The sailors and marines of the Royal Naval Division at war
Douglas Jerrold’s history of the campaigns and battles of the Royal Naval Division during the First World War is an acknowledged classic on the subject. Royal Navy personnel together with their guns had been regularly employed on land throughout Queen Victoria’s long reign in the Crimea, during the Indian Mutiny, the Zulu War, The Boer war and even during the Boxer Rebellion in China. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 was however an entirely different kind of conflict—a true world war of the industrial age which would draw upon every resource the combatants could gather to wage it. The necessity for the Allies to employ naval personnel to secure the channel ports of Ostend, Dunkirk and Antwerp resulted in the early employment of the Royal Naval Division, but was terminated quickly and disastrously. In 1915 the Gallipoli campaign proved to be another costly proving ground before the ‘sailors on land’ were transferred to the carnage of the Western Front and trench warfare. There the division saw hard fighting in the battles at Ancre, Oppy Wood, Passchendaele and Welsh Ridge among others. It stood against the brutal hammer blow of Germany’s last great offensive suffering enormous losses before taking part in the final advances to victory in 1918.
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The battle opened at 11 a.m., the first advance being made by the French on the right and the 29th Division on the left, and in the centre, up the Achibaba (right centre) and Krithia (left centre) Nullahs, by the Composite Naval Brigade, under General Paris’s orders, and the 2nd R. N. Brigade, under the orders of General D’Amade. The 2nd Brigade was originally intended to advance merely in support of the French, but, at the last minute, a change was made, and on the French left the Hood and Anson Battalions (with which was one platoon of “A” Company Howe, under Lt.-Commander Waller, who did excellent work throughout the day) and the French infantry advanced in alternate lines. On the Composite Brigade front, the advance was carried out by the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers (attached from the 29th Division), the orders being for the Drake (and, if necessary, the Plymouth Marines) to follow up any advance, and consolidate the ground gained.
By 12.30, the Hood and Anson Battalions reported an advance of 600 yards, and had passed the Turkish advanced trenches by the White House; the Lancashire Fusiliers had made slower progress, owing to shrapnel fire and the necessity for keeping in touch, not only with the 2nd Naval Brigade, but with the 88th Brigade. On the extreme left of our line little or no progress had been made, and the French advance was also disappointing. By 8 p.m. the advance, which at no point had got near the Turkish main positions, seemed to be everywhere held, and at 3.30 p.m. the Hood and Anson were definitely ordered by General D’Amade not to advance further, as the rest of the force could make no progress along the Kereves Dere ridge. An hour and a half later the whole line received the same orders, and the Drake went forward to dig in on a line joining the Hood left with the 29th Division right.
This was done and a gap which had existed for some hours between the Lancashire Fusiliers and the 88th Brigade was reported as filled by the Drake at 8 p.m. Fighting between the French and the 29th Division, the Naval Battalions, in their first serious engagement, had actually achieved the most substantial advance recorded, and could look forward with confidence to the renewal of the battle. But from a wider standpoint the day’s fighting was disappointing. An Army Corps had been easily held by the Turkish outposts, and we were not yet within striking distance of their main position. The Naval Brigade had encountered plenty of opposition at long range, but each position when reached had been found to be empty, and no connected position had been captured or even approached.
And yet, though the losses had been heavy and the strain severe, the attack must continue.
The next day, the advance began on the left only and, after fluctuating fortunes, looked like failing definitely by 8 p.m. In these circumstances, a general attack was ordered, the New Zealand Brigade being detached for the purpose from the Composite Division and sent over to the extreme left, where our failure had been most complete. The 2nd Naval Brigade under General D’Amade and the Composite Naval Brigade under General Paris had each the same task in this attack, to keep in touch with each other and with the flanks. The Composite Brigade had had this task before it all day, and, with the object of rendering it simpler, had been reorganised with the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers next to the 88th Brigade and the Drake on the right next to Commodore Backhouse’s Brigade (who now held their front with the Howe and Anson, the Hood being in reserve). Commander Campbell was in charge of the Composite Brigade front line.
The new attack opened at 4.45 and, except again on the extreme left, met with some success. The French progress, however, along the Kereves Dere ridge was slow, and no substantial advance was possible for the Naval or Composite Brigades. The Lancashire Fusiliers’ front was indeed, in the end, 300 yards in rear of that of the 88th Brigade when the fighting died down at sunset; the gap was covered by machine guns. The net result of the day’s fighting was a slight advance by the French and the 2nd Naval Brigade, and a gain of some 300 yards by the right and centre of the 29th Division: between that Division and the Naval Brigade was the Composite Brigade. Throughout a long and trying day, Commander Campbell had been responsible for maintaining communication between the two forces advancing unequal distances at different times, and, for his successful conduct of this inconspicuous but essential operation he was awarded the D.S.O. on the recommendation of the Composite Brigade commander.
The dawn of May 8th saw yet another advance attempted, and repulsed on our left. The outlook was dark, especially as the French professed themselves for tactical reasons unable to undertake a further attack until the British had achieved a distinct advance; but the battle thus launched was not to be allowed to close with so signal a defeat. To offer battle may have been premature; but once offered it must be fought to a finish, and Sir Ian Hamilton determined to throw in the last of his reserves, the Australian Brigade, so as to help the French. If the left flank could not advance (though one further effort was to be made, this time by the 87th Brigade), the right must be securely lodged on the Kereves Dere ridge before the troops could rest on their gains.
The final assault was ordered for 5 p.m., the main attack to be delivered by the comparatively fresh Australian Brigade of General Paris’s Division in the centre, with the 29th Division and the New Zealand Brigade on the left, and the French on the right. This time only a quarter of an hour’s bombardment was possible, but at last the pertinacity of the commander and the finer endurance of the troops met with their reward. Well might the Turks, called on to resist four general attacks in two days, presume that they had broken their enemy’s will to victory. But they presumed in vain. As ever the allied armies were as irresistible in the face of defeat as they were ineffective in the organisation of victory.
The chief honour of the fight went to the Australians and the French, the former advancing, with an impetuous courage which recalled and explained the “Anzac” landing, for a distance of at least 600 yards, while the latter swarmed up the southern face of the Kereves Dere ridge, capturing the redoubt which had held them up for nearly three days and consolidating the position on which (though it would have cheered few to realise it at the time) our right flank was to rest throughout the campaign. But the Naval and Composite Brigades had their part to play. The Hood and Howe Battalions, advancing behind the French, came up into line with and prolonged their left, and two companies of the Drake Battalion, under Lieut. Cherry, R.N.V.R., closed the gap between them and the Australians at a critical moment when at 8.15 p.m., the Turks were breaking through in force. At 1.15 a.m., the Plymouth Marines were moved up and came into line between the Drake Battalion and the Australians.