The Great War campaigns of one of the Royal Naval division battalions
The campaigns of the Royal Naval Brigades have always fascinated students of military history. During several notable campaigns of the Victorian era including the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the Zulu War and the Boer War these ‘sailors without ships’ left their natural element (invariably dragging and pulling their guns with them) to do battle alongside their comrades of the British Army. The story of the naval brigades of the First World War was somewhat different for here were units, named for the great admirals of the age of sail, which had been specifically created to act and fight as infantry whilst maintaining the traditions of the ‘senior service’. The requirements of this great conflict meant that the initial role of the naval brigades to defend port areas very quickly gave way to the pragmatic need for fighting battalions in the field. After the debacle at Antwerp, the Hawke Battalion was re-formed and took part in the ultimately disastrous Gallipoli Campaign before being transferred to the Western Front where it played its part in the Battle of the Somme. This is a riveting account that benefits from the authenticity of first-hand experience written by an officer who served with the Hawke Battalion.
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Suddenly, standing talking in the front-line, one was overcome by the silence—a rare thing when 10,000 men are concentrated in as many square yards. We looked at our watches. One minute to five. Another moment—we, too, were silent now—and then a deafening explosion, and the smoke and fumes of war were added to the thick November mist. Without a word, without half a second’s hesitation, we saw the first wave of the battalion move from their trenches and pass into the mist and out of sight while they were still not more than 70 yards away. At intervals of less than half a minute the other waves followed. Soon the fourth wave, 50 yards behind the others, was itself out of sight. Through the November mists, deafened by the explosion of guns, almost choked with fumes of lyddite, blinded by smoke, we saw the last of the Hawke Battalion as we had known it.
Less than twenty of those men, and none of those officers, came back unhurt. We went into action with twenty officers and 415 men. Our official casualties were twenty-three officers and 396 men.
This may read like an anticipation of the results of a two-days’ battle, crowded with incident, uniquely successful in its results. In actual fact, during the ten minutes that Colonel Wilson and his headquarters watched the battle from the front line almost the whole of these casualties had been incurred.
Looking out on the front nothing could be seen, and not a man came back. Our barrage could be heard moving forward, and there was every reason to imagine a sweeping and immediate success. Either the battalion had reached and entered the front line, or it was held up and was fighting in no-man’s-land (which it certainly was not). So we reasoned, little guessing the truth.
At 5.20 a.m. we went forward, feeling our way through the smoke and debris of battle till we got a sight of the enemy front line, only to be fired on by the enemy machine guns, undamaged by the barrage, dominating what should have been a captured position.
As we lay out, such of us as had survived, we could take some stock of the position, which remained, however, inexplicable to us, since, owing to the lie of the ground, we could see but little to our right and left. There were, indeed, very many wounded and dead lying like ourselves in shell-holes, or where they had fallen in front of the German wire. But not the whole even of the Hawke Battalion. Yet the whole stretch of front line which we could see was, as a matter of visible fact, in possession of the enemy. It was, of course, the now famous redoubt which faced us, the whole strength of which had been directed against the Hawke Battalion, who attacked directly opposite to it.
On the left of the redoubt, in touch with the right of the Howe Battalion, Vere Harmsworth, wounded for the first time in no-man’s-land, led the relics of his company to the second line. Here the last of them were hit, and Harmsworth himself mortally wounded. Sub-Lieutenant J. A. Cooke of this company was also killed, and Sub-Lieutenant Paton seriously wounded. Here, too, fell C.P.O. Nadin, a fighting Irishman with all the characteristic qualities and defects of a rare but genuine type, who had first attracted notice in the engagement of June 19th at Gallipoli. “A” company, following behind “B,” had the same disastrous experience. Nine-tenths of them fell in front of the redoubt. Only a few on the left got through, but in such numbers as to be too weak to overcome the enemy garrison in the second line. Three officers of this company (Rush himself and two platoon commanders, R. C. Gibb and Rowden) were wounded in front of the first German line, and Sub-Lieutenant A. C. Black was killed a moment or two later. “C” company, on the right of the battalion front, and “D” company supporting them, had almost the same experience, except that on the extreme right, where the ground sloped away to the Ancre and was “dead” to the garrison of the redoubt, some twenty men and two officers (Sub-Lieutenant Stewart and Sub-Lieutenant Henderson) got through on the flank of the Hood Battalion.
Seven or eight of them, and about as many from “D” company, actually joined up with the Hood Battalion, and fought through to the Yellow Line in front of Beaucourt. Both officers, however, were wounded in the neighbourhood of Station Road, though Stewart, before being hit, was able to do some damage with a Lewis gun, which he brought through and trained against the enemy garrison in the Green Line till it was reached and carried by the Hood and Drake Battalions on his right. Sly, the remaining platoon commander of this company, was wounded in no-man’s-land, and Ker, the acting company commander, was killed in front of the redoubt. In front of the same position fell Poole, Turnbull, and Knight, of “D” company, and at the same time and place Lieutenant-Commander George Peckham was seriously wounded. Battalion Headquarters, going over a little later, as has been told, suffered in the same way; Colonel Wilson and his Adjutant were wounded within two minutes of going over, and the same burst of fire killed the signalling officer, Lieutenant Edwards, and the brave and tireless P.O. Macdonald, who died trying characteristically to go forward after being once severely hit.
Surgeon Ward went forward a little later with Surgeon Cox of the Nelson, and reached the front line to the right of the redoubt, where he was killed by a bomb thrown in the course of the fighting here being carried on by the Drake arid Nelson Battalions in the endeavour, ultimately successful, to localise the activities of the unconquered redoubt. Incidentally it may be explained that the same essential but very difficult task was undertaken on the left of the redoubt by the Howe Battalion, led by Commander Ramsay Fairfax in person.