63rd (Royal Naval) Division

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For the earlier unit, see 63rd (2nd Northumbrian) Division.
63rd (Royal Naval) Division
Royal Naval Division Memorial, Horse Guards Parade.jpg
Royal Naval Division Memorial in Horse Guards Parade
Active World War I
September 1914 – April 1919
Country United Kingdom
Branch Royal Navy; British Army
Type Infantry
Engagements Siege of Antwerp (1914)
Battle of Gallipoli (1915)
Battle of the Somme (1916)
Third Battle of Ypres (1917)

The 63rd (Royal Naval) Division was a United Kingdom infantry division which served during the First World War. It was originally formed as the Royal Naval Division at the outbreak of the war, from Royal Navy and Royal Marine reservists and volunteers who were not needed for service at sea, and fought at Antwerp and at Gallipoli. In 1916, following heavy losses among the original naval volunteers, it was transferred to the British Army as the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division, re-using the number from a disbanded Territorial Force division. As an Army unit, it fought on the Western Front for the remainder of the war.

Origins[edit]

Recruiting poster for the RND

Following the outbreak of war, a Marine Brigade of four infantry battalions was formed from men of the Royal Marine Light Infantry and Royal Marine Artillery who were not required for service aboard ship. These included both regular active-service Marines as well as those mobilised from the Fleet Reserve. Each battalion was drawn from one of the major naval depot ports - Chatham, Portsmouth, Plymouth, and Deal - and was named accordingly. It was envisaged that this force could be used by the Admiralty to help secure and defend forward ports for naval forces.[1]

Shortly afterwards, it became apparent that there was still a large surplus of mobilised manpower in the Navy itself, and on 17 August a decision was taken by Winston Churchill (then First Lord of the Admiralty) to form eight battalions in two Naval Brigades, which would join with the Marine Brigade to produce a composite Royal Naval Division. While a few petty officers and ratings were transferred from the Navy to provide a cadre, and some officers were provided by the Army, the recruits were almost entirely reservists or men who had volunteered on the outbreak of war. The eight battalions were named for past naval commanders - Drake, Benbow, Hawke, Collingwood, Nelson, Howe, Hood, and Anson - and later numbered 1st to 8th.[1] The division as a whole was not provided with support arms - there were no medical, artillery, or engineer units - and consisted solely of lightly-equipped infantry.[2]

The Marine Brigade began training for overseas service in mid-August, and the naval battalions were assembled in Kent towards the end of the month.[1] Training was slow; most resources were needed for the rapid expansion of the Army, and the ratings had not been issued with field equipment or khaki uniforms before being embarked for overseas service. Rifles were drawn from Royal Navy stockpiles, and only arrived at the end of September; these were older Charger-Loading Lee Enfields rather than the more modern Short Magazine Lee-Enfields issued to the Army.[2]

Early service in Belgium[edit]

The "Race to the Sea" in September–October 1914; the final position of the front-line is west of Ostend. Antwerp is marked by a circle on the right.

Ostend[edit]

Following early defeats in the German invasion of Belgium, and cut off from the rest of the Allies by the German advance, the majority of the Belgian army fell back towards the fortified port of Antwerp during late August 1914. In doing so, Belgian troops were withdrawn from a number of smaller ports along the Belgian coast; the Admiralty was concerned that if these were occupied by Germany, they could provide a base for naval forces to harass ships bringing reinforcements and supplies from England. On 24 August, German cavalry patrols were reported near Ostend, and the decision was taken to land a small naval detachment from the fleet to secure the town.[3]

Further south, the main French and British force was retreating into France, with the German Army driving south-west after them and leaving very few units to guard the lines of communication. Admiralty planners realised that this offered the opportunity of using the Channel ports as a base to attack German supply routes on land, and decided to use the recently formed Royal Marine Brigade as the basis for a landing force. Three battalions (Chatham, Portsmouth & Plymouth; the fourth had not yet formed) were send to Flanders; two landed on the early morning of 27 August and the other the following day. They were ordered to hold the town until Belgian troops who had retreated into France could be shipped in; 4,000 men duly arrived on 30 August.[3]

However, the rapid retreat had caused the British Army to rethink its overall strategy, and it was decided that British supplies would have to be brought through ports in Western France; the existing arrangements in the Pas de Calais were too close to the front line. This would place significant extra strain on the escort ships, which meant that the Navy was no longer able to support the troops landed at Ostend. The Marines were re-embarked on 31 September and returned to their ports.[4]

The division participated in the defence of the Belgian city of Antwerp in late 1914. From Antwerp, 1,500 sailors of the division fled to the neutral Netherlands, where they were interned.[5]

Gallipoli[edit]

The division was shipped to Egypt prior to serving in the Battle of Gallipoli.[6] Casualties before the hostilities included officer and poet, Rupert Brooke, who died at sea on 23 April 1915.[7] The division fought on both the Anzac and Helles battlefields.[6]

The RND was one of two British divisions (the other being the Regular Army 29th Division) at the Gallipoli landings. Originally the division was only required to make a diversion at Bulair in support of the main landings at Anzac Cove and Cape Helles. This diversion was carried out by one man, Bernard Freyberg. Shortly afterwards, on 28 April, four battalions were sent to Anzac to reinforce the hard-pressed Australian and New Zealand troops. Later the RND moved to Helles where it remained for the rest of the campaign on the peninsula.

Western Front[edit]

Ancre[edit]

After the evacuation of Gallipoli, the RND moved to France where it participated in the final phase of the Battle of the Somme, advancing along the River Ancre to capture Beaucourt.

The Division had four objectives during the Battle of Ancre. The first was to capture the "Dotted Green Line", the name given to the front line of the German trench complex. The second objective, the so-called "Green Line", was the road to Beaucourt station. The road ran along a ridge which had been fortified by the Germans. The third objective was a trench which lay beyond the road, around the remains of Beaucourt on its south-west edge, and was named the "Yellow Line". The final objective, the "Red Line", was beyond Beaucourt. Here the Division was to consolidate and solidify the gains made during the battle.[8]

The plan was for the battalions to leap-frog each other towards the final objective. Battalions Howe, Hawke and Hood from the 1st Royal Marines Light Infantry were assigned the "Dotted Green Line" and the "Yellow Line", while battalions Anson, Nelson and Drake from the 2nd Royal Marines Light Infantry were assigned the "Green Line" and the "Red Line". When the battle began in the early hours of the 13th of November, specific platoons from 1 RMLI crawled across no-man's land towards the German line.[9] During this battle, the tactic of the rolling barrage was employed. However, despite the additional cover, significant casualties were sustained in no-man's land during the assault, with estimates of 50% of casualties occurring there before the first German trench had been captured.[9] German artillery fire, coupled with machine gun fire, was so effective that all company commanding officers within 1 RMLI were killed before reaching the first objective.[10]

Due to intense shelling prior to the assault, the German trenches had been significantly damaged. As a result the men became increasingly disorientated, meaning that the initial tactic of leap frogging could not be employed. Lieutenant Colonel Bernard Freyberg quickly realized this and did not wait for Drake battalion as planned. After leading Hood battalion to the "Green Line", he pressed forward with the remaining men of Drake battalion. The station road served as a useful landmark and allowed the commander to orientate himself and re-organize the attack. The expected bombardment began at the pre-arranged time of 0730 hours, allowing Freyberg to advance towards the "Yellow Line" at Beaucourt Station.[11]

Meanwhile, Battalions Nelson, Hawke and Howe suffered heavy casualties. Two of the three commanding officers from these battalions were among the early casualties: Lieutenant Colonel Burge of Nelson Battalion was killed whilst attacking a well fortified section of the "Dotted Green Line" and Lieutenant Colonel Wilson was severely wounded leading an attack on the same target. Another commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Saunders, was also killed early in the battle but his battalion, Anson, was more successful, managing to capture the "Green Line". Anson Battalion was then able to advance to the "Yellow Line" after making contact with the 51st Highland Division to its left.[9] By 2230 hours, Beaucourt had officially been captured.[11]

