The many naval recruits who died in land battles

Officers of the Royal Naval Division, 1915.
Officers of the Royal Naval Division, 1915.
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Researching the family’s past has become one of the most popular reasons to access the internet.

With more and more records going online from the National Archives it can yield big dividends in terms of our knowledge and understanding of the past.

Many family historians tend to hit the buffers of the Great War of 1914-18 and their relatives’ role in it. Most families had someone who participated so in this, the centennial period of commemoration, thirst for information has never been greater.

As research progresses it can become more complex, more confusing, and yet more interesting and intriguing. My advice is to stick with it because your hard work will be rewarded.

One of the questions I’ve been asked a lot relates to the Royal Naval Division, surely, connected with warfare at sea. Yet great-grandad died many miles from the sea in some of the big land battles, such as Gallipoli and the Somme, but still retained naval rank.

In the first flush of war many were to join the Royal Navy. There was a surplus of nearly 30,000 Royal Navy reserves unable to find a place on a ship. It was quickly realised the surplus was sufficient to form two Naval Brigades and a Brigade of Marines for operations on land. Recruiting posters declared “Royal Naval Division…Handymen to Fight on Land and Sea”. Battalions were formed with nautical names such as Nelson, Howe, Anson, Hawke and Hood.

In the chaos of the early days of war mobilisation was haphazard. The Royal Marine Brigade was dispatched in haste to Belgium to assist in the defence of Antwerp as the German Army swamped its neighbour’s defences and threatened Allied access to the coast.

Over three quarters of the marines went to war without even basic equipment such as packs, mess tins or water bottles, their rifles were obsolete and no khaki was issued. They were under-prepared.

With the failure to rescue Antwerp the Royal Naval Division was refitted and retrained and sent to Gallipoli in April 1915. Thousands were to die in that slaughter, many from the Royal Naval Division.

By 1916, we find them in the latter stages of the Battle of the Somme, while in the final two years of war they served in some of the bloodiest battles of the war, such as Arras and Passchendaele. By the war’s end very few of those with seagoing experience were left.

The relationship between the Army and the RND was often strained, sometimes reflected in the attitudes of the military top brass who looked down on their naval equivalents. Considering this is a family newspaper, I can only direct you to a poem by Sub-Lieutenant AP Herbert that summed up his and fellow naval ratings’ feelings about his commanding officer, the militarily trained Major General Shute.

The Northumbria World War One project is researching casualties of the war from North Tyneside. It has identified nearly 200 men from the area who perished while with the battalions of the Royal Naval Division. Strongly associated with Wallsend and Willington Quay, the Anson Battalion lost over 40 men from the area. The Hood Battalion lost 34 – men like Able Seaman Joseph Wynn, from Myrtle Grove, and Able Seaman Isaac Osselton, from Neptune Road. AB Walter Fairgrieve was from Charlotte Street.

These and other men are being researched by project members. If you would like to get involved visit www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk or email tommy@ northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk