Yorkshire tragedy during the German raid in the Great War to be remembered in centenary commemoration


The civilians of Yorkshire who reside in the East Coast were unlucky to experience the horrors of war only a few months after the country issued a declaration of war on Germany.

It was early morning of December 16, 1914. Arthur Dean, coastguard of Scarborough, looked out from his house to see the crumbling walls of the castle. It was then 8:00 am.

He looked towards the coastal resort and felt horror. Two German battle cruisers were firing shells as they head towards the South Bay. Simultaneously, three German cruisers were open firing on Hartlepool. By 9:00 am, Whitby was the target of the destructive fire power of the battleships that attacked reduced Scarborough to ashes.

The bombardments not only destroyed the buildings. The bombing runs resulted to deaths and injuries. Scarborough counted eighteen of their people dead including a child, John Shiled Ryalls who was then 14 months old. Meanwhile, Whitby suffered three deaths and Hartlepool, more than a hundred.

The devastation resulted from the ire of 1,500 shells. Almost 600 people were injured. The aftermath sent thousands of people running for their lives, some of who are still in their nightclothes. The refugees were sent packing into trains for Hull, York or Leeds. The horror of a German invasion of the coastal communities was real. Inland roads were crowded with families who fled the critical areas on foot.

That was the first disastrous assault by Germans on British soil. A century after, the fateful incident of the Great War still rings into the memory of many.

One of the residents of Scarborough, Geoffrey Horsley claimed he could never forget that day. His parents, Richard and Winifred, exchanged vows the afternoon after the bombardment even though the church, St. Martin-on-the-Hill, was badly damaged.

His mother was at church at 8:00 am for the Holy Communion. It was when they heard the sound of the bombs resonating outside. The vicar went on with the service. Suddenly the church was shook by two very deafening explosions. A large hole can be seen on the roof and the sound of falling masonry could be heard from the outside.

Mr. Horsley is now in his 80s. He kept with him a remembrance of the event — a piece of shrapnel which his mother found between the pews. And for 50 years, the jagged evidence of the disaster was kept in a cabinet.

After the bombing, the couple got married in the chapel.

“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 marriage, the newlyweds were off on a honeymoon whisking away on a motorbike with a “wicker basket” style sidecar. They encountered the crowds of people fleeing as far as away from the site of the non-existent invasion.

Some of the unfortunate residents were not so lucky as the Horsleys to tell the tale of the attack. During the outbreak of the war in August, Sergeant G.R. Sturdy had to part with his fiancée Ada Crow, to serve in the army in India for eight years. He was looking forward to a reunion with his wife when the attack happened.

Sadly, Miss Crow of Falsgrave Road, Scarborough, got a critical hit in the chest by a shrapnel. It was reported that she was upstairs and went down to the front door for some reason. She had been said to express the view that “they” were rehearsing.

Sergeant Sturdy arrived in Scarborough a few hours after the attack still unaware of the fate of his fiancée only the morning of that day. It was also said that the couple would have married on the day set for Miss Crow’s funeral.

The bombardment also killed without discriminate the 14 months John Shield Ryalls and the 43 year old Bertha McEntyre who was said to be his nanny. The baby began to cry when the bombardments started so he was transferred to the other room by his nanny. A shell hit the room and killed them on site.

The incident and the number of civilian casualties were a tragedy. And a surge of men signing up was suddenly reported in recruiting offices. The attack sparked the national outrage and triggered a voluntary and unexpected movement which bore the slogan, “Remember Scarborough”.

There was also the outcry targeted towards the Royal Navy. The people blamed the incident to the inutility of the Royal Navy in keeping the attack from happening by leaving the towns undefended including Scarborough and Whitby. The Royal Navy was also unable to go after the fleeing German cruisers.

The Recruiting Department made use of the incident and published their statement in the newspapers. The statement said, “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 who is the First Lord of the Admiralty sent a letter to the Mayor of Scarborough about the bombardment. The letter read that the attack was an “act of military and political folly.” The letter added, “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.”

The future generation also recalls the attack on Scarborough. A Great War Exhibit at the Scarborough Art Gallery will be part of the commemorations of the centenary from July 26. Esther Graham is tasked to lead the Arts Council-funded project dubbed as “Remember Scarborough”. The exhibit is said to include propaganda material which were produced after the bombardment.

Among the items to be included are the Scarborough postcards which feature the shell-damaged town. The items are considered “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.”

There is a theory that the German Navy attacked the towns in revenge for the Battle of the Falkland Islands. It was considered a major British Naval victory where four German cruisers were sunk accounting to the loss of 2,200 German sailors on December 8.

The civilians who also died on December 16 are also honoured in a commemoration project led by the Manor Road Cemeteries and Friends of Dean Road in Scarborough. Seventeen of the victims who died that day in Scarborough are buried in the town.

Chairman of the Friends Jan Cleary said that they have located 17 graves. Many of the graves have been concealed for many years among undergrowth. Some of them were damaged and only a few were marked.

Among the graves found was Ada Crow, the bride-to-be who was killed just before her wedding. Her grave was found 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.”

The Yorkshire Post reports that also among the newly-found headstones found bore the names of baby John Shields Ryalls and Bertha McEntyre. The stone was toppled. It was placed upright and a verse to baby John was discovered. 

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.”



Siegphyl is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE