The Northumbria World War One project has been researching the stories of over 4,000 casualties from the North Tyneside area.
As part of that project the volunteer researchers visited the Heugh Battery at the Headland near Hartlepool and an examination of one of the most controversial incidents of the war.
On the morning of the December 16, 1914, only a few short months after the start of hostilities, out of the thick sea fret just off shore three heavily armed German ships, the battlecruisers Seydlitz, Moltke and Blucher appeared menacingly. Other ships attacked Scarborough and Whitby further down the coast but Hartlepool would be hit the hardest.
Children were having breakfast and about to go to school. Fathers who had already started their shifts rushed home to collect their families. In a 50 minute reign of terror men, women and children fled the town as best they could.
An astonishing 1,100 shells rained down on the shipbuilding town as well as the two gun batteries built to protect it. 114 people were killed and many hundreds injured. Nine of the dead were soldiers from the Heugh Battery. The batteries were outnumbered but still managed to fire over 140 shells at their attackers.
Houses in streets close to the Heugh Battery such as Moor Terrace, Victoria Place and Cliff Terrace were particularly badly damaged. An archive project in the 1980’s interviewed one of the survivors, Edith Reed who told them “a terrible noise started, the windows rattled, you thought the world was coming to an end.”
Salvation Army adjutant William G Avery was among the first civilians to be killed when his house in Victoria Place was hit by a shell. Among the death and destruction, other survivors recalled witnessing great bravery and defiance.
Shells from the ships targeted the Battery, many bounced off the reinforced sloping area in front of the guns, cleared the battery wall and landed in the little streets behind. One landed near a machine gun team defending the area against invasion and killed former teacher Private Theo Jones of the Durham Light Infantry and he became the first soldier to die on British soil during the war.
Looking at photographs of the time, the little streets dotted around the guns look little different from those days. But what is clear is that the devastation was terrible. I’m sure residents of other seaside towns like Tynemouth and Whitley Bay lived in fear of such an attack happening to their beloved towns. In a way not witnessed before, the war came very close to home in an unexpected way.
The Heugh Battery Museum is well worth a visit and a tour by one of the guides brings that day vividly to life.
The Northumbria World War One project welcomes anyone with information on any of the casualties of the Great War from the North Tyneside area.
For more information visit www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk or call in to our office at B9 in the Linskill Centre in North Shields is open from 10am to 4pm Monday to Friday or email firstname.lastname@example.org