The brainchild of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, the Royal Naval Division (RND) was formed in 1914. It was comprised of eight battalions of reserve sailors not needed for sea service and four battalions of Royal Marines, scrounged up from each Marine depot. The RND eventually numbered about 8,000 men, which was under-manned compared to army divisions of the time, which at full strength had around 12,000. The ‘sailor’ battalions were named after famous admirals: Anson, Benbow, Collingwood, Drake, Hawke, Hood, Howe and Nelson. The Marine battalions were titled after their respective depots: Chatham, Deal, Plymouth and Portsmouth.
In the excitement of the early days of the war, with patriotic sentiments running high and expectations of a short war, there was a rush to join what many thought an elite unit. Intellectuals were especially attracted to the RND: the poets Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) and Patrick Shaw Stewart (1888-1917), the author and politician Alan Herbert (1890-1971), the composer William Denis Browne (1888-1915), to name a few. Also VIP’s signed on, like the Prime Minister’s third son, Arthur Asquith (1883-1939), who later rose to the rank of Brigadier, and family members of the future Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law.
The RND was thrown-together with inexperienced officers, too few non-coms and inadequate logistics. Some men received only two days of training, everything was in short supply, especially ammunition, the men were issued the Mark I Lee-Enfield of South African War vintage and all wore navy uniforms as the standard khaki was in critically short supply. The sailor battalions were strictly light infantry, with no artillery, engineers, signals, ambulances etc. while the Marine battalions had some light artillery. Eventually a Machine Gun Battalion was added in 1916.
The RND was under Churchill’s control, and he would recklessly deploy them like his own personal army, first rushing them to the defense of Antwerp in 1914. Churchill, who regarded himself to be a grand strategist, realized the importance of trying to hold on to Antwerp, as it was felt that any invasion of England would have to be mounted from there. On September 7th, 1914, he stressed to Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey that Antwerp must be held. But at that time the government felt the danger of the city falling to be exaggerated. It was, after all, protected by three concentric rings of fortifications, one of which was of the very latest design and construction. The Belgian Army at Antwerp, made up of over 175,000 mostly reservists, while not equivalent to British regulars, was far larger than the German force detailed to the capture.
It soon became apparent that, despite a disparity in numbers, the German and their borrowed Austrian heavy artillery outranged anything the Belgians had, meaning that the fortifications would inevitably be destroyed. Grey received a telegram from the Belgian government on October 2nd, which stated their intention to evacuate the city and relocate to Ostend. This prompted Churchill to immediately leave for Antwerp, which he reached before noon on October 3rd, setting up shop in the city’s most elegant hotel, the Saint Antoine. The Belgian government and military command, however, heaved a sigh of relief and settled in to hold the line until the British reinforcements arrived.
An advance detachment of marines from the RND was assembled at Dover on October 4th. Knowing the advantages of deception, Churchill had alerted journalists who were on hand when the marines landed at Ostend. The detachment disembarked to cheering crowds and were marched by back streets in a circle, seeming to arrive in the port several times, thus creating the impression of a larger force.
Being garrison marines, the men weren’t up to a forced march so were transported in double-decker buses still bearing advertising placards. Passing through Ghent and St Nicolaas, more photographers were there. On October 5th the marines reached the western edge of Antwerp and crossed into the city. With the arrival of British reinforcements, the Belgian forces gained resolve.
The marines were sent to the front lines around Lier, where they dug trenches, mostly for the benefit of the press. The next day the rest of the RND began to arrive by sea. Churchill also sent them to the front, where he had been visiting the defenses, giving orders, and, according to his critics, playing soldier.
However, the addition of the RND to the defense wouldn’t be enough. The army moved to take command of the situation. Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Rawlinson, commander of the newly-formed IV Corps, arrived in Antwerp, unaccompanied by any troops. He pulled rank on Churchill, who reluctantly left for London, arriving just in time for the birth of his daughter, Sarah.
Seeing the situation to be hopeless, Rawlinson promptly left as well, leaving the overall command to Royal Marines Maj. Gen. Sir Archibald Paris, who ordered the immediate evacuation of all British troops, mostly by sea. All Belgian infantry units were ordered by their command to retreat across the river westward. The second-line fortifications were abandoned with the exception of two forts to provide a diversion. These garrisons remained at their posts through the next day, then after dark made it over the river as best they could.
Losses to the British forces at Antwerp were: 57 dead, 158 wounded, and 936 captured when trying to evacuate the fortified zone by train. A further 1,500 members of the Benbow and Collingwood Battalions were cut off at the Scheldt River and had to retreat into the Netherlands, where they were interned at a camp they called ‘HMS Timberwood’. As a result these two battalions ceased to exist and the remnant that had managed to escape were assigned to the depleted Hawke Battalion. The RND then had to be brought back to strength by adding two City of London (Royal Fusiliers) reserve battalions, the 2/2nd and the 2/4th.
To be continued.