One of the ironies of WWI emerges from the growth of the German navy. But first, a bit of background.
In the early 20th century, it was still common to find aristocracies and royalties, many of whom preferred to marry only among each other. Indeed, three of the most powerful men in Europe in 1914 were related to each other: Wilhelm of Germany and George of England were first cousins, Nicholas of Russia and George were first cousins, and Wilhelm and Nicholas were third cousins.
In 1914, Wilhelm would have been 55, the oldest of these three. Curiously, Wihelm did not, however, gain relevant maturity with his years, however. Whether because he was born with a shriveled arm or because he perceived other nations as not giving Germany proper respect, Wilhelm seemed to suffer from a sort of inferiority complex.
Remarkably, this need not have been the case: before Wilhelm began to involve himself in the state (indeed, before he was old enough to even do so), the Germans were more or less directed by Otto von Bismark, a brilliant statesman and a master of diplomacy. Germany credited its unification and rise to power to Bismark. Unfortunately for Bismakr, however, he and Wilhelm had a falling out, leading to Bismark’s retirement (a great story . . . see my post on the German command for more details).
So then where Bismark might have played the British for the shrewd masters of the sea he knew they wanted to be, Wilhelm instead decided to host a parade of his navy, inviting his cousin King George, and announcing to the world that he wished for Germany to join Britain as master of the seas. Ironically, while Wilhelm meant this as a friendly gesture (he was indeed näive enough to believe that Germany and Britain could co-exist as super-powers in Europe), Britain took it as a challenge, and from then on assumed that their next war would be with Germany. They increased the rate of building warships in order to stay ahead of Germany.
Thus, when WWI broke out, Wilhelm’s naval leaders advised him that it would not be wise to meet the British Royal Navy head on, if at all. Instead, raids and distractions would have to be their tools. Their greatest hope would be to lure out a small portion of the British navy which could then be cut off and destroyed. This line of thinking formed the background to the raid on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby.
In early December, German rear Admiral Franz Hipper began seeking permission to conduct a raid on British ports. Though assent had to come down all the way from Wilhelm himself, it was eventually granted, with a U-boat offering reconnaissance of the relevant area.
The Germans sent out 4 battlecruisers (ships without the armor of battleships/dreadnoughts, but with the same heavy guns and far greater speed), 1 amoured cruiser, 4 light destroyers and 18 regular destroyers. They intended to shell British port towns while the vanguard of their navy, the High Seas Fleet, waited in the wings, hoping that a section (but not the van) of the Royal navy could be drawn out. By scattering the initial raiding force between Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby, the Germans hoped to convince the British that the threat was real enough to merit attention, but not significant enough that they would have to do any more than chase the Germans away without a fight.
The three port towns came under fire beginning at 6:30AM, with relatively mild damage done. The British felt that they could catch the raiders before they reached home port, and set out from Scapa Flow (their main naval anchorage) with 6 dreadnoughts, 4 battlecruisers, 4 armored cruisers, 4 light cruisers and 7 destroyers.
Soon, the German admiral commanding the vanguard of the High Seas Fleet, Friedrich von Ingenohl, got word of this force steaming towards his. Even so, his orders put much responsibility on his shoulders: he was to destroy the British, but he was not to place his fleet in jeopardy. He decided to turn back to Germany rather than face the approaching British force. Had he stayed, it’s likely that the raids on the British port towns would have achieved their desired ends: Ingenohl’s force greatly outnumbered and outgunned the approaching British (for example, he had 22 dreadnoughts at his disposal against the mere 6 of the British). Had he managed to sink the entire approaching force, it would have been exactly the sort of equalizing battle the Germans needed . . . it would have made the comparative size of the German and British navies just about equal.
Instead, the raids against Scarborough etc. became mostly a rallying cry for draftees. Just over 700 casualties had occurred, with minor damage to 3 British ships and 3 German ships. The draft posters, however, made this into a much more visible episode.