Total war comes closer

Today, 16 December 1914, at eight in the morning, three German battleships emerged from the fog off Scarborough and from a distance of less than half a mile shelled the town. Further up the coast at about the same time, three more German warships saw off four British destroyers that were outclassed, and opened fire on Hartlepool. An hour later, the first German formation arrived off Whitby and attacked that. By half past nine, all of the German ships had disappeared back into the fog.

These attacks on civilian centres were a reprisal for the destruction of a marauding German squadron of battleships at the Battle of the Falklands on 8 December 1914. However, they were far from being merely symbolic. At Scarborough eighteen people were killed, including children, and over eighty injured. At Hartlepool the German ships poured an incredible 1500 shells into the town in fifty minutes, killing 118 and wounding 200. At the tiny port of Whitby three people were killed, heavy damage was inflicted on property, and a large hole was blown in the west wall of the historic Abbey.

Obviously, the attacks caused panic and outrage. Where was the Royal Navy? Extreme frustration was expressed about its being stationed at Scapa Flow (300 miles from Scarborough). Actually the Admiralty had had intelligence that a German naval force was coming out, and half of the Grand Fleet had been sent to wait for it at Dogger Bank, but in thick fog and without radar they could not find it. The killing of babies at Scarborough and the shelling of Whitby Abbey were reminders, people felt, of what the country could expect if the Germans invaded — and fears of that were now rife, despite the fact that the German Army had been stopped at Ypres from seizing France’s Channel ports.

But in one sense the Germans’ attacks on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby were completely counterproductive. They did not so much demoralise people as make them realise that the war was being waged not only on armies and navies, but on them. It was a quantum jump. One can be sure that it was not lost on George Calderon, meditating at 42 Well Walk, Hampstead, on ‘soldiering’ and the historical significance of this war. Only five months later a vital contribution would be made to appreciating the implications for Britain of what we would now call ‘total war’, by an old Oxford undergraduate friend of George’s — Michael Furse, Bishop of Pretoria.

Next entry: 17 December 1914


About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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