63rd (Royal Naval) Division

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63rd (Royal Naval) Division
Royal Naval Division Memorial, Horse Guards Parade.jpg
Active World War I
September 1914 – April 1919
Country  United Kingdom
Branch  Royal Navy
 British Army
Type Infantry
Engagements 1914: Siege of Antwerp
1915: Battle of Gallipoli
1916: Battle of the Ancre
1917: Actions of Miraumont
Battle of Arras
Second Battle of Passchendaele
Action of Welsh Ridge
1918: Battle of St. Quentin (First Battle of Bapaume)
Battle of Albert (1918)
Hundred Days Offensive

The 63rd (Royal Naval) Division was a United Kingdom infantry division which served during the First World War. It was originally formed as the Royal Naval Division at the outbreak of the war, from Royal Navy and Royal Marine reservists and volunteers, who were not needed for service at sea. The division fought at Antwerp in 1914 and at Gallipoli in 1915. In 1916, following many losses among the original naval volunteers, the division was transferred to the British Army as the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division, re-using the number from the disbanded second-line 63rd (2nd Northumbrian) Division Territorial Force. As an Army formation, it fought on the Western Front for the remainder of the war.


Advanced Base Force

Following the outbreak of war, a Marine Brigade of four infantry battalions was formed, from men of the Royal Marine Light Infantry and Royal Marine Artillery, as an Advanced Base Force, according to a pre-war plan to furnish the Admiralty with a means to take, fortify or defend temporary naval bases for fleet operations or the supply of army field forces. These included regular active-service Marines and those mobilised from the Fleet Reserve. Each battalion was drawn from one of the major naval depot ports—Chatham, Portsmouth, Plymouth and Deal—and was named accordingly.[1][2]

Royal Naval Division

On 16 August, Winston Churchill the First Lord of the Admiralty, decided to embody two more Naval brigades with surplus Naval Reservists, to join with the Marine Brigade to produce a composite Royal Naval Division. A few Petty officers and ratings were transferred from the Navy to provide a cadre and some officers were provided by the Army but most of the recruits were reservists or men who had volunteered on the outbreak of war. The eight battalions were named after naval commanders, Drake, Benbow, Hawke, Collingwood, Nelson, Howe, Hood and Anson, later being numbered from 1st–8th. The division was not provided with medical, artillery or engineer units, consisting solely of lightly-equipped infantry. Many of the trained men were then reclaimed for fleet service and recruits were taken over at the request of the War Office, from oversubscribed north country regiments. Training was slow, except for the Marine Brigade which had its own infrastructure, because resources were needed for the rapid expansion of the Army and naval ratings were not issued with field equipment or khaki uniforms, before being embarked for overseas service.[3] On 26 August, the Marine Brigade was sent to Ostend to reinforce the Belgian garrison, after German cavalry appeared in the area. The brigade returned on 1 September after the scare subsided and on 3 September, it was decided to train the two Naval Reservist brigades as infantry to form an infantry division with the Marine Brigade.[4] Rifles were drawn from Royal Navy stocks and only arrived at the end of September; these were older Charger-Loading Lee–Enfields rather than the more modern Short Magazine Lee–Enfields issued to the Army.[5]



Recruiting poster

Following early defeats in the German invasion of Belgium and cut off from the rest of the Allies by the German advance, the majority of the Belgian army fell back towards the fortified port of Antwerp, during late August 1914. Belgian troops were also withdrawn from ports along the Belgian coast. The Admiralty was concerned to deny the Germans submarine bases, for operations in the Channel. On 24 August, German cavalry patrols were reported near Ostend and it was decided to land a small naval detachment, to secure the town. Further south, the French armies and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) conducted the Retreat from Mons, with the German armies driving south-west after them, leaving very few units to guard lines of communication. The Admiralty planned to use the Channel ports as a base, to attack German land supply routes, with the Royal Marine Brigade as the basis of a landing force.[6]

The Deal Battalion was still forming, so the Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth battalions were sent to Flanders; two landing at Ostend on the early morning of 27 August and the other the next day. They were ordered to hold the town until Belgian troops who had retreated into France could be transferred and 4,000 Belgian troops arrived on 30 August.[6] The rapid Allied retreat led the War Office to decide that supplies would have to be brought through ports in western France, as the existing arrangements in the Pas de Calais, were too exposed. This would be more demanding on Navy escort ships, leaving the Navy with too few ships to support the force at Ostend. The Marines were re-embarked on 31 September and returned to their ports.[7]


The "Race to the Sea" in September–October 1914; the final position of the front-line is west of Ostend. Antwerp is marked by a circle on the right.

