Royal Navy in the First World War Part 3- Royal Naval Division

Part 3 of this series on the Royal Navy is unusual in that it is about men who joined the navy expecting to be at sea and instead found themselves fighting on land. A Culture volunteer on the Poole History Centre First World War project outlines the history of the Royal Naval Division and highlights some of the Poole men who served with it.

At the start of the war the Navy had too many men. Members of the Royal Naval Reserve, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and Royal Fleet Reserve, together with two battalions of Royal Marines, found themselves organised into the Royal Naval Division (RND) which was to fight on land alongside army units. The naval battalions were given the names of famous admirals – Benbow, Collingwood, Hawke and Drake were the 1st Brigade; Howe, Hood, Anson, and Nelson were the 2nd Brigade. Training was initially basic as the officers had, not surprisingly, little idea about land warfare. Morale was not helped by the fact that many ratings viewed the prospect of not being at sea with dismay. Adverts encouraging men to join the RND noted they would be paid 1s 3d (6 ½p) a day, and ‘there are no expenses incurred in joining’ with ‘free kits and food being provided’.

Despite the limited training, and not being at full strength, the RND was sent to fight at Ostend and Antwerp in August 1914. However, the British Expeditionary Force was beginning to withdraw into France and a large number of men of the RND were captured and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp.

Not long afterwards the Royal Naval Division did find itself at sea but sadly it was in troop transports that took them to the start of the Gallipoli campaign. The landings began on April 25 1915 and the RND fought alongside other troops from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, India, and France. The conditions were appalling. One soldier described how they ate ‘bully beef and biscuit’ for 3 months and that it was a delight to suddenly be given a loaf of bread – to be shared between seven.  [See a previous blog about a Poole link to Gallipoli ‘George E. Ford – a survivor of Gallipoli’].

It was while at Gallipoli that the Benbow Battalion was merged into the other battalions and Collingwood ‘no longer existed’. Over 7,000 men from the RND were either killed or wounded by the time the withdrawal from Gallipoli took place. In contrast to the landings, leaving Gallipoli was a remarkably successful operation.

The Division next found itself on the Western Front where, as one soldier described it, they found themselves ‘inured to the gruesome sight of a shattered form and a blood-stained firestep’.

During early 1916 the Royal Naval Division became the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division and consisted of three brigades of four battalions plus one brigade formed of Army battalions. The 188th Brigade was made up of the Anson and Howe Battalions together with two battalions of Royal Marine Light Infantry; 189th Brigade – Hood, Nelson, Hawke, and Drake Battalions; 190th Brigade –  four standard infantry battalions. The Division took part in the last phase of the Battle of the Somme at Ancre in mid-November 1916. The Hawke and Nelson battalions suffered high casualties while, in contrast, the Hood and Drake Battalions destroyed the German forces in front them.

Other actions in which the RND took part included at Miraumont in mid-February 1917 and the Second Battle of Passchendaele in late 1918.

The 63rd (Royal Naval) Division found itself in an unusual position as it was neither Army nor Navy. In July 1918, there was a proposal to merge it with the Army. At the time it consisted of nine infantry battalions of which only five were linked to the Navy. One problem with the Division was the naval battalions tended to follow the naval tradition, the supply of men was erratic because they came via the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and the administration was complicated. The proposal was that the Royal Marine Light Infantry would be absorbed into the Navy but that the naval battalions would be asked to volunteer for the Army. Rather harshly, the proposal argued that if the men did not want to volunteer they would be discharged so as to become automatically available for national service and then be conscripted into the army.

The following highlights the different experiences of Poole men using information from the National Archives. It is believed that the information below is correct, however, it is sometimes difficult deciphering the handwritten documents.

Thomas P. Bowden, who lived at the County Stores and Post Office, Ashley Road, Parkstone, was in the Army Reserve in June 1916. He was then mobilised in the Royal Naval Division in August 1917 initially as an Ordinary Seaman and then in November promoted to Able Seaman. He joined the Hawke Battalion in April 1918 and was injured in September 1918. Curiously, the records seem to imply he was demobilised several times.

Edward J. Regan of Serpentine Road, Poole had a more difficult experience. He joined the Drake Battalion and was appointed Quartermaster RND in October 1914. He got dysentery in September 1915, presumably at Gallipoli, and was transferred to a hospital in Malta and then back to England. He was promoted to Temporary Lieutenant RNVR in November 1915 and a month later was found fit for service. In April 1917 he suffered a fractured right leg which was first treated at the 24th General Hospital, Etaples. He re-joined the Drake Battalion in February 1918 but only a month later he suffered a ‘gas shell wound’. He was hospitalised at the 2nd Red Cross Hospital, Rouen before returning to England to a temporary hospital, linked with the Countess of Radnor, in a castle near Salisbury. He was demobilised in 1920.

Sidney A. Eveleigh, a gardener, of Davis Road, and William C. Churchill, a labourer, of Perry Gardens, both served in the Victory Royal Marine Brigade which formed part of the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division. They were captured in early 1917 by the Germans and held as prisoners of war before being repatriated in early 1919.

Lieutenant Commander Henry G. Andrews, of Alexandra Road, Parkstone, served with the Nelson Battalion and was wounded in the leg at Gallipoli in July 1915. He was hospitalised in Alexandria before being sent to England. After recovery he was part of the 2nd Reserve Battalion before re-joining the Nelson Battalion in January 1918. The records suggest he applied to join the Royal Engineers but the transfer never took place. He died of double pneumonia in November 1918 – presumably a consequence of the devastating 1918 flu pandemic.

It was not unusual at the time to have large families and the Poole and East Dorset Herald often featured articles on families who had two, three or more sons involved in the fighting. One article was on the Gilbert family who had eight sons fighting in the war. John Gilbert of Longfleet House, Poole died in April 1915 and his wife, Sarah Gilbert, moved to Ferndene, Parkstone. It was while living there that she received a letter from the Keeper of the Privy Purse, Buckingham Palace in October 1915 in which he conveyed ‘His Majesty’s appreciation of the patriotic spirt which has prompted your eight sons to give their services’ to the armed forces. Three sons were with the Royal Naval Division.

Sub-Lieutenant Wilfred V. Gilbert was working in Spain and returned to Britain and became part of the Nelson Battalion, Royal Naval Division. He was killed on 4 June 1915 at Gallipoli while supervising the construction of a trench to join up the firing line of the Royal Naval Division with the 42nd Division. He was 31 and had been wounded four times previously. Robert E. Gilbert, was also in the Royal Naval Division at Gallipoli and was seriously wounded in May 1915. He was transferred to a hospital in Malta and on recovery took up a role in the Admiralty. Geoffrey F. Gilbert was a Lieutenant in the Nelson Battalion, Royal Naval Division. The Bournemouth Guardian newspaper article of 20 January 1917 on the Gilbert family reported that he had just returned from the fighting on the Somme.

These short pieces highlight the different experiences of some of the men who served with the Royal Naval Division during the First World War. The Division was disbanded in June 1919.

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