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German Navy Bombards British Towns

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 158th installment in the series. Would you like to be notified via email when each installment of this series is posted? Just email RSVP@mentalfloss.com.

December 16, 1914: German Ships Shell Scarborough, Hartlepool, Whitby 

Protected by the English Channel and the North Sea, the British Isles had passed through almost a thousand years of European strife largely untouched. The First World War changed all that, as the British experienced hostile fire on their own soil for the first time in living memory thanks to high-powered modern weaponry, including long-range naval guns, zeppelins, and heavy bombers.

After a mostly symbolic (meaning ineffective) raid on Yarmouth on November 3, the real wakeup call came on December 16, 1914, when German cruisers shelled the northeast seaside towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool, and Whitby, killing 137 people and injuring another 592. Many of the victims were civilians, including a number of children, sparking outrage across Britain. The shelling of Scarborough and Whitby, both widely known as pleasant resort towns, struck many observers as especially perverse (below, a prewar postcard showing the Scarborough waterfront).

The raid was carried out by four German battle cruisers and an armored cruiser, apparently as part of a broader plan to lure British ships into a trap; any British ships pursuing the raiders would run into the main dreadnought force of the High Seas Fleet lying in wait east of Dogger Bank, a collection of shoals and sandbanks in the North Sea. Meanwhile, the British Admiralty, which had access to captured German codebooks, knew the Germans were planning something and put a smaller force of dreadnoughts and cruisers on alert south of the Dogger Bank, hoping to catch the German raiders coming or going.


However, it was the British who were caught unprepared. In the early morning hours of December 16, the cruisers approached the North Yorkshire coast, emerging out of the fog to take the inhabitants completely by surprise. At 8 a.m., two cruisers began shelling Scarborough, hitting landmarks including the Scarborough Castle and Grand Hotel, killing 18 people and triggering panic in the defenseless town (below, damage at the Scarborough Castle Barracks).

Reginald Kaufmann, an American living in Britain who happened to be visiting Scarborough, recalled the sudden rain of high explosives on the seaside resort:

From one end of it to the other, the shells were falling. Westborough, as the central portion of the chief business street is called, was full of darting bits of iron; men and women had dropped by the curb; to north and south, the entire city was being lashed with a whip of iron thongs… Portions of roofing danced through the air; chimney-pots flew around like so many kites…

According to Kaufmann, residents fled the town by any means they could. “There were children astride of donkeys once rented to excursionists for five minutes’ ride on the South Sands; wives still in the aprons they had been wearing in the kitchen when the first shell exploded; collarless husbands in smoking-jackets and carpet-slippers; even a few late-rising children, barefooted and wrapped in blankets.”

A few minutes later at 8:10 a.m., the other cruisers began shelling Hartlepool, firing a total of 1,150 shells over 40 minutes and killing 86 people in a rain of steel that hit hundreds of houses and seven churches in addition to factories, utilities, and railroads (top, damage at Hartelpool). Several naval artillery guns guarding the Hartlepool harbor on land scored a few hits against the German ships, but inflicted minimal damage. By the same token, because the German ships were firing at relatively close range, the fuses on a number of shells failed, leaving the inhabitants of Hartlepool with some chilling souvenirs (below).

Around 9:30 a.m., the first cruisers moved on from Scarborough to Whitby, shelling a coastguard station and damaging Whitby Abbey, a Benedictine monastery famous, among other things, for helping inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula. However, Stoker’s Victorian Gothic tale paled in comparison to the horror of modern warfare. One grade school student in Whitby was playing outside when the shelling began:

“First we heard a sound like thunder echoing across the playground. I looked up to see a shell hit a building across on the Westside, sending slates and masonry flying. Our teacher, clearly petrified, ushered us back to the classroom. That was the first we knew that the Germans were attacking Whitby!”

After two hours of terror, the bombardment ended and recovery efforts began, led by dazed civilian officials and volunteers. Kaufmann observed the aftermath in Scarborough:

Towards the hospitals, through many a street, were moving little processions of Boy Scouts bearing stretchers on which lay figures swathed in bloody bandages, the faces ashen, the eyes glazed… I walked for some hours through the town [seeing]…[t]ottering chimneys, tiles trembling on roof-edges, rows upon rows of splintered windows, roofs open to the sky, brick walls crushed to powder, house-fronts stripped away, and the interiors of bedrooms bare to the sight as if they were stage scenes…

The raid fueled public outrage at Germany for targeting civilians and immediately became a favorite theme of recruitment efforts in Britain, where the government still relied entirely on voluntary enlistment and soon realized the value of combining emotional and patriotic appeals (below).

