the rest to heaven.”
The story of the Scarborough bombardment wedding can be heard on BBC Radio York at 8.15am today and on BBC Look North at 6.30pm. Online at www.bbc.co.uk/ww1