The division participated in the Siege of Antwerp. The Royal Marine Brigade arrived opposite Lier in requisitioned London buses on 4 October and occupied a position around the northern fringe of Lier, which turned out to be sections of a shallow trench between hedgerows, with one strand of wire in front.[8] The two British naval brigades arrived early on 6 October to reinforce the Marine Brigade but were diverted to forts 1–8 of the inner ring, where the trenches were again found to be shallow and the ground cleared for 500 yards (460 m) in front, which made them easily visible to German artillery observers.[9] On the night of 6/7 October intervening trenches between forts 2 and 7 were occupied by the two British naval brigades and the 4th and 7th Fortress regiments, with the Belgian 2nd Division and the Marine Brigade in reserve. The British forces under the command of Major-General Archibald Paris, were ordered by Winston Churchill to continue the defence for as long as possible and to be ready to cross to the west bank rather than participate in a surrender.[10]

The commanders decided to continue the defence of Antwerp with the garrison troops and move the Belgian 2nd Division and the British troops across the Scheldt; it was decided that if forts 1 and 2 were lost, the Royal Naval Division would withdraw at dusk. News arrived that the forts had fallen at 5:00 p.m. and orders were sent to the Belgian 2nd Division and the British to retire. The British began to withdraw at 7:00 p.m. but the orders failed to reach all of the 1st Naval Brigade, only one battalion of which withdrew. At 9:30 p.m. the mistake was realised as the rest of the division began to cross the river from 10:00–11:30 p.m. and moved west, parallel to the Dutch frontier. The 1st Naval Brigade reached the Scheldt at midnight, only to find that the bridges were being demolished and under a German shrapnel bombardment. The troops crossed using barges and boats and set out for a rendezvous at Zwijndrecht, which was reached at 4:00 a.m. on 9 October. The British moved on to Sint-Gillis-Waas, where information arrived that the Germans had cut the railway at Moerbeke. The British commander Commodore Henderson, decided to head for the Dutch border to the north and at 10:00 p.m. c. 1,500 men, half the original complement were interned and about forty stragglers managed to sneak along the border and escape.[11]



Map of Turkish forces at Gallipoli, April 1915: Bulair top right

The division was shipped to Egypt and fought at the Battle of Gallipoli at Anzac and Helles.[12] Casualties before the hostilities included officer and poet, Rupert Brooke, who died at sea on 23 April 1915.[13] The RND was one of two British divisions (the other being the Regular Army 29th Division) at the Gallipoli landings. Eleven troopships and Canopus, Dartmouth and Doris, two destroyers and trawlers rendezvoused off Bulair before dawn and the warships began a day-long bombardment just after daybreak. A destroyer made a close pass off the beach and later on, ships' boats were swung out from the troopships and lines eight cutters pulled by a trawler made as if to land. In the late afternoon men began to embark on the boats, which headed for the shore just before dark and returned after night fell. During the night Lieutenant-Commander B. C. Freyberg swam ashore and lit flares along the beach, crept inland and observed the Ottoman defences, which he found to be dummies and returned safely. Just after dawn the decoy force sailed south to join the main landings, coming ashore on 30 April.[14]

Western Front

Battle of the Ancre

Map of the Battle of the Somme, 1916

After the evacuation of Gallipoli, the RND moved to France where it participated in the final phase of the Battle of the Somme, advancing along the River Ancre to capture Beaucourt. The Division had four objectives during the Battle of Ancre. The first was to capture the "Dotted Green Line", the name given to the front line of the German trench complex. The second objective, the so-called "Green Line", was the road to Beaucourt station. The road ran along a ridge which had been fortified by the Germans. The third objective was a trench which lay beyond the road, around the remains of Beaucourt on its south-west edge, and was named the "Yellow Line". The final objective, the "Red Line", was beyond Beaucourt. Here the Division was to consolidate and solidify the gains made during the battle.[15]

The plan was for the battalions to leap-frog each other towards the final objective. Battalions 1st RMLI, Howe, Hawke and Hood were assigned the "Dotted Green Line" and the "Yellow Line", while battalions 2nd RMLI, Anson, Nelson and Drake were assigned the "Green Line" and the "Red Line". When the battle began in the early hours of the 13th of November, specific platoons from 1 RMLI crawled across no-man's land towards the German line.[16] During this battle, the tactic of the rolling barrage was employed. However, despite the additional cover, significant casualties were sustained in no-man's land during the assault, with estimates of 50% of casualties occurring there before the first German trench had been captured.[16] German artillery fire, coupled with machine gun fire, was so effective that all company commanding officers within 1 RMLI were killed before reaching the first objective.[17]

Due to intense shelling prior to the assault, the German trenches had been severely damaged. As a result, the men became increasingly disoriented, meaning that the initial tactic of leap frogging could not be employed. Lieutenant Colonel Bernard Freyberg quickly realized this and did not wait for Drake battalion as planned. After leading Hood battalion to the "Green Line", he pressed forward with the remaining men of Drake battalion. The station road served as a useful landmark and allowed the commander to orient himself and re-organize the attack. The expected bombardment began at the pre-arranged time of 0730 hours, allowing Freyberg to advance towards the "Yellow Line" at Beaucourt Station.[18]