The shelling of Scarborough, Hartlepool, and Whitby also spurred fresh criticism of the Royal Navy, which had failed in what many viewed as its main mission—defending British soil. Even worse, the returning German flotilla managed to elude the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet, which belatedly sailed from its base in Scapa Flow off the coast of Scotland in pursuit. The British ultimately missed several chances to engage the outnumbered enemy due to excessive caution combined with muddled communications between ships at sea.

In truth, the Royal Navy was tasked with duties much larger and more complex than simple coastal defense, chief of which was securing Britain’s connections to the Empire and protecting international maritime trade routes. But for ordinary Britons, the hit-and-run attack on British home territory was a visceral humiliation and affront nonetheless.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Steve Martin
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

Is there anything Steve Martin can't do? In addition to being one of the world's most beloved comedians and actors, he's also a writer, a musician, a magician, and an art enthusiast. And he's about to put a number of these talents on display with Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, a new comedy special that just arrived on Netflix. To commemorate the occasion, here are 10 things you might not have known about Steve Martin.

1. HE WAS A CHEERLEADER.

As a yellleader (as he refers to it in a yearbook signature) at his high school in Garden Grove, California, Martin tried to make up his own cheers, but “Die, you gravy-sucking pigs,” he later told Newsweek, did not go over so well.

2. HIS FIRST JOB WAS AT DISNEYLAND.

Martin’s first-ever job was at Disneyland, which was located just two miles away from his house. He started out selling guidebooks, keeping $.02 for every book he sold. He graduated to the Magic Shop on Main Street, where he got his first taste of the gags that would later make his career. He also learned the rope tricks you see in ¡Three Amigos! from a rope wrangler over in Frontierland.

3. HE OWES HIS WRITING JOB WITH THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS TO AN EX-GIRLFRIEND.

Thanks to a girlfriend who got a job dancing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin landed a gig writing for the show. He had absolutely no experience as a writer at the time. He shared an office with Bob Einstein—better known to some as Super Dave Osborne or Marty Funkhauser—and won an Emmy for writing in 1969.

4. HE WAS A CONTESTANT ON THE DATING GAME.

While he was writing for the Smothers Brothers, but before he was famous in his own right, Martin was on an episode of The Dating Game. (Spoiler alert: He wins. But did you have any doubt?)

5. MANY PEOPLE THOUGHT HE WAS A SERIES REGULAR ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Martin hosted and did guest spots on Saturday Night Live so often in the 1970s and '80s that many people thought he was a series regular. He wasn't. 

6. HIS FATHER WROTE A REVIEW OF HIS FIRST SNL APPEARANCE.

After his first appearance on SNL, Martin’s father, the president of the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, wrote a review of his son’s performance in the company newsletter. “His performance did nothing to further his career,” the elder Martin wrote. He also once told a newspaper, “I think Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.”

7. HE POPULARIZED THE AIR QUOTE.

If you find yourself making air quotes with your fingers more than you’d really like, you have Martin to thank. He popularized the gesture during his guest spots on SNL and stand-up performances.

8. HE QUIT STAND-UP COMEDY IN THE EARLY 1980S.

Martin gave up stand-up comedy in 1981. “I still had a few obligations left but I knew that I could not continue,” he told NPR in 2009. “But I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to, but I did have something to go to, which was movies. And you know, the act had become so known that in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show, and I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.”

9. HE'S A MAJOR ART COLLECTOR.

As an avid art collector, Martin owns works by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and Edward Hopper. He sold a Hopper for $26.9 million in 2006. Unfortunately, being rich and famous doesn’t mean Martin is immune to scams: In 2004, he spent about $850,000 on a piece believed to be by German-Dutch modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk. When Martin tried to sell the piece, “Landschaft mit Pferden” (or "Landscape With Horses") 15 months later, he was informed that it was a forgery. Though the painting still sold, it was at a huge loss.

10. HE'S AN ACCOMPLISHED BLUEGRASS PERFORMER.

Many people already know this, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that he’s an extremely accomplished bluegrass performer. With the help of high school friend John McEuen, who later became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin taught himself to play the banjo when he was 17. He's been picking away ever since. If you see him on stage these days, he’s likely strumming a banjo with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. As seen above, they make delightful videos.

