Navy men of the trenches

St Mary's Plaque
St Mary's Plaque

When the Great War began many men of serviceable age rushed to join the colours.

The majority joined battalions connected to established county regiments of the British Army. However, a sizeable number joined the Royal Navy.

The numbers joining the marine arm of the forces exceeded those required. There were only a limited number of ships so a surplus of 20,000 to 30,000 men were among naval reserves. The First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill realised that this surplus could be mobilised to help the land forces so the Royal Naval Division (RND) was born.

Those transferred to the RND received rankings better known aboard ship, for example able seaman rather than private. The relationship between army and navy traditions was uneasy. The RND was spilt into eight battalions, named after British commanders – Drake, Benbow, Hawke, Collingwood, Nelson, Howe, Hood and Anson.

The RND distinguished itself in action such as the Siege of Antwerp, Gallipoli, and the latter phases of the Battle of the Somme. By the first weeks of 1917 most of the RND battalions were holding different parts of the Somme front line.

With the freezing weather, tedium of trench life and ever-present danger of death by mortar shell, sniper’s bullet or disease, or even on journeys across no man’s land during an often pointless raid, the ordinary able seaman could be forgiven for yearning for the relative freedom of the seas.

In North Tyneside an unusually large number of volunteers had landed in the RND. Of 3,300-plus Great War casualties of the area so far under research by the Northumbria World War One Project, some 200 were in the Naval Division, the battalions Anson, Hood and Hawke featuring prominently.

And 100 years ago this week nine men of the RND from the area lost their lives in the trenches.

Leading Seaman John Gilbert Cable, of Wallsend, had worked at Wallsend Slipway as an apprentice carpenter. By the time war broke out he was living in North Shields. Also in North Shields was Able Seaman Robert Gordon Robertson, a miner at Preston Colliery, who died on February 4.

Able Seaman William Richardson Dunlop, of Willington Quay, is commemorated there on the plaque at St Mary’s. Able Seamen Harold Cowie, of Percy Main, and Edward Gibson, of Earsdon, had both lost brothers a few months earlier in the conflict, a cruel double blow for the families. Able Seaman Joseph Marsh died on February 6 and is commemorated on memorials at Shiremoor, Backworth and West Allotment.

During the rest of 1917 more than 50 men from the area in the RND would lose their lives.

If you have any information on casualties from North Tyneside contact www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk

Alternatively, call into our office in the Linskill Centre, Linskill Terrace, North Shields, open Monday to Friday, from 10am to 4pm. You can also send an email to tommy@northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk