North East History

When modern war came to Hartlepool

Painting by James Clark (1915) in Museum of Hartlepool
Painting by James Clark (1915) of the fateful morning
from Museum of Hartlepool

107 years ago this past week, Hartlepool became for a brief morning pivotal to the possible geopolitical and historical direction of Europe.

By December 1914 it was becoming clear to all sides that the land war on the Western Front was becoming fixed into a defensive, trench bound stalemate, and hawks in the Kaiser Imperial German Navy were itching to become the decisive strategic player that had been envisaged for it by its founder, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz.  Accordingly, Rear Admiral Franz von Hipper, commander of the German High Seas Fleet battlecruiser squadron, persuaded his superior, Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl, to ask the Kaiser for permission to conduct a shore raid, with the hope that this would draw the British Grand Fleet out of its safe harbours at Scapa Flow and Rosyth and thus entrap them in one decisive North Sea action.

The chosen targets were Scarborough and Hartlepool. So, at 7.30 am on the morning of 16 December, the battlecruisers, Derfflinger, Syedlitz and Von der Tann began to bombard Scarborough. The castle, the prominent Grand Hotel, three churches and various other properties were hit. Civilians crowded into the railway station and the roads leading out of the town. At 8.00 am the three battlecruisers ceased fire and moved on to nearby Whitby, where a coastguard station was shelled, Racing up the coast at full speed, the German squadron lobbed some aimless shells into fields around East Cleveland, inadvertently, I am told, creating an additional impromptu bunker on Saltburn’s golf club course. 

But it was Hartlepool, the next target, where the real damage was done. Unlike Scarborough or Saltburn golf club, the docks (including Royal Navy anchorage), shipyards and harbour installations could be considered a ‘proper ‘military target. However, and this must have been apparent to the German observers, so close were their ships to the shore, the vast majority of the shells from their 12″ guns were hitting home in the narrow packed red brick terraces outwith the docks.

The human toll was huge; 114 civilians were killed on that morning together with nine soldiers manning the solitary shore battery, seven sailors and nine German marinen (that we know of).

The soldiers included Theo Jones, the first British soldier to be killed by enemy action on home soil in the Great War. 400 local people were wounded, many seriously. Most of the shells fell on homes, killing or seriously wounding the people inside. Others killed were caught by surprise on the streets. Up to this point none of the local people knew what was happening and thought that the noise was the local shore battery practising. Many were getting ready to start the day.

Shells or no shells…

The first civilian fatality was reported to be Hilda Horsley, a 17-year-old tailoress, who was on her way to work. The people of Hartlepool were terrified by the noise and destruction, and ran for safety, clutching whatever they could carry. Some boarded trains to what they saw as the comparative safety of Stockton or Middlesbrough, or made for nearby villages, such as Elwick or Hart.  45 minutes after opening fire, the German flotilla made their escape, still hidden by the fog. 

From the North East

The German Grand Plan didn’t work. The Admiralty, decoding their radio signals and observing the apparent ordered radio silence from the rest of the German High Seas fleet were cautious that this exercise was an elaborate ruse, and in this they were basically right in their stance. The stakes were high; not for nothing was Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, called the “man who could lose the war in a day” if the Grand Fleet was incapacitated. In the end cruiser squadrons were sent out from Rosyth but with no predetermined orders.

In the confusion of a foggy night some of the British fleet engaged sporadically with their opponents, but weather allowed the German fleet to withdraw under orders, as Admiral Ingenohl had already exceeded his standing orders from the Kaiser by involving the main German fleet in the operation, without informing his emperor. Ingenohl, like Churchill, was aware of the hand of history – he too was later credited by Tirpitz with “having the fate of Germany in his hand” over that day and night.

And Hartlepool?  It was seemingly ignored once the firing had ceased. Someone, – who I wonder? – at the War Office’s propaganda unit had deemed the relatively light attack on Scarborough where only 16 people died, as far more worthy of the attention of middle England than grimy, working class Hartlepool, where the casualty roll was in the hundreds.

Scarborough, but not Hartlepool, was remembered

No voices were raised at Westminster – the House of Commons was on a two month Christmas break, not returning until February. Winston Churchill, who knew the full facts, chose to brand the Germans “the baby killers of Scarborough” leaving out the children of Hartlepool together, whilst the slogan  ‘Remember Scarborough!’ became a rallying cry for recruiting officers across the nation. That attack featured on a range of garish recruitment posters, which prompted men to enlist in large numbers.

I have never seen any such poster for Hartlepool. I hope they did exist but somehow, I doubt it.

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