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Star Wars Premiered 41 Years Ago … and the Reviews Weren’t Always Kind
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

A long time ago (41 years, to be exact) in a galaxy just like this one, George Lucas was about to make cinematic history—whether he knew it or not. On May 25, 1977, moviegoers got their first glimpse of Star Wars, Lucas’s long-simmering space opera that would help define the concept of the Hollywood “blockbuster.” While we're still talking about the film today, and its many sequels and spinoffs (hello, Solo), not every film critic would have guessed just how ingrained into the pop culture fabric Star Wars would become. While it charmed plenty of critics, some of the movie’s original reviews were less than glowing. Here are a few of our favorites (the good, the bad, and the Wookiee):

"Star Wars is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions. The golden robot, lion-faced space pilot, and insecure little computer on wheels must have been suggested by the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. The journey from one end of the galaxy to another is out of countless thousands of space operas. The hardware is from Flash Gordon out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the chivalry is from Robin Hood, the heroes are from Westerns and the villains are a cross between Nazis and sorcerers. Star Wars taps the pulp fantasies buried in our memories, and because it's done so brilliantly, it reactivates old thrills, fears, and exhilarations we thought we'd abandoned when we read our last copy of Amazing Stories."

—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Star Wars is not a great movie in that it describes the human condition. It simply is a fun picture that will appeal to those who enjoy Buck Rogers-style adventures. What places it a sizable cut about the routine is its spectacular visual effects, the best since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001Star Wars is a battle between good and evil. The bad guys (led by Peter Cushing and an assistant who looks like a black vinyl-coated frog) control the universe with their dreaded Death Star."

—Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference, yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts—it has no emotional grip. “Star Wars” may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring…. It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood."

—Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

"The only way that Star Wars could have been interesting was through its visual imagination and special effects. Both are unexceptional ... I kept looking for an 'edge,' to peer around the corny, solemn comic-book strophes; he was facing them frontally and full. This picture was made for those (particularly males) who carry a portable shrine within them of their adolescence, a chalice of a Self that was Better Then, before the world's affairs or—in any complex way—sex intruded."

—Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic

“There’s something depressing about seeing all these impressive cinematic gifts and all this extraordinary technological skills lavished on such puerile materials. Perhaps more important is what this seems to accomplish: the canonization of comic book culture which in turn becomes the triumph of the standardized, the simplistic, mass-produced commercial artifacts of our time. It’s the triumph of camp—that sentiment which takes delight in the awful simply because it’s awful. We enjoyed such stuff as children, but one would think there would come a time when we might put away childish things.”

—Joy Gould Boyum, The Wall Street Journal

Star Wars … is the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial ever made. It’s both an apotheosis of Flash Gordon serials and a witty critique that makes associations with a variety of literature that is nothing if not eclectic: Quo Vadis?, Buck Rogers, Ivanhoe, Superman, The Wizard of Oz, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table … The way definitely not to approach Star Wars, though, is to expect a film of cosmic implications or to footnote it with so many references that one anticipates it as if it were a literary duty. It’s fun and funny.”

—Vincent Canby, The New York Times

"Viewed dispassionately—and of course that’s desperately difficult at this point in time—Star Wars is not an improvement on Mr Lucas’ previous work, except in box-office terms. It isn’t the best film of the year, it isn’t the best science fiction ever to be translated to the screen, it isn’t a number of other things either that sweating critics have tried to turn it into when faced with finding some plausible explanation for its huge and slightly sinister success considering a contracting market. But it is, on the other hand, enormous and exhilarating fun for those who are prepared to settle down in their seats and let it all wash over them.”

—Derek Malcolm, The Guardian

“Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its high-falutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a ‘future’ cast to them. Human beings, anthropoids, or robots, you could probably find them all, more or less like that, in downtown Los Angeles today. Certainly the mentality and values of the movie can be duplicated in third-rate non-science fiction of any place or period. O dull new world!”

—John Simon, New York Magazine

"Star Wars is somewhat grounded by a malfunctioning script and hopelessly infantile dialogue, but from a technical standpoint, it is an absolutely breathtaking achievement. The special effects experts who put Lucas' far-out fantasies on film—everything from a gigantic galactic war machine to a stunningly spectacular World War II imitation dogfight—are Oscar-worthy wizards of the first order. And, for his own part, Lucas displays an incredibly fertile imagination—an almost Fellini-like fascination with bizarre creatures.”

—Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News

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