Civilians got their first taste of the war on 3 November 1914, when eight German cruisers crossed the sea at night to bombard Great Yarmouth, on the coast of East Anglia. Firing from a distance of ten miles, they made little impact – the residents of Yarmouth and nearby Lowestoft even stood on the beaches to witness the far-off shellfire. But the abortive attack had lulled the British into a false sense of security.
On the morning of 16 December 1914, the towns of Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool on the North East coast suffered the full force of a bombardment. Apart from Hartlepool, which had three aging six-inch guns, the towns were defenceless. More than 1000 shells were fired, aiming apparently randomly in order to inflict as much panic and fear as possible (the ILN felt that bombardment, ‘appears to have deliberately aimed shells at places of Christian worship). The resulting casualties – 137 people killed and 592 injured – sent ripples of shock through the nation. British people were no longer safe in their homes.
That single coastal bombardment had wreaked havoc and devastation, but more was to come in the form of sustained attacks from the air. Zeppelin airships first began to carry out air raids over Britain in early 1915, reaching London by May that year, both panicking and fascinating people by equal measure. The sight of the huge ‘Zeps’ lit up by searchlights in the sky was something to behold but they could be deadly too, dropping bombs arbitrarily, often over residential areas, leading to them being dubbed ‘babykillers’. In fact, between the first Zeppelin raid in January 1915 and the last in August 1918, they were responsible for 556 deaths on the home front, a relatively small number compared to later air raid experiences. And German losses were heavy too. Out of the eighty airships built by the German Army, twenty-three had been shot down and another thirty-one had been lost through accidents.
By mid-1917, Zeppelins were superseded by Gotha heavy bombers, which carried out daylight raids, flying in formation to drop bombs on government and industrial targets. Although lacking the Zeppelin’s element of surprise, they were more accurate and deadly. The first effective bomber raid on London took place in London on 13 June 1917 and resulted in more than 160 deaths across London including, significantly, that of eighteen children at North Street School in Poplar; a further thirty-seven were injured. With the victims mostly between four and six years old, the tragedy enraged the public.