Meanwhile, Battalions Nelson, Hawke and Howe suffered heavy casualties. Two of the three commanding officers from these battalions were among the early casualties: Lieutenant Colonel Burge of Nelson Battalion was killed whilst attacking a well-fortified section of the "Dotted Green Line" and Lieutenant Colonel Wilson was severely wounded leading an attack on the same target. Another commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Saunders, was also killed early in the battle but his battalion, Anson, was more successful, managing to capture the "Green Line". Anson Battalion was then able to advance to the "Yellow Line" after making contact with the 51st Highland Division to its left.[19] By 22:30 hours, Beaucourt had officially been captured.[18]

On 17 October 1916, just prior to the fighting on the Ancre, Major General Archibald Paris was wounded and replaced by Major General Cameron Shute. Shute had an intense dislike for the unconventional "nautical" traditions of the division and made numerous unpopular attempts to stamp them out.[20] Following a particularly critical inspection of the trenches by General Shute, an officer of the division, Sub-Lieutenant A. P. Herbert, later to become a famous humorous writer, legal satirist and Member of Parliament, penned a popular poem that summed up the feelings of the men of the RND

"... that shit Shute"

The General inspecting the trenches

Exclaimed with a horrified shout
"I refuse to command a division
Which leaves its excreta about".

But nobody took any notice
No one was prepared to refute,
That the presence of shit was congenial
Compared to the presence of Shute.

And certain responsible critics
Made haste to reply to his words
Observing that his staff advisors
Consisted entirely of turds.

For shit may be shot at odd corners
And paper supplied there to suit,
But a shit would be shot without mourners
If somebody shot that shit Shute.[21]

and in 2003, Corrigan wrote that Shute was entirely right to criticise the neglect of hygiene and the cleaning of weapons, which led in January 1918, to the 2nd Ox and Bucks Light Infantry severely censuring the Nelson Battalion for dirtiness and the leaving of food around, attracting rats.[22]

Actions of Miraumont

On the north bank of the Ancre, the 63rd Division attacked on 17 February with the 188th Brigade and two battalions of the 189th Brigade, to capture 700 yards (640 m) of the road north from Baillescourt Farm towards Puisieux, to gain observation over Miraumont and form a defensive flank on the left, back to the existing front line. Two battalions attacked with a third battalion ready on the right flank, to reinforce them or to co-operate with the 18th Division between the Ancre and the Miraumont road. On the northern flank two infantry companies, engineers and pioneers were placed to establish the defensive flank on the left. The divisional artillery and an army field brigade with 54 × 18-pdr field guns and 18 × 4.5-inch howitzers provided fire support, with three field batteries from the 62nd Division further north, to place a protective barrage along the northern flank. The darkness, fog and mud were as bad as on the south bank but the German defence was far less effective. The creeping barrage moved at 100 yards (91 m) in four minutes, slower than the rate on the south bank and the Germans in a small number of strong-points were quickly overcome. The objective was reached by 6:40 a.m. and the defensive flank established, a final German strong-point being captured at 10:50 a.m. No German counter-attack was made until the next day, which was stopped by artillery-fire. The 63rd Division lost 549 casualties and the three attacking divisions took 599 prisoners.[23]

Second Battle of Passchendaele

Allied advances, 22 October – 6 November

The Division arrived at Ypres just before the Second Battle of Passchendaele (26 October – 10 November).[24] On 26 October, Immediately to the north of the Canadian Corps, the supporting attack by XVIII Corps involved one brigade each from the 63rd and 58th divisions. The 188th Brigade, of the 63rd Division quickly captured Varlet Farm and Banff House. The centre of the attack was held up on the road between Bray Farm and the village of Wallemolen and the troops dug-in near Source Trench. As dark fell, Banff House was abandoned and the line reformed at Berks House, leaving Banff House and Source Trench the only part of the first objective not occupied.[25] On 30 October, the 63rd Division infantry were caught by German artillery fire at their jumping-off line, made only slight progress in deep mud against German machine-gun fire and were unable to reach their rendezvous with the Canadians leaving their troops at Source Farm and Vapour Farm in precarious positions.[26] Two companies later advanced through the Canadian sector to capture Source Trench but were only able to reinforce the Canadian outpost at Source Farm, then form a defensive flank to Vapour Farm. The 63rd Division had 3,126 casualties from 26–31 October.[27] The division was able to close up to the Paddebeek, by attacking at night from 1/2–4/5 November, a method which took more ground than its attacks in October, for a loss of 14 killed and 148 wounded.[28]

