Winston Churchill took responsibility for the Gallipoli fiasco (click here to read more). After his resignation from the Admiralty, the Royal Naval Division (RND) was quickly shifted over to army command. Since at the time it had only one ‘naval’ brigade and the marine brigade, it was augmented by the addition of 190th Brigade, which included the 7th Royal Fusiliers, 4th Bedfords, 1/1st Honourable Artillery Co. (an infantry unit) and the 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Three of these battalions were Territorials and one was New Army. The RND was re-titled as the 63rd Division, and although this was the highest-numbered division in the British Expeditionary Force, it was the senior division in the order of precedence, as the navy is senior to the army. Thereafter, as the numbers of the ‘Naval’ brigades declined, they were replaced by soldiers.
For the Gallipoli campaign the sailors had been issued army khakis, but still wore sailor headgear with the name of the battalion on the hat band instead of a ship. Upon arrival in France, standard army uniforms were issued, including new including newly designed cap badges, collar ‘dogs’ (for officers) and shoulder tabs (for other ranks).
The 63rd Division (ex-RND) began their service on the Western Front in October 1916, at the tail end of the Battle of the Somme, in an action called the Battle of the Ancre, named after a tributary of the Somme River. Under overall Army command for the first time, the ‘Naval’ brigade spearheaded the assault on the German front lines, which had been badly damaged by the artillery barrage. The attackers became confused as to where they were, allowing the German artillery to find the range, and heavy casualties ensued.
The 63rd stayed in the Ancre sector and in February 1917 launched another costly but successful attack against Miraumont. Subsequently the re-raised Collingwood and Deal Battalions were disbanded due to heavy casualties.
Later elements of the 63rd were moved to the Arras sector and participated in the battles there in April and May of 1917. During the Second Battle of the Scarpe, in the village of Gavrelle, the 189th (2nd Naval) Brigade, led by Cmdr. Arthur Asquith, DSO+2, son of H.H. Asquith, the Prime Minister from 1908-1916, distinguished themselves in vicious street fighting not at all characteristic of WW1. Although the 63rd held their positions against all German counterattacks, the accomplishment was a minor one achieved at the cost of about 5,000 men. It was necessary to re-build the division again.
In October the 63rd was sent to Belgium to support the Canadian Corps attack known as Second Passchendaele. Their assigned objective was attained although the division took over 3,300 casualties and once again became ineffective.
The rebuilding 63rd was rushed back to the Front to oppose Operation Michael in March 1918, where some battalions were rolled over in the initial attack. Even though reduced in numbers, they served throughout the ‘Hundred Days’ that ended on November 11th.
There are several memorials to the RND/63rd, most especially the one opposite the Admiralty at Whitehall in London. No other British regiment has a memorial in such a prominent place. Depicted above is the recently constructed site at Gavrelle in France (near Arras).
Due to my upcoming surgery, there will be no more posts here until the end of April. Please stay with us.