The Royal Navy active on land on the Western Front? Surely a contradiction in terms?

So, how did the Royal Navy participate on the Western Front?

It is hardly conceivable that there was ever any serious possibility that the Royal Navy would undertake the highly risky stratagem of anchoring Dreadnoughts off the coast of France and Belgium to give direct support with their colossal firepower to the Allied armies? In fact, we know that such an idea was formally proposed by the British War Committee in November 1916 - i.e. the destruction of the German submarine bases at Zeebrugge and Ostend on the Belgian coast by naval gunfire. The immediate response of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, was to describe it as '…an operation which I am sure that no responsible naval officer would recommend, and it is, indeed, hardly practicable'.

In any event, it became an impractical proposition to attempt this kind of support on any meaningful scale once the Western Front became stabilised in late 1914. The vast system of the combattant armies' trenches extended for 470 miles (750km) across the mainland of Belgium and France to the Swiss frontier. So much of it was far out of the range of the largest naval guns: their maximum range was only 22,000 yards miles = 12.5 miles or 20km. At best, only a very narrow corridor along the coast and the river estuaries would be within range of a ship's guns, with all the potential dangers that would entail to any ships so deployed.

But, as we shall see, the Royal Navy did play an active role on the Western Front. This was in addition to its constant task of supporting the Allied armies on land by ensuring their safe travel across the Channel and the High Seas and their supply with the material of war. Not forgetting their highly effective hindrance by naval blockade of the free flow of supplies to the German war machine.

The genesis of the Royal Naval Division

That there were so many sailors available for secondment to military duties in 1914 was due to the Admiralty's realisation that upon mobilisation there would be between 20,000 to 30,000 naval reserves in excess of the number of men required to crew all the Royal Navy's warships. Accordingly, it was proposed that these surplus reserve sailors would be formed into two Naval Brigades and a Brigade of Marines: a sort of naval infantry.

The Royal Marine Brigade was sent to Ostend on late 27th August 1914, whilst the two Naval Brigades continued their formation and basic training in the UK. Four days later the Royal Marine Brigade returned to England only to be sent back to France (Dunkirk) on the 20th September. As related earlier, the two Royal Navy Brigades went to assist in the unsuccessful defence of Antwerp.

The Navy takes to the land

The first occasion when the Royal Navy took an active role on land on the Western Front was at the initiative of the Minister of War, Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, at Antwerp in October 1914. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Spencer Churchill, was scheduled to visit a Royal Navy airforce base at Dunkirk, France, on the 2nd October 1914. Whilst en route to Dover, his train was stopped and recalled to London. At a hastily called ministerial meeting he was informed that the Belgian Government planned to evacuate the fortified city of Antwerp on the 3rd October 1914; i.e. the following day. It was clear to all those present at the crisis meeting that were this vital port to fall into German hands it would present a serious threat to the French Channel ports. These ports were vital for the maintenance of the British Expeditionary Force. The loss of Antwerp would also jeopardise British cross-Channel military communications in general.

A very willing Churchill, amply supported by Kitchener, was immediately despatched to Antwerp to assist the Belgian garrison in the defence of the city. To provide the additional military muscle that he needed to have any effect, the Government authorised the use of Royal Marine Brigade - which was already in France - and it arrived in the city on the 4th October 1914. Churchill, with all his extraordinary energy, convinced the Belgian Government not to evacuate and threw himself into the organisation of the city's defences. Quickly appreciating that even more defenders were urgently required, Churchill ordered that a force be formed from the raw reservists of the First and Second Naval Brigades so that these men could also be committed to the fight. He combined these inexperienced and poorly equipped naval reinforcements with the three British infantry brigades already in the field to form the new 10,000 strong Royal Naval Division. Accordingly, the Royal Navy was committed, with commendable despatch, to fighting as infantry on the Western Front. However, once the defence of the city was organised, Prime Minister Asquith, not amused by these headline grabbing 'antics' of his First Lord, ordered Churchill back to his ministerial duties in London. He arrived on the 7th October 1914.

Thus, for the first time, the Royal Naval Division was committed to fighting on land on the Western Front.

The Navy at Antwerp

The collapse of Antwerp was delayed by Kitchener's and Churchill's expeditious action, but the city and fortress surrendered to the Germans on the 10th October 1914. Churchill's view was that this short delay had helped in the securement of the vital French Channel ports of Dunkirk and Calais But other authoritative figures regarded the whole exercise as a costly failure and volubly depreciated Churchill's active participatory role; many also considered it to be a misuse of the largely untrained men of the Royal Naval Division. Around 1,500 of them failed to extricate themselves from the fallen city in time. They eventually sought refuge in the Netherlands and, apart from a few who escaped from captivity, they were all were interred for the duration of the war. The remaining reservists returned to the UK on the 11th October 1914.

After an extended period of retraining and re-equipment, in February 1915 the Royal Naval Division - it was formally designated as the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division only in April 1916 - embarked for the Dardanelles where it served until the evacuation in January 1916.