Orders of battle



  • 1914 – October 1916 Major-General A. Paris
  • 1916 Major-General C. Shute
  • February 1917 – 1918 Major-General C. E. Lawrie
  • August 1918 – 1919 (disbandment) Major-General C. A. Blacklock

See also


  1. Jerrold 1923, pp. 2–3.
  2. Corbett 1920, pp. 168–177.
  3. Jerrold 1923, pp. 6–7, 9.
  4. Jerrold 1923, p. 3.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Baker 1996.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Corbett 1920, pp. 94–98.
  7. Corbett 1920, pp. 121–124.
  8. Edmonds 1925, pp. 42–43.
  9. Edmonds 1925, pp. 44–45.
  10. Edmonds 1925, pp. 46–48.
  11. Edmonds 1925, pp. 56–61.
  12. Jerrold 1923, pp. 58–71, 72–168.
  13. Jerrold 1923, pp. 70, 78.
  14. Aspinall-Oglander 1929, pp. 163–165.
  15. Thompson 2001, p. 148.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Thompson 2001, pp. 149–151
  17. Jerrold 1923, pp. 196–197.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Hart 2005, pp. 511–517
  19. Jerrold 1923, pp. 194–195.
  20. Jerrold 1923, pp. 185–187.
  21. Gilbert 2006, p. 218.
  22. Corrigan 2003, pp. 87–88.
  23. Falls 1940, pp. 81–82.
  24. Thompson 2001, pp. 159–163.
  25. McCarthy 1995, pp. 128–129.
  26. Nicholson 1962, p. 323.
  27. Jerrold 1923, p. 258.
  28. Jerrold 1923, p. 263.
  29. Jerrold 1923, pp. 6–7.


  • Aspinall-Oglander, C. F. (1929). Military Operations Gallipoli: Inception of the Campaign to May 1915. History of the Great War Based on Official Documents by Direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence. I (1st ed.). London: Heinemann. OCLC 464479053.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Corbett, J. S. (2009) [1938]. Naval Operations. History of the Great War based on Official Documents. I (2nd repr. Imperial War Museum and Naval & Military Press ed.). London: Longmans, Green. ISBN 1-84342-489-4. Retrieved 27 December 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Corbett, J. S. (1929) [1921]. Naval Operations. History of the Great War based on Official Documents. II (2nd ed.). London: Longmans, Green. OCLC 220474040. Retrieved 27 December 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Corbett, J. S. (1940) [1923]. Naval Operations. History of the Great War based on Official Documents. III (2nd ed.). London: Longmans, Green. OCLC 867968279. Retrieved 27 December 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Corrigan, G. (2003). Mud, Blood and Poppycock. London: Cassell. ISBN 0-30435-955-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Edmonds, J. E. (1925). Military Operations France and Belgium, 1914: Antwerp, La Bassée, Armentières, Messines and Ypres October–November 1914. History of the Great War Based on Official Documents by Direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence. II (1st ed.). London: Macmillan. OCLC 220044986.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Falls, C. (1992) [1940]. Military Operations France and Belgium 1917: The German Retreat to the Hindenburg Line and the Battles of Arras. History of the Great War Based on Official Documents by Direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence. I (Imperial War Museum and Battery Press ed.). London: HMSO. ISBN 0-89839-180-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Gilbert, M. (2006). The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War. New York: Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 0-80508-127-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Hart, P. (2005). "The Last Shake on the Ancre". The Somme. Cassell Military Paperbacks. London: Cassell. ISBN 0-30436-735-4.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Jerrold, D. (2009) [1923]. The Royal Naval Division (Imperial War Museum and N & M Press ed.). London: Hutchinson. ISBN 1-84342-261-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • McCarthy, C. (1995). The Third Ypres: Passchendaele, the Day-By-Day Account. London: Arms & Armour Press. ISBN 1-85409-217-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Nicholson, G. W. L. (1962). Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914–1919 (PDF). Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War. Ottawa: Queen's Printer and Controller of Stationary. OCLC 59609928. Retrieved 23 March 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Thompson, J. (2001). The Royal Marines, From Sea Soldiers to a Special Force. London: Pan Books. ISBN 0-33037-702-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Baker, C. (1996–2010). "The 63rd (Royal Naval) Division in 1914–1918". The Long Long Trail: The British Army in the Great War of 1914–1918. Chris Baker/Milverton Associates. Retrieved 2 January 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Caesar, A. (2004). "Brooke, Rupert Chawner (1887–1915)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online, May 2008 ed.). London: Oxford University Press. OCLC 186625821.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Foster, Rev. H. C. (1918). At Antwerp and the Dardanelles. London: Mills & Boon. OCLC 32790523.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Sparrow, G.; McBean Ross, J. N. (1918). On Four Fronts with the Royal Naval Division (PDF). London: Hodder & Stoughton. Retrieved 3 January 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links