-History of H.M.S. Hood-
The Royal Naval Division 1914-19 and Its Hood Battalion
Lieutenant Commander Alex Manning Royal Navy (Rtd)
Updated 10-Dec-2018

Many thanks to Lieutenant Commander Alex Manning Royal Navy (Rtd) for providing this excellent brief history of the World War One Royal Naval Division and its 'Hood' Battalion.

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The First World War, as we all know, was the biggest war this country was ever involved in up to that time. Nearly 9 million people were mobilised from Britain and her Empire for the fighting services and their support, 5.4 million from Great Britain and Ireland alone, of whom some ¾ of a million were killed. The Royal Navy and Royal Marines total killed was less than 4½% of that, only some 33,000 (“only some 33,000”!), but over 11,000 of those were actually killed on land, not at sea, serving in the Royal Naval Division, a formation that, although it comprised only 5% of the Naval Service’s total manpower, actually accounted for over 1/3rd of its dead and well over 40% of its casualties overall. For a number of reasons however, the contribution, indeed the very existence, of the RND has tended, sadly, to be understated to the extent that very few people today know it even existed - something that, as far as you readers of the H.M.S. Hood Association website at are concerned at least, I’ll strive to put right! So what was the Royal Naval Division? Where did it come from, what did it consist of and what did it do?

Its foundations were actually laid well before the First World War began, when plans were made to create a mobile force to seize, fortify and protect temporary forward naval bases wherever they might be required. This force, to be called “The Advanced Base Force” was originally to be composed solely of Royal Marines. On the outbreak of war in August 1914 it was duly formed and placed under Admiralty control.

On mobilisation however, the strength of the Navy’s reserves resulted in a surplus of manpower well above that required to man the Fleet. It was therefore decided by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, to use that surplus to expand the Advanced Base Force with 2 brigades of the recalled reservists. The naval battalions were named after famous admirals and by early September 1914 the composition of what was already being called “The Royal Naval Division” was as follows:

1st RN Brigade   2nd RN Brigade   3rd RN Brigade (RM)
1st (Drake) Battalion   5th (Nelson) Battalion   9th (Portsmouth) Battalion RMLI (RM Light Infantry)
2nd (Hawke) Battalion   6th (Howe) Battalion   10th (Plymouth) Battalion RMLI
3rd (Benbow) Battalion   7th (Hood) Battalion   11th (Chatham) Battalion RMLI
4th (Collingwood) Battalion   8th (Anson) Battalion   12th (Deal) Battalion RMLI

Its unique character and naval traditions were still fully maintained, especially when it came under Army command on the Western Front in 1916!

It fought with distinction at Antwerp, Gallipoli and on the Somme and would go on to fight at Ypres, help halt the great German offensive of 1918 and be part of the Allied counter-offensive that finally led to victory. And while all its battalions fought with distinction it will be interest of Association readers to know that the Hood Battalion particularly distinguished itself at Gallipoli in 1915, on the Somme and at Arras in 1917 and also at the 3rd battle of Ypres, the infamous Battle of Passchendaele.

At Gallipoli the RND’s role in the initial landings on the 25th of April 1915 was to stage a diversion around the corner in the Gulf of Saros, off Bulair, while the main landings were made further south at Cape Helles and at Anzac Cove 12 miles further up the coast, with the French also landing across the straits at Kum Kale. The RND actually did its bit without landing. Instead, heavily greased against the cold and having been rowed close inshore at night in a ship’s boat, Lieutenant Commander Bernard Freyberg of the Hood Battalion, a Surrey-born New Zealander and Olympic-standard swimmer, swam in alone with a waterproof bag of flares and then ran along the beach placing them, setting them off and sprinting out of each one’s glare as he did so, after which he swam back out to be picked up (no mean feat, I’m sure we’ll all agree) while machine guns from small boats and warships’ larger guns opened up on his markers. This, and the continuing bombardment next day, made the Turks’ commander, the very good German General Liman von Sanders, keep 2 of his divisions up there until he realised no-one was actually coming ashore. Freyberg got a DSO for what he did and he’d also win a VC on the Somme the following year, command the New Zealand Corps in World War 2 and become New Zealand’s Governor-General after it.

The Division was at Gallipoli from the first day to the last, when it formed part of the rearguard covering the final withdrawal in January 1916. It suffered grievously throughout, both from battle casualties and disease rife in the trenches, especially dysentery and its casualties were such that by July it had to reorganise into a 2-brigade division, with the Collingwood and Benbow Battalions disbanded and their remaining manpower used to top up the other naval battalions and the 4 Royal Marine battalions merged to become the 1st and 2nd Battalions RMLI.

After Gallipoli there were calls for the Division to be disbanded and its men transferred to the Army and it took a great deal of lobbying by many influential people, and the Naval Staff itself, now understandably proud of the RND’s achievements, to save it, which they did. For operational purposes, however, the Division was to be assigned to the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium and France, coming under the Army Act but still remaining an entirely separate organisation for recruiting, training, pay and promotions, its RN and RM elements continuing to be paid for by the Admiralty (which actually also paid better than the Army!).

The Division arrived in France from the Mediterranean in mid-May and almost straight away went to war, not yet with the Germans but with its new foster parent, the Army! While the RND’s arrival and addition to the BEF’s Order of Battle was generally welcomed, there was also a strong faction positively hostile to this “iffy hybrid” and its naval ways that was having none of it! Having tried, and failed, to disband it or have it transferred completely to the Army they now tried to make it conform to the standard Army divisional model in the name of uniformity and efficiency, removing that which made it un-necessarily different and in their view too much of a law unto itself. Its members were not “proper” soldiers, they held, and by 1916 not even proper sailors either, so the RND, by definition, had to be inferior to an army division, did it not? - apart from the marines they didn’t even salute the “right” way, for goodness sake! But the Division itself was having none of it.

The white ensign was flown and displayed wherever possible and naval language called into play as a matter of course! The cookhouse was the “galley”, leaving billets and base “going ashore” and coming back late “being adrift”. Floors and the ground itself were “decks”, walls “bulkheads”, ceilings “deckheads”, toilets “the heads” and so on. In the naval battalions the Officers’ Mess was the Wardroom and the senior NCO the “Coxwain”, not the Regimental Sergeant Major - and of course “up spirits”, the daily rum tot issued regardless of whether you were going over the top or not, was sacrosanct! And in response to, and to the fury of, its critics it also now insisted, on the point of principle involved, on exercising naval right of precedence at all formal occasions at which it was present!

The only concessions made were purely practical ones, such as resolving the problem rank recognition and equivalence (something I think confuses the other 2 services to this day!). The officers of the RND had worn equivalent army rank on their shoulders in addition to the naval rank on their cuffs more or less from the start, and the ratings too now wore dual rank - their naval rank on their left sleeves as normal and its army equivalent on the right - a leading hand, for example, wore a corporal’s 2 stripes and a petty officer a sergeant’s 3. Senior Chief Petty Officers took on the roles of company sergeants major, wearing a crown on the right cuff in the manner of an army Warrant Officer Class 2, for which there was no equivalent in the Navy of that time.

Compared to a full-strength 3-Brigade division, however, the still 2-brigade RND was under-manned and needed to be brought up to strength. The original plan had been to create the required 3rd brigade in-house, with the required extra battalions raised via the Division’s depots but they were at full stretch just providing replacements for the existing battalions and simply couldn’t do it. It was therefore agreed that the additional brigade would now come, as it had to, from the Army - and to facilitate this it was also agreed that the Division’s 2 existing brigades would be renumbered in army terms. They therefore became the 188th and 189th Brigades and the 3rd brigade, which would comprise the 1st Honourable Artillery Company (serving as infantry), 4th Bedfords, 7th Royal Fusiliers and 10th Dublin Fusiliers, would be the 190th. This brigade, plus machine-gun companies, divisional artillery, engineer, transport, medical and all the other support units required, would then bring the Division up to full Western Front operational strength.

But there was a price to pay for this that not even the Admiralty could overcome! Justifying it on the grounds that, as the Division was now no longer purely naval and that its singular title “Royal Naval Division” no longer reflected its actual composition, the Army High Command insisted, in the name of accuracy and military conformity, that it now be changed. In mid-July therefore, the Royal Naval Division officially, but very reluctantly, became the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division and shortly afterwards was sent to join the 5th Army on the Somme, where that battle was still going on. The Division, however, continued assert its “difference” with vengeance, including a rash of beard-growing just to make the point!

By November 1916 it was preparing to take part in the final set-piece battle of the Somme campaign, known afterwards as the Battle of the Ancre. The River Ancre, in the northern sector of the battlefield is a tributary of the Somme whose valley contained several strongly-fortified villages and other strongpoints. The RND’s task was to assault up that valley and capture the village of Beaucourt, an immensely strong position manned by crack German troops who had resisted all previous attacks.

The assault began at 05.45 on the 13th November. Slogging up the river valley, the Hood and Hawke Battalions, leading the advance, soon ran into trouble. The initial creeping barrage had failed to clear the way and there remained a number of hidden strongpoints and machine-gun nests. The attack was nevertheless pressed through over the next 2 days with great courage and loss and, much to its critics’ surprise (and subsequent silence), the Division captured all its objectives, including Beaucourt itself, which was taken at 07.45 on the morning of the 14th. The outstanding leadership and personal courage the now Commander Bernard Freyberg, whom we met earlier at Gallipoli and who was now CO of the Hood Battalion, was a major factor in this success and he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

This was the RND’s finest hour. In just one day it had advanced further and taken more prisoners (including 2 major generals) than any division in the British Army had since the start of the war - but at a cost of 100 officers and 1,600 men killed and 160 officers and 2,877 men wounded. The shattered division was withdrawn after the battle and rebuilding it took to the end of January.

On the strength of its excellent performance on the Somme, the Division was next assigned a vital role in the forthcoming Battle of Arras to the north, the aim of which was to take the high ground of Vimy Ridge and the 3 lines of German defences running from it across the Douai Plain. The battle began on the 9thApril, Easter Monday and with the 1st 2 lines taken by the 14th the next stage was to take the 3rdline. The RND’s specific task was to take the heavily fortified village of Gavrelle, 8 miles NE of Arras and a key part of that 3rd line. In a fast-moving assault that began before dawn on 23rd April the trenches immediately in front of the village were quickly taken, followed by the village itself in an intense house-to-house battle that secured the immediate area to the east, north and south. This success was largely due to the outstanding leadership of 2 battalion commanders: Commanders Asquith, previously the 2 i/c under Freyberg and now commanding Hood after Freyberg had been promoted, and Sterndale-Bennett of Drake (at 23 the youngest battalion commander on the Western Front).

Both were recommended for the VC but were awarded DSOs - and this has always been thought to have had a political dimension; Asquith, as a son of the former Prime Minister, couldn’t be suspected of having been “favoured” and, if he couldn’t have a VC, nor could Sterndale-Bennett for his equal acts of bravery. Later in the week however, 2 members of the HAC Bn, Lts Pollard and Haine, did win VCs during further intense fighting as the Division first beat off the German counter-attacks and then applied itself to the enemy trenches and strongpoints beyond the village to the north and east. The price paid by the Division for its success and further enhanced reputation was again very high, however - by the time it was relieved on the night of the 29th April it had lost over 1000 more killed and near 3000 wounded.

Gavrelle, specifically, saw the highest number of Royal Marine casualties in a single day in the history of the Corps - 846 killed, wounded or missing on 28 April. The 1st RM Battalion was effectively wiped out when it charged the German trenches north of the village, found the barbed wire still intact, moved to its left and was enfiladed into the bargain by a still functioning strongpoint to its right. The 2nd Battalion, too, suffered almost as badly in the fighting to take and hold the fortified windmill position just outside the village to the NE.