The return to the the Western Front
In May 1916 the Division returned to the Western Front where, as previously mentioned, it formally became a part of the British Army, relinquishing its Admiralty connection. However, the various battalions still retained their names derived from their naval origins: Anson, Collingwood, Hawke, Hood, Howe and Nelson.

Although now officially part of the British Army, the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division continued to follow many standard naval procedures and traditions despite the continual depletion of the initial naval reservists by very heavy toll of casualties in the Gallipoli Campaign and on the Western Front. The 63rd were not always blessed by an understanding attitude from its six commanding officers whose background did not fit in well with these unconventional soldiers. In particular, a perpetual state of scarcely hidden hostility reigned during the four-month command, on the Somme, in 1916, of one of them - General C. Shute. General Shute, amongst other aggravating demands, imposed large doses of British Army 'bull' and parade-ground philosophy on the recalcitrant naval soldiers, and insisted that army rank ensignia be worn. The 63rd Division 'compromised' by the wearing of army ranks on one khaki uniform sleeve and naval ranks on the other. The naval soldiers were wont to sing an extremely personally insulting song in the hearing of General C. Shute, whom they nicknamed 'Schultz the Hun' and 'Schultz the Shit'. This poetic diatribe caused much hilarity as it circulated throughout the Army.

The 63rd (Royal Naval) Division fought in France and Belgium in a whole series of epic and famous battles including: 1916/Nov. the Somme and Ancre; 1917/Apr. Arras (where they captured Gavrelle), /Oct - Nov. 3rd Ypres and Passchendaele; 1918/Mar - Apr.

Whilst on the Western Front from 1916 to 1919, the 63rd was belatedly strengthened by addition of the usual plethora of supportive units such as: machine guns, artillery, mortars, engineers, transport and logistics, pioneers, a field ambulance and a veterinarian section.

The Zeebrugge Raid

The final foray of the Royal Navy on the Western Front was perhaps the most famous and prestigious: the raid on Zeebrugge on the night of 22/23 April 1918. Whilst an account of this raid is given in the Time Line section of this website - see Zeebrugge Raid - it is perhaps useful to here to describe the relevant background and facts behind the raid.

As related earlier, Admiral Jellicoe made it clear in 1916 that he did not support a naval bombardment of Zeebrugge and Ostend to dislodge or disable the German submarine fleet. However, he was adamant about the necessity for the neutralisation of these bases by other means. Indeed, in June 1917 he went so far as to opine that unless the U-boat threat could be contained, or eliminated 'it would be impossible to continue the war into 1918.' Accordingly, in June 1917 a combined naval and military operation was planned to put a division ashore for this express purpose. However, this could only have any hope of success if Haig's planned offensives in Flanders to threaten the Channel Ports was successful - see the article entitled The cruellest battle of all -Passchendaele. But, of course, Haig never achieved his objectives, and the combined operation was cancelled in September 1917.

As the reality of the situation became clear, in August 1917 Admirals Beatty, (Commander-in-Chief, Grand Fleet) and Jellicoe (First Sea Lord) submitted plans for a 'blocking operation'. The navy would sink three old cruiser warships to block the channels and canals that gave access to the Zeebrugge submarine concrete submarine pens and support infrastructure. A similar and simultaneous attack was to be made on the canal entrance to the German fortified submarine bases at Ostend. Admiral Jellicoe described it graphically as 'putting a cork' into the entrance of the access locks.

Late in February 1918, a modified plan was approved. Vice-Admiral Roger Keyes, RN, commander of the Dover patrol, was given command of an operation to put three old British cruisers packed with cement into the approaches to the main lock entrance and, by scuttling themselves, block the main lock entrance and seal the Bruges canal. The access of the block-ships to their targets was to be made possible by a subsidiary on-shore operation. A naval landing party (bluejackets) and Royal Marines would storm the harbour mole (a stone breakwater/pier) and neutralise the German guns that protected the approaches to the bases at Zeebrugge. The Royal Navy would once again put the feet of its personnel on the Western Front.

The simultaneous attack on the Ostend base was also authorised.

Due unfortunate reverses and contretemps, the Zeebrugge operation was only a qualified success; in the final analysis it caused relatively little inconvenience to the German Navy and its submarines at the cost of 600 British casualties - 200 killed and 400 wounded. But it proved to be an important boost for public morale, wearied as it was by more than three years of war and ever increasing food rationing, curtailments of civil liberties and when the news from all but the Palestine Front was gloomy in the extreme. It also renewed the all-important faith that the British public had in the Royal Navy and its endeavours on its behalf.

The attack on Ostend also failed to the extent that the Germans were able to use it until they were able open up Zeebrugge again three weeks after the attack.

Demobilisation and Disbanding

With the Armistice, the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division, in the firm control of the Army, was allowed to wither on the vine. By the end of April, the 63rd had been demobilised without participating in a much-anticipated tour of duty as part of the Occupation Army in Germany.

In June 1919, the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division was disbanded.

The toll

During the four years of its existence in its various forms, the Royal Naval Division had suffered a total of 47,953 casualties and had fought with particular distinction in the two most important theatres of the Great War - the Gallipoli Campaign and on the Western Front.
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