In 1914 Winston Churchill created the Royal Naval Division, whose men would fight as infantry in some of the fiercest battles of World War I.
AFTER THE VIRTUAL DECIMATION of the regular British Army at the Marne and Ypres in 1914, necessity quickly ushered in the creation of army formations the likes of which the British military establishment had never seen and probably never imagined. Among them were the famous Pals Battalions, the Bantam Battalions of undersized men, the Artists’ Rifles, and units formed of law students from the Inns of Court. But perhaps the most unusual unit was the Royal Naval Division, a hybrid formation of sailors, Royal Marines, and soldiers. From 1914 to 1918 its men fought as infantry in some of the fiercest battles of World War I.
The Royal Naval Division was controversial from the moment of its creation. According to its official history, the RND was the brainchild of the Committee of Imperial Defence, an ad hoc military planning unit, which before the war had devised an idea for a force of Royal Marines to seize or defend temporary naval bases for fleet operations. Within the Royal Navy, however, some believed that Winston Churchill, in his role as First Lord of the Admiralty, was aiming to create the equivalent of his own personal army.
On August 16, 1914, just after war broke out, Churchill issued an Admiralty directive proposing the creation of a unit made up of one brigade of Royal Marines and two brigades of sailors. These men, he said, would be available for service at sea if needed, “but in the meanwhile they will be organized for land service.” Fierce argument immediately ensued in both the army and the navy—the navy doubted this was the best use of its sailors, and the army resented what it saw as a trespass into its sphere of operations.
As Churchill directed, the sailors assigned to the RND were mostly surplus reservists; men for whom there were at the time no available berths with the navy afloat. Whether naval reservists were actually suited to be used as infantrymen did not seem to factor into Churchill’s thinking, but serious problems with the scheme were apparent right from the beginning. “The officers with permanent commissions in the RNVR [Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve] were, of course, as uninstructed in land war as the newest joined civilian,” the RND’s historian conceded. A senior naval officer wrote in his diary at the time: “These are men who are thus to be employed in soldiering who know nothing about the business. They are all amateurs….The whole thing is so wicked that Churchill ought to be hanged before he should be allowed to do such a thing.”
After the initial German offensive was halted at the Marne and the Aisne in September 1914, the Allied and German armies began the maneuvering remembered as “the race to the sea.” The objective was the Belgian port of Antwerp—the Allies aiming to hold it, the Germans to take it. Antwerp was much too important a position for its reinforcement to be left to an untried division of naval reservists, but in the crisis of the moment there was simply no one else to send. As an infantry force, the RND was a poor option; it was, its historian candidly admitted, “a slender asset from a military point of view.”
Once ashore, the naval reservists discovered just how unprepared they were for their new role as infantrymen. Their weapons were practically obsolete—they had been issued old Charger-Loading Lee-Enfield rifles from mothballed navy stocks instead of the newer Short Magazine Lee-Enfields used by the army—and they carried their ammunition, which had been issued loose, in their pockets, since they had no bandoliers. Officers who had studied maritime navigation had no idea how to deploy or maneuver their men, and the men had no experience in constructing fieldworks and no training in rifle marksmanship. It was chaos and confusion at all levels. Their first positions were found to be in full view of German artillery observers; when the British withdrew across the Scheldt River, no one thought to notify the 1st Naval Brigade until the bridges were already being demolished.
The men of the RND also had no dedicated transport, no cavalry support, no supply train, no attached engineers, and no divisional artillery. They did not even have the support of the Royal Navy’s heavy guns, since terrain ashore hid them from the fleet’s gunnery observers. In a moment of quixotic adventurism, Churchill went to Belgium to assume personal command of the Antwerp defenses, but he was soon compelled to return to his office at the Admiralty. In the end, the arrival of the British reinforcements only delayed the inevitable. The Germans took Antwerp on October 11, with the RND withdrawing in some confusion not long before the city fell.
The division’s casualties in its first campaign were 60 killed, 138 wounded, and 936 captured. In a tragicomic twist, an additional 1,479 men were lost when they crossed into neutral Holland during the chaos of the withdrawal. The Dutch, maintaining their neutrality in the face of the war engulfing their neighbors, interned these British troops for the rest of the war.
THE OUTCRY IN BRITAIN WAS immediate. Churchill never lacked for political enemies, and the Antwerp debacle gave his opponents one more grievance to add to an already long list. “It is a tragedy that the Navy should be in such lunatic hands,” a naval officer wrote. Despite mounting criticism, however, the Admiralty decided to keep using the RND in infantry operations; the war had by this time spread beyond Europe, and the need for men was still great.
In February 1915 the RND shipped out for the Mediterranean, with orders for “an unknown Eastern destination.” The sailors and marines in the ranks did not yet know it, but they were bound for the Dardanelles. En route they lost one of their most famous enlistees, the poet Rupert Brooke, a sublieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Brooke died of sepsis from an infected mosquito bite on April 23 and was buried on the Greek island of Skyros. Had he lived two days longer, he would have witnessed the opening of the Gallipoli campaign.
On April 25 a combined force of British, Commonwealth, and French troops landed at several points on the southern end of the Gallipoli peninsula. Within days, an offensive originally envisioned as a fast-moving thrust got stalled in a slugging match of attrition. The fighting was savage—artillery bombardments, incessant sniping, repeated massed attacks by both sides against each other’s trenches—and living conditions in the static positions quickly passed from bad to worse. Dysentery and an especially virulent form of diarrhea dubbed the “Gallipoli Gallop” were rampant. Swarming flies covered open latrine pits and thousands of unburied, decomposing bodies; the trenches quickly became foul with maggots breeding on the corpses. “The dead…are lying buried and half-buried in the trench-bottom, in the sides of the trench, and built into the parapet,” one soldier wrote. “They have made the sand-bags all greasy….A dead man’s boots have been dripping on my overcoat, and the coat will stink forever.”
The RND was held in reserve for the first month of the Gallipoli campaign, but it was a brief respite. Its first major action came in an assault against Turkish positions on June 4, and it was nothing short of a disaster. Of 64 officers who went into the attack, 55 were lost, and more than 1,300 others were killed or wounded. The division’s Collingwood Battalion, in particular, was decimated, sustaining over 500 casualties (more than two-thirds of its strength). Normally in such a situation the battalion would have been pulled out of the lines long enough to replace its losses and refit, but at Gallipoli that was impossible. On June 8 the remnants of the Collingwood were broken up and its survivors reassigned to other battalions within the division.
The Allies finally abandoned the Dardanelles campaign in January 1916. Strategically and politically, Gallipoli was a failure, and the repercussions were far reaching. To keep his government intact, British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith was forced to accept a coalition with his rivals in the Conservative Party, and the Conservatives refused to cooperate if Churchill remained First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill was stripped of his position as First Lord and demoted to a minor post in the Cabinet.
The men of the RND lost much more. In just one month, July 1915, the division lost 79 officers and more than 2,000 men; by the middle of the month it could only muster 129 officers and 5,038 men. “Not 10 percent would have been considered fit in France for duty in the quietest part of the line,” the divisional history said of the survivors. “In Gallipoli at this time all the officers and men who could actually walk to the trenches were reckoned as fit.” Reflecting on the wretched experience of Gallipoli, one soldier wrote, “Of all the bastards of places, this is the greatest bastard in the world.” Wrote another: “No matter where we go now, it will never be as bad as Gallipoli.”
IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE DARDANELLES, the Royal Naval Division’s future was once again in doubt. From its inception it had always been an oddity, and the military mind abhors the unusual. Conventionalists in the regular army continued to be rankled by the RND’s very existence. Officials of the War Ministry finally decided to keep the division intact, but they did not allow it to stay as it was. To make it fall more in line with standard army organization, it was redesignated the 63rd Division (Royal Navy).
Nonetheless, the division stubbornly clung to its naval traditions as part of its unique esprit de corps. Its sailors and marines served as regular infantrymen, and most of its battles were fought far from the sea. But it was still a naval division and refused to be anything else. The RND stubbornly clung to its naval traditions, identifying its noncommissioned officers as petty officers rather than sergeants, using naval terms rather than army language in its daily business, using ships’ bells to signal the time, and even going so far as to look conspicuously different (parading “creditable beards in the faces of a clean-chinned Army,” as the RND’s historian put it).
Essentially, the RND was reconstituted as a mix of Royal Marine, Royal Navy, and British Army units. The marines and sailors were in two brigades, and the third brigade was made up of the army battalions.
Baptized at Antwerp and severely blooded at Gallipoli, the RND’s next test came in the Ancre Valley, in northern France, in November 1916. After being held as a corps reserve during the cataclysmic Battle of the Somme, the division was given the mission of taking the German-held town of Beaucourt as part of a three-corps offensive along the Ancre lines. Although the operation went badly, overall the division acquitted itself extremely well. The Hood and Drake Battalions distinguished themselves by capturing all their assigned objectives despite heavy casualties, earning a Victoria Cross in the process. The division earned six Victoria Crosses in all and hundreds of other decorations for individual acts of valor, but its newly won reputation as a solid fighting unit came at a high price. In a month of sustained combat, it lost more than 1,700 men killed and 2,537 wounded. Most of the casualties were from the two naval brigades, which bore the brunt of the hardest fighting. “In the face of such losses,” the RND’s historian wrote, “congratulatory messages had an empty ring.”
IN APRIL 1917 THE BRITISH launched a major attack along a broad front near the city of Arras in support of a simultaneous French offensive in the Aisne sector. In a battle overlooked by many histories of the war, the RND mounted a series of assaults on strongly constructed, fiercely defended German positions around the village of Gavrelle, a small village in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, the northernmost region of France, just a few miles from the Belgian border. The sailors and marines of the RND took their objectives in several days of heavy fighting, but at a fearsome cost. After just one day’s fighting around the Gavrelle Windmill on April 28, the 1st Battalion Royal Marines, as the division’s historian put it, “virtually ceased to exist.”
Casualties among the sailors of the naval battalions at Gavrelle were also high. From the time the RND went into action on April 15 until it was relieved on April 29, the division lost 170 officers and 3,624 other ranks, of whom more than 1,000 were killed. Men who had survived the ferocity of Gallipoli and Beaucourt fell at Gavrelle, and the ranks had to be filled anew.
As the fourth winter of the war drew on, the reconstituted RND was sent into the muddy horror of Passchendaele. Passch-endaele had been fought over since 1914, and three years of battle had turned the terrain into a moonscape of shell craters. The massive concentrations of artillery fire in the 1917 offensive transformed the battlefield into a swamp of death: ground that was too saturated to dig trenches, stinking mud that contaminated food and fouled weapons, and standing pools of water putrid with rotting corpses.
There was mud, and then there was the Passchendaele mud. The fighting had destroyed the centuries-old drainage systems that diverted the heavy annual rains away from the low Flemish plain, only adding to the difficulties and dangers of trench warfare. Without the drainage, the fields flooded, and men actually drowned in the muck. A soldier whose battalion lost 16 men to the mud in just one month later remembered, “Their graves, it seemed, just dug themselves and pulled them down.”
Even being wounded at Passchendaele offered no chance of reprieve. “You could either get through or die, because if you were wounded and slipped off the duckboards you just sank into the mud,” a sergeant major in the Hood Battalion recalled. “At each side was a sea of mud, and if you stumbled you would go in up to the waist and literally every pool was full of the decomposed bodies of humans and mules.”
The RND, minus its artillery units, finally came out of the mire at Passchendaele on November 6—its gunners had to fight on for a full month longer.
The RND was due to go back into the lines at Passchendaele in January 1918, but the massive German spring offensive in the south changed everything. The final year of the war opened with the division engaged in the fierce fighting at Cambrai and Welsh Ridge. In the following months its men fought at Canal du Nord and again on the St. Quentin Canal; by the time the war ended on November 11, the division had even retraced its path to Antwerp, the scene of its battlefield initiation.
THE THREE BRIGADES OF THE RND were demobilized in France in April 1919 after a final review by the Prince of Wales. In June the division’s veterans marched in one last parade in England before the most unusual unit in the British Army was officially disbanded. Four years of fighting in two theaters of the war had taken a heavy toll, with total combat losses nearly three times greater than the number of men originally recruited for the unit in 1914. The division’s total casualties for the entire war—killed, wounded, missing, and captured—came to more than 45,000.
When it was created in 1914, the RND was formed of marines and sailors who enlisted for service with the fleet and never expected to find themselves fighting as infantry far from the sea. Their hopes of sea service never came true, as Churchill noted in his introduction to the division history: “Others were forthcoming when the time came to take their places in the Navy, but the original elements of the Royal Naval Division, who certainly had the first claim to the coveted service afloat, were by that time locked in the heart of the land grapple.” Indeed, by that time most of the division’s original men were already gone, fallen along the way in places like Gallipoli, Beaucourt, Gavrelle, and Passchendaele.
Churchill’s motivations for creating the Royal Naval Division, which his detractors derisively branded “Winston’s Little Army,” may have had something to do with grandiose dreams of personal glory, but his scheme did put available men in the field when the country desperately needed them. In four years of service the RND fought in some of the fiercest combat engagements of the First World War, an experience that changed it from a hodgepodge of misused naval personnel into a veteran combat division.
During its short existence the division was always something of an orphan—a naval unit far from the sea, fighting as part of an army that always regarded it as an aberration—and it had no prewar history or lineage to protect it from being so perfunctorily and permanently disbanded in 1919. Also, its exemplary service in epic battles was often overshadowed by other stories. Its men fought at Gallipoli, but that campaign is now most often remembered as an Australian experience. Its participation in the Arras offensive was eclipsed by the Canadians’ struggle in the Battle of Vimy Ridge. And its heroic endurance in the misery of Passchendaele was overlooked in the histories of older, more famous regiments that remained in the British Army after the war. Nonetheless, the Royal Naval Division proved itself to be a first-rate fighting unit and, if only for that reason, deserves a secure place in history. MHQ
JOHN A. HAYMOND, a conflict historian, is the author of The Infamous Dakota War Trials of 1862: Revenge, Military Law, and the Judgment of History (McFarland & Company, 2016).
Featured in MHQ magazine’s Spring 2017 issue.
Want to have the lavishly illustrated, premium-quality print edition of MHQ delivered directly to you four times a year? Subscribe now at special savings!