The time of Nelson was not only notable because of the success in nautical warfare of the man himself, but also because it was the zenith of the ‘age of sail’ that left British sea power so dominant that Britannia really did ‘rule the waves.’ No navy could stand against the might of the Royal Navy, and so until Jutland during the Great War it would not fight another major battle at sea. Queen Victoria’s ever expanding empire meant that British forces were perpetually set against often underdeveloped powers and the navy took its part, but most of the hard work of empire building would inevitably fall upon the British army. Of course, the Royal Navy had its own ‘soldiers’—the Royal Marines. The particular talents and skills of sailors were often required, particularly whilst manning ‘the guns,’ so the 19th century saw the ‘blue jackets’ in action in the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the Zulu War, the Boer War and several other conflicts. The early years of the 20th century brought a period of instability that inexorably dragged the great powers of Europe towards the cataclysm of blood which was to be the Great War of 1914-18. The entire British Empire mobilised and the industrial efficiency of modern methods of war and the global nature of the conflict drew more and more men into the services. The Royal Naval Division was formed around a cadre of Royal Marines and sailors and was expanded as a unit of the New Army by volunteers. The Division saw action in the defence of Antwerp in 1914, on Helles and Anzac during the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign in 1915 and on the Western Front where it took part in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. This book was written by one of the their number and is an often light-hearted account of the wartime record of the division, full of incident and anecdote and scattered with occasionally humorous line drawings. There is little in print about the Royal Naval Division in the First World War so this will make a welcome addition to any naval library.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Towards the end of September 1916 we left our comfortable sector in front of Bully Grenay, and moved south to take part in the great Somme offensive. It was while holding the line prior to our advance that General Paris was dangerously wounded, and his staff officer, Major Sketchley, killed. To lose our divisional commander at this critical juncture was a great blow to all. Having so successfully commanded the division since its formation in August 1914, and having endeared himself so greatly to all ranks, his loss seemed well-nigh irreparable, and none knew better than those who served under him how much the crushing defeat we inflicted on the Germans at Beaucourt-sur-Ancre was due to his previous organisation, energy, and forethought.<br>
The fact that another attack on Beaucourt and Beaumont Hamel was imminent, appeared evident to friend and foe alike, as it was quite impossible to make the necessary concentrations and preparations in a secret fashion. A surprise attack on a large scale is absolutely impracticable in modern warfare. Behind the trenches of both combatants are lines of stationary kite balloons, in which skilled observers watch every movement of the enemy through powerful telescopes. In addition, aeroplane scouts bring back information regarding undue activity on the railways in the back areas, and movements of troops or guns towards any particular sector of the line. It may be taken for granted that the Germans were fully aware that we were going to attack, but that knowing the enormous strength of their position, which had already resisted our repeated assaults, they were confident in their ability to repel any further efforts we might make to capture their well-nigh impregnable fortresses.<br>
The attack had been planned for October, but the weather was so unfavourable that it had to be postponed. The heavy and constant rain converted the trenches into veritable quagmires, and the roads leading to them became almost impassable, rendering a successful advance quite impracticable at that date. This delay in following up the previous successes in the vicinity, though unavoidable, enabled the enemy to reorganise his troops, regain his morale, and increase the strength of his positions. The Naval Division waited for the weather to moderate under canvas near Englebelmer, and while there, received the signal honour of being inspected by Sir Douglas Haig.<br>
On November 9th, the weather having somewhat improved, it was decided to delay the attack no longer, and on November 11th the preliminary bombardment commenced, and continued without intermission until dawn of November 13th, when it developed into an intense barrage.<br>
November 12th broke cold and bleak, but moderately dry. The day had come. The Royal Naval Division marched up to its jumping-off trenches, ready for the attack of the morrow. To the uninitiated the taking up of a battle position may be considered a very uneventful undertaking compared with the subsequent attack; to us on that eventful afternoon it seemed an almost impossible task.<br>
The enemy apparently ‘spotted’ us going up the communication trenches and opened a very intense and accurate fire, which lasted the greater portion of the night. We had numerous casualties, including those exceedingly popular officers, Lieutenant-Colonel Sanders of the Anson, Lieutenant-Colonel Tetley of the Drake, and Lieutenant-Colonel Burge of the Nelson—all of whom were killed. By midnight the battalions had taken up their appointed positions immediately north of the River Ancre, and at dawn we were ready to advance. In the scheme of attack our first objective was the strong front line system of trenches, our second the Station Road, running from Beaumont Hamel to the Albert-Lille Railway, our third the trenches on the outskirts of Beaucourt, and our fourth the village itself. The 188th Brigade were on the left, the 189th on the right, and the 190th in reserve. It was a cold, gloomy, misty morning on November 13th, 1916, when at 5.45 a.m. our barrage opened in its full intensity. The men had hardly clambered out of our trenches, when the enemy barrage fell with deadly precision. In spite of heavy casualties, the Royal Naval Division, keeping close up to our barrage, which advanced one hundred yards every five minutes, swept on over three lines of German trenches, and took up a position on the far side of the Station Road and the outskirts of Beaucourt.<br>
Numerous unrecorded incidents of that advance are still fresh in my mind. To see Sergeant Meatyard of the Marines unconcernedly following behind the attacking companies, unrolling his coil of telephone wire as he advanced, was an incident typical of the coolness displayed by all ranks. It was entirely due to his initiative that telephone communication with Brigade Headquarters was kept up during the attack. The mending of this wire, when it was once established, was a matter of no small difficulty, and all of us who reached the bank on the far side of the Station Road remember the very gallant and successful attempts made to reopen our only method of communication with the rear. Sergeant Meatyard was eventually severely wounded, and later received a very well-deserved Military Medal.