Sad sequel for Shields families of first attack on British mainland

Bombardment of Mary Street in Hartlepool on December 16, 1914.
Bombardment of Mary Street in Hartlepool on December 16, 1914.

On December 16, 1914, a substantial German naval force set out across the North Sea to test the Royal Navy’s response to their movement and to carry out a number of raids on coastal towns.

An earlier attack on Great Yarmouth had been ineffective but this later incursion along the east coast was to prove more devastating, and an embarrassment for the Admiralty.

After separating as they crossed the Dogger Bank area, one element of the German raiders approached Scarborough, where a seaside town was subjected to a bombardment which killed several people and caused damage to a number of significant buildings, including the Grand Hotel.

The effect, however, was more psychological – here was an enemy able to penetrate the defensive cordon of the Royal Navy, which ‘had ruled the waves’ for 100 years.

The more significant target in military terms was Hartlepool, and while the ability to decode German signals meant the navy was aware of an approaching incursion by the the second substantial German force, the response from land and naval defences of the town was to prove ineffective.

The Hartlepool attack killed 86 civilians and injured 424.

Seven soldiers were killed and 14 injured from the garrison at the Heugh and harbour batteries – the first British soldiers to be killed on the UK mainland in the war.

A total of 1,150 shells were fired at the town, striking targets including the steelworks, gasworks, railways, seven churches and 300 houses.

As in Scarborough to the south, people fled the town by road and attempted to do so by train.

Retaliatory fire from the British forces killed eight German sailors and 12 were wounded.

At 8.50am the German ships departed, the British naval forces at Hartlepool had been unable to engage for reasons of size and range.

As a subsidiary part of this probing mission, the German light cruiser Kolberg, part of the force attacking Scarborough, had laid a field of mines off the Yorkshire coast near to Flamborough Head, which over the coming months was to cause the loss of several ships which disappeared without trace after setting off from north east ports.

The ss Glenmorven left the Tyne on Boxing Day 1914 and was lost with all hands – presumed to have struck a mine laid by the Kolberg.

Crew members lost and connected to North Shields were William Bower, aged 17, of Coburg Street, John Roberston, 46 (born in Ceylon), whose address was given as Albert Edward Dock, John Todd, 17, until recently an inmate of the TS Wellesley, who had been born in Morpeth, and lastly Julius Charles Wedderkopp, 44, a steward on the ship who was born in Copenhagen and lived in Linskill Street with his wife Winifred (nee Nicholson).

The wide-ranging of origins of these four men is indicative of the cosmopolitan and transient nature of the population of North Shields at that time.

Tracing their histories is difficult – any information relatives can provide is vital to the work of the project.

Anyone with information on anyone killed or died as a result of the war is asked to contact the project.

The project workroom at Room B9, Linskill Community Centre, Trevor Terrace, North Shields is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for visitors and for anyone interested to learn more about the project or how to get involved.