A visitor to some of the many Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries in northern France might be surprised to find that there are a significant number of headstones which have the Royal Naval anchor inscribed upon them. In addition to sailors they will also find Royal Marines buried alongside. This is not an anomaly, for not only are there hundreds of such headstones scattered across a number of cemeteries, the Arras Memorial to the Forgotten which lists the names of those who have no graves, has no less than 692 of those belonging to the men of the Royal Naval Division.
However, the involvement of Sailors and Marines on the Western Front, fighting in the trenches alongside their Army counterparts, is something that is hardly known, and it was at Arras that the original membership of that unique fighting organisation was virtually brought to an end.
There were certainly any number of Scots who volunteered for the Royal Naval Division (RND) – one of the enlistment depots was on the Clyde and the records of dozens of the names on the Arras Memorial show the men came from Dundee, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Falkirk and Edinburgh. But they were also drawn from across the UK and perhaps it is this broader composition that has rendered them less noticeable.
In 1914 all of HM Ships were fully manned and there was still a surplus of several thousand men. Some would have been experienced sailors but the majority were Naval Reservists, men who had volunteered to serve but had no fighting experience. The Admiralty decided to form them into an armed body, bolstered by a brigade of Royal Marines and sent them to Antwerp, poorly equipped and barely trained.
By 1917 however all that had changed. Those with experience of ships had been moved out to the Fleet, now in need of manpower following the Battle of Jutland the previous year. The remainder were battle-hardened, having survived the landings at Gallipoli and even the latter stages of the Somme. They had been transferred to the control of the War Office but despite several attempts to strip away their naval heritage, they still used naval jargon and ranks.
On 9th April, as the Battle of Arras began, the various units of the Naval Division had been allocated to support other units rather than fight as a single body and so, for example, the Divisional Artillery supported the Canadian Corps in their successful assault on Vimy Ridge. But as the offensive faltered over the next few days, the RND was reformed and sent to relieve some of the exhausted troops on what was the new front line.
The village of Gavrelle is only some three miles to the east of Arras and had sat behind the German lines for most of the war. But the push of the first few days had redrawn the Front and now this village of less than 400 people was contested ground. On 23rd April the RND were given the task of capturing the village and things started well with the men of Nelson and Drake battalions seizing their first objectives within 10 minutes. Even the men of Hood battalion were saved by the experience of their new commanding officer, Commander Arthur Asquith (son of the former Prime Minister) who disobeyed standing orders and had them advance early, before the enemy artillery could descend on their trenches.
Once in the village however fighting from house to house began to take its toll, as recounted by Leading Seaman Joseph Murray: “When we got into the village it was different. Jerries were in the cellars and we were in the open, and by then it was quite light so we were perfect targets. There were bricks flying about, rifle and machine-gun fire. You couldn’t keep in any formation. Sometimes you got under a half blown-down house and other times you got over the top.” However they did succeed in fighting through the village and arrived at the Mayor’s House on the outskirts, where Murray was wounded.
“Just before I got to the Mayor’s house I was fooling around trying to get over an old door of a house. As I stood on the damned thing I slipped forward. As I went forward I saw a rifle from a cellar, but could only see the barrel. I saw it move. Instinctively I turned quickly to the left and fired. I had a revolver. I didn’t need to see the smoke from his rifle to know that I had been hit. My hand was in my pocket and the bullet went through my wrist. I couldn’t get my hand out of my pocket.”
Helped out of Gavrelle by a German prisoner, Murray had to walk back to the aid post in Arras. It wasn’t his first time wounded either, he’d been evacuated from the Somme with frostbitten toes, but this time his service in the RND was finished.
The value of the village to the Germans was demonstrated by their determined counter-attack the following day but it was repulsed and by the end of the day on 24 April the new front line that would remain unchanged for more than a year was established. The battle so far had cost the Naval Division 1500 casualties but they would lose the same again with the next phase a few days later as they tried to capture the ground to the north.
It was on the morning of 28 April that the Royal Marines suffered their greatest single loss in one day. As 1st Battalion Royal Marines Light Infantry attempted to advance towards their objective north of the village they found the artillery bombardment of the previous few hours had failed to cut the barbed wire deployed by the Germans except in one place. The new crossing point meant that they passed abreast of strongly held machine gun position at the corner of two trenches which made them an easy target. All contact was lost, with only a few survivors making it back to the safety of British lines as the day progressed. Amongst those killed was 17 year old Lieutenant Edgar Lovell Platts, possibly the youngest officer to be killed on the Western Front. Joining up at just 15 (having lied about his age) he was commissioned within a year. Leading men far older than himself he was wounded twice and was due to have been promoted to Captain after Gavrelle.
Meanwhile the 2nd Battalion Royal Marines Light Infantry set about capturing the strategically important windmill on the high ground above the village, but the German counter-attack meant that although the windmill remained in British hands the ground around it became a seething battleground. Able Seaman William Downe was part of Anson Battalion who were following the marines but quickly found themselves out on a limb and coming under intense bombardment. “A terrific crash came from a few yards to our rear, and as I looked over my shoulder I saw two men without heads. Another shell fell nearer, and Tommy Galbraith and I thudded together and whirled over on our backs.” By nightfall it was realised that the ridge could not be held against the overwhelming strength of the enemy and a withdrawal was ordered from all positions apart from the windmill, still held by 40 determined marines. Unfortunately the Anson Battalion did not receive the order and come daybreak they found themselves completely isolated.
Downe found himself squeezing into a drainage tunnel, his equipment tied around his ankles, along with the rest of his colleagues as they attempted to make their way back to the safety of their own lines. “My shoulders were not over-wide but I just got in; my arms, bent at the elbows, were squeezed tightly, so that it was impossible to push them over my head. I could only make progress with the movements of my legs, and progress was slow.” It didn’t take long before he encountered a new problem. “Exertion left me breathless, and with the air almost blocked at both ends and sweat pouring into my eyes, which I could not wipe, my head began to whirl. I was suddenly alarmed, my foot held tightly to something. I tugged, it was the leg with the equipment attached. Something was caught, my bayonet scabbard seemingly, in a broken joint of the pipe.”
He eventually freed himself and made it to safety, but this illustrates one of the many ordeals they faced beyond shells and rifle fire. 850 men of the Royal Marines became casualties that day, almost half of them killed. Since taking over the lines two weeks previously the Royal Naval Division had sustained 3794 casualties, more than a thousand had lost their lives. Virtually all of the original members of the RND had now been killed off and it was rebuilt with men who would go on to further battles at Passchendaele and beyond.
Like so much of this area of France, Gavrelle today shows little of the turmoil it endured during both World Wars, but the many cemeteries dotted around are the lasting testimony to the men who fought and died there.