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  • Writer's pictureShaun Lewis

What were sailors doing in the WW1 trenches?

107 years ago, the Royal Naval Division (RND) arrived in Antwerp by requisitioned London buses to reinforce the retreating Belgian Army. Their arrival was supported by aircraft from Commander Charles Samson’s naval wing and his armoured cars. Samson copied the Belgian idea of mounting machine guns on cars for reconnaissance and reinforced them with boiler plate. After the idea had caught on, in 1915 the majority of his Armoured Car Division was taken over by the British Army. I tell something of the tale in my novel, ‘The Wings of the Wind’.

The Royal Navy had a long history of landing from ships detachments of marines and sailors to conduct operations ashore. Indeed, it was Royal Navy guns landed from HM Ships Powerful and Terrible and carried on specially built carriages across the rough terrain of South Africa that were used to relieve the siege of Ladysmith during the Boer War. The RN likes to remind the army of this with its field gun competitions.

In August 1914, Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, mobilised the Royal Fleet Reserve and the RN found itself with a surplus of manpower for its fleet. Churchill, thus, decided to employ this excess manpower to expand the largely Royal Marine brigade with another two brigades to constitute a naval division. Sadly, for the sailors, the priority for equipment was given to the BEF and, initially, the new recruits of the naval division were both poorly equipped and trained. Nor could they be supplied with khaki uniforms. However, what they lacked in training, they more than made up for in morale and enthusiasm. Indeed, the RND went on to be one of the best divisions of the army command. It fought on the Western Front and at Gallipoli. However, by 1916 the division had suffered abnormally high casualty rates and, with the expansion of the Navy, the RN couldn’t afford the manpower for replacements. The division was formally transferred to the army as the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division, but by then largely comprised army personnel. The division was disbanded in 1919.

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