Just prior to the fighting on the Ancre, the division received a new commanding officer after Major General Archibald Paris was wounded, Major General Cameron Shute, appointed on 17 October 1916. General Shute had an intense dislike for the unconventional "nautical" traditions of the division and made numerous unpopular attempts to stamp them out. Following a particularly critical inspection of the trenches by General Shute, an officer of the division, Sub-Lieutenant A. P. Herbert, later to become a famous humorous writer, legal satirist and Member of Parliament, penned a popular poem that summed up the feelings of the men of the RND:[12]

The General inspecting the trenches
Exclaimed with a horrified shout
'I refuse to command a division
Which leaves its excreta about.'

But nobody took any notice
No one was prepared to refute,
That the presence of shit was congenial
Compared to the presence of Shute.

And certain responsible critics
Made haste to reply to his words
Observing that his staff advisors
Consisted entirely of turds.

For shit may be shot at odd corners
And paper supplied there to suit,
But a shit would be shot without mourners
If somebody shot that shit Shute.

Ypres[edit]

The Division arrived at Ypres just before the Second Battle of Passchendaele.[13]

Order of battle[edit]

Grave in Cathays Cemetery, Cardiff of a Royal Naval Division able seaman

The division initially comprised eight naval battalions named after famous British naval commanders (Anson, Benbow, Collingwood, Drake, Hawke, Hood, Howe, Nelson), plus the Royal Marine Brigade of four battalions from the Royal Marine dépôts at the ports of Deal, Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth.[6]

Due to the changing nature of the unit, it was made up of a number of brigades during the war.

1st Royal Naval Brigade 
Also known as 1st (Royal Naval) Brigade, 1st Brigade (1914 - July 1916). Replaced by the 190th Brigade (July 1916).
2nd Royal Naval Brigade 
Also known as 2nd (Royal Naval) Brigade, 2nd Brigade, 189th Brigade.
3rd Royal Marine Brigade 
Also known as 3rd (Royal Marine) Brigade, 188th Brigade.

As the naval character of the division diminished, more regular infantry battalions were included. Other battalions that served with the division include:

Battles[edit]

Commanders[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Corbett (1920), chapter XII
  2. ^ a b Chris Baker, The British Army in the Great War: The 63rd (Royal Naval) Division
  3. ^ a b Corbett (1920), chapter VI
  4. ^ Corbett (1920), chapter VIII
  5. ^ Baker, Chris (2010). "The 63rd (Royal Naval) Division in 1914-1918". British Divisions. The Long, Long Trail. 
  6. ^ a b c "Royal Naval Division service records 1914-1919". The National Archives. Retrieved 14 March 2008. 
  7. ^ Adrian Caesar, ‘Brooke, Rupert Chawner (1887–1915)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008
  8. ^ Thompson 2001, p. 148.
  9. ^ a b c Thompson 2001, pp. 149–151
  10. ^ [1][dead link]
  11. ^ a b Hart 2005, pp. 511–517
  12. ^ Gilbert, Martin (2006). The Somme. New York: Henry Holt and Company. p. 218. 
  13. ^ Thompson 2001, pp. 159–163

Sources[edit]

  • Hart, P. (2005). "The Last Shake on the Ancre". The Somme. Cassell Military Paperbacks. Cassell. ISBN 0-30436-735-4. 
  • Thompson, J. (2001). The Royal Marines, From Sea Soldiers to a Special Force. London: Pan Books. ISBN 0-33037-702-7. 
  • Corbett, Julian S (1920). "Naval Operations,". History of the Great War based on Official Documents. I: To the Battle of The Falklands December 1914 (London: Longmans, Green & Co.). 

Further reading[edit]

  • Foster, Rev. H. C. (1918). At Antwerp and the Dardanelles. London: Mills & Boon. OCLC 32790523. 

External links[edit]