After resting and refitting the Division then went north to the Ypres Salient to be available in October and November for the last stages of the 3rd Battle of Ypres, the infamous Battle of Passchendaele. The RND joined the line below Poelkapelle at the end of October, alongside the Canadians and WNW of Passchendaele village itself, where it found the continuous shelling of the months before had totally destroyed the land’s drainage system and the continuous heavy rain had turned it into a featureless desert of water and mud. It was across this quagmire that the Division was tasked with advancing to capture concrete-reinforced strongpoints and farm buildings and such success as there was was only achieved, once again, by almost superhuman efforts by the men and inspiring leadership by the officers. More than 1,000 more RND men died and another 2,000 were wounded. The butcher’s bill for the Battle of Passchendaele overall was 350,000 casualties - 35 men killed or wounded for every yard of ground gained.

To rest, the RND was sent to Welsh Ridge, a projection into the Hindenburg Line captured in the earlier Battle of Cambrai. Unfortunately, the Germans decided to attack there in strength at the end of the year and a major counter-attack by the Division was required to evict them, costing another 1,400 killed and wounded. As a result of the decision to reduce the BEF’s brigades from 4 to 3 battalions the Nelson and Howe Battalions were disbanded at the end of January 1918 and used to top up the others.

The Division then returned to the now quiet Somme sector and dug in to await the expected German spring offensive. When it came, in March 1918, it triggered a fighting retreat across the whole of the old Somme battlefield. The RND was in continuous action for 24 days but, by its firm discipline, dogged resistance and refusal to panic it, and the other units that retained their cohesion, helped save the situation. Another 6,000 men became casualties however, including 4 battalion commanders killed, one of whom, Lt Col Collings-Wells of the 4th Bedfords, was awarded a posthumous VC. And as a result of their casualties the 2 RM battalions had to be merged into 1, just that 1 RM battalion remaining in the Division for the rest of the war.

After another rest they were again in action at the forefront of the advance to victory in the last 100 days of the War, when the Hindenburg Line was finally breached and the Germans driven back from one position after another. 2 more VCs were won at this time by CPO Prowse and Commander Beak of Drake Battalion, but these last 3 months of the War cost the Division another 900 dead and 5,500 wounded. But when the Armistice came on 11 November the RND, despite its by then seriously depleted state, was still in a spearhead position north of Mons, indeed its Hawke Battalion actually the nearest element of the BEF to the soil of Germany. There was great disappointment, indeed a feeling of its being cheated of its due, when the Division was then told it wouldn’t be part of the occupying force in the Rhineland. Inter-service politics maybe had a hand in that, but the compensation was that demobilisation would begin almost immediately, from early December.

The Royal Naval Division finally formally disbanded on Horse Guards Parade on the 6 June 1919, the Prince of Wales taking the salute but the Division itself reduced by then to just the Hood, Hawke, Anson and Drake Battalions, the rest having been either demobilised or sent elsewhere. Its members had won 8 VCs and nearly 1,000 other bravery awards, plus more still when foreign decorations are included. Not a bad effort, then, by something that had begun its life composed in the main of recalled reservist sailors, stokers and marines and whose establishment on the ground at any one time was never more than 18,000. Given that it was such an elite force, it may be surprising, and certainly not right, that its very existence, let alone its achievements, are so comparatively unknown to so many today, but the reasons for this aren’t hard to find.

After the war the Army, understandably, had no wish to play up the significant role of a largely non-Army formation in its midst, while the Navy itself wasn’t keen either to divert attention from the focus on its primary role at sea. The Admiralty’s inclination was indeed to play down the fact that a very large proportion of its Service’s casualties had been incurred on land – as mentioned at the start, over 40% of its entire wartime total. 11,379 were killed and 30,892 wounded. The total figures would be even higher if those for 190 Brigade and the non-naval divisional support units were included. The cost was indeed high.

Royal Naval Division Memorial at Gavrelle, France
Royal Naval Division Memorial at Gavrelle, France.