Nelson at war, 1914-19: the History of the Nelson Battalion of the Royal Naval Division

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Nelson at war, 1914-19: the History of the Nelson Battalion of the Royal Naval Division, by Roy Swalea. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword, 2019 (GBP 14,99; USD 29,95).

Reviewed by  John Johnston

When war broke out in the late summer of 1914, the Royal Navy hastily raised a division’s worth of men, most of them stokers from the fleet reserve, to serve ashore as infantry soldiers. The organisation of the division into two naval brigades and a Royal Marine Light Infantry brigade, with four battalions in each, suggests that the intention was to create a force to guard the English coast against a German invasion, the fear of which had been a constant theme in military and naval writings for much of the previous quarter of a century. However, the RND had scarcely had time to muster before it was sent to reinforce the Belgian defence at Antwerp, a debacle in which it lost more than a third of its original strength.

The losses were made good with volunteers enlisted from civilian life as part of Kitchener’s New Army recruitment drive, but the RMLI and RM Artillery did not have the resources, capacity, or capability to provide more than minimal training for the new intakes of the sailors and marines who would deploy with the RND to Gallipoli. Dependant on a small cadre of RN gunnery and RMLI officers and senior rates for leadership and understanding of infantry operations and tactics, the ill-trained and inexperienced battalions of the RND that fought their way up the ravines of Cape Helles won the respect of those alongside them and, relative to their numbers, suffered disproportionately heavy casualty rates in the campaign.

After the withdrawal from Gallipoli, the RND recuperated as a garrison force in the Greek islands before deploying to France. Realising that it could not raise, equip, and maintain an infantry division as well as a fleet, the admiralty transferred command of the RND to the army but kept the officers and ratings on the RN strength. Now known as 63 (RN) Division, the RND became part of the army, and army officers replaced RN officers as commanders of the division, the brigades, and battalions. Reorganised, retrained, and reequipped, the battalions of 63 (RN) Division distinguished themselves in the battles of the Somme, Arras, and Ypres, becoming outwardly indistinguishable from other infantry divisions, but inwardly having a distinctly naval culture that made their relations with higher command more akin to those of battalions from the divisions of the dominion forces than to those of battalions from British army divisions.  

As the war continued, the battalions were increasingly filled with army personnel attracted by the higher rates of naval pay or simply reassigned to make good losses sustained in fighting at Gavrelle, Passchendaele, and Flesquières. As the war continued, replacing casualties became more and more difficult and in the winter of 1917-18, the two weaker battalions, Nelson and Howe, were broken up to reinforce the stronger battalions, Drake, Hood, Anson, and Hawke. With peace, the division was disbanded: memories of an organisationally unhappy episode ensured that an RND would be not be raised in the Second World War or afterwards and that the original RND would pass into memory as one of ‘Churchill’s follies.’ 

Yet, with naval personnel increasingly serving in operations ashore in joint operations and with defence planners examining how army personnel can be used as force protection elements aboard ships, the lessons of the RND need reassessing to understand how personnel from one service can be deployed effectively as formed bodies within another service. Sadly, however, while the campaigns in which it fought have been explored in detail, almost the only aspect of the RND and its battalions to have received close attention is the trial and execution of Sub Lieutenant Edwin Dyett for desertion.

With this book – a history of the Nelson Battalion, in which his father served at Gallipoli – Roy Swales has gone some way to fill that knowledge gap.  He points, for instance, to the inherent inadequacies of Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve officers as company and platoon commanders and to the over-reliance on a cadre of Royal Marine officers as battalion commanders at Antwerp and Gallipoli. Placing the Dyett affair in a wider context, Swales exposes the consequences of pulling more competent and able officers and senior rates away for service with the fleet, the Royal Naval Air Service, or the Royal Naval Armoured Car Squadrons and the discontent which arose from the disdain with which the divisional commander, Cameron Shute, treated the battalion’s sense of identity as a naval unit. More fundamentally, replacements for the massive casualties which the Nelson Battalion suffered in the battles of 1916 and 1917 diluted its peculiar character and careful handling by an experienced army commander was needed to transform it into an organisation that was effective not only at the tactical level but also at the operational.

The case study of organisational evolution which Swales presents will benefit management consultants as much as military officers, but the book is an enthralling story that will attract the general reader through the clarity with which it is written and for the maps which bring out the tactical importance of the inhabited landscape of roads, buildings, or cemeteries as well as that of the terrain and physical features of the landscape. Others who will turn to this book are genealogists, for whom the rolls of honour and the nominal rolls which appear in each chapter of the book and the short biographies of almost every person mentioned in the text will be a boon, particularly with the loss of many service records from the First World War in the London Blitz and with records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission often not including those who died after November 1919 of wounds they had suffered before November 1918. Finally, researchers will find the range of source material which Swales has used and cited from histories and memoirs published in the 1920s, official and private papers, transcripts and recordings of interviews invaluable for studying the battlefields of the Middle East and the Western Front. 

Roy Swales may have written the book out of curiosity and as an act of filial piety, but the result is a compendium of information on an otherwise overlooked aspect of the First World War: BZ to Pen and Sword for reissuing this important work a decade and a half after it was first published.

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