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Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve badge

The Royal Naval Division
The Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve

The Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve was formed under the Naval Forces Act of 1903.

RNVR units were established as Divisions in London, The Clyde, Sussex, Bristol, Edinburgh and Tynside.

The London Division quickly recruited over 1,000 volunteers, who mostly lived and worked in and around the County of London and the City.

Training facilities were made available on the River Thames with the release of two former warships of the Royal Navy for use by the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. In addition, the London Division from their own resources purchased an old warehouse in Commercial Road, Lambeth, to use as a Drill Hall. This facility proved invaluable in providing a venue where all personnel in the Division could muster together when required.

A two-week training course at sea formed part of the annual training tests for all RNVR personnel.

The Royal Navy and its Reserves mobilised on 1st August 1914. However, it was quickly realised that the numbers generated by the call out of both the RNVR and the Regular Reserves of the Royal Navy would overwhelm the training facilities available, and in addition, it was calculated that the fleet could never find enough places for all the available reservists.

It was at this point that the First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr Winston Churchill, announced that all categories of naval reservists not required for sea duty would be directed for service on land. Churchill's idea was that all naval reservists not required for sea duty should be trained as sailors serving ashore as soldiers, so relieving the hard pressed infantry of the line. Sailors serving on land was not in itself a new idea.

Thus was born the Royal Naval Division (RND). The plan was not universally popular; neither at the Admiralty nor amongst the reservists themselves. There were, however, several points in the detail of the plan that would make it a little more acceptable to the bitterly disappointed members of the RNVR whose aspirations of joining the high seas fleet in the country's hour of need had been dashed overnight.

Although the general structure of the Division would be the same as the Army, the RND would remain under the control of the Admiralty. The Battalion Commanders would be Naval Officers and the terminology, rank structure and dress would remain that of the Senior Service.

Although later in the war many aspects of the RND would change, initially it comprised two naval Brigades and a third Brigade made up of reservists from the Royal Marine Light Infantry. Each Brigade would comprise of four Battalions. Each Battalion of the naval Brigades were named after famous admirals with the 1st Brigade being Hawke Battalion, Benbow, Drake and Nelson and the 2nd Brigade being Anson, Hood, Collingwood and Howe. Initially, the men from the London Division were spread across the companies of each Battalion, with each company being brought up to strength by Royal Naval regular reserve categories who themselves had not been drafted to the fleet. However, the RND would not reach its required establishment with reservists alone and recruiting offices were set up throughout the country including the London Division Drill Hall at Lambeth. Amongst recruits to the RNVR joining in London were the poet Rupert Brook and the journalist and political commentator AP Herbert. Both received temporary RNVR commissions.

Initially, the men of the naval Brigades were sent to tented camps at Walmer and Betteshanger in Kent. However, after only six weeks training and preparation for their role as soldiers, they were called upon to support the marine Brigade and the Belgium Army in the defence of the strategically important port facility at Antwerp, where the Germans attacked on 2nd October and were dangerously close after breaking through the Belgium line. At this stage, the RND had no supporting assets to speak of and the shortage of personal equipment was dire. Each sailor carried 120 rounds and some without bandoliers carried the ammunition in the pockets of their naval uniform. They were equipped with obsolete breech-loading rifles from Navy stock.

However, such was the crisis that by 6th October the RND were manning trenches in front of Antwerp and awaiting the onslaught of a German Army over 60,000 strong; from then on they were dogged with misfortune.

Poor communications and a retreating Belgium Army forced a withdrawal. The two naval Brigades lost 60 men killed and 138 wounded. 436 including 5 Officers were captured and 1,500 who had crossed the border into Holland were interned for the duration of the war. When the losses were known there was a public outcry.

On return to the UK, the RND were assembled at Blandford Camp, Dorset for re-fitting and training.

During this period the naval uniform of blue changed for army khaki field dress with some important exceptions; namely, the navy ranks and insignia were retained as were the sailor's cap and tally band.

Meanwhile, the Admiralty had set up a Divisional depot and training facility at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, South London.

On the 28th February 1915, the RND sailed for Gallipoli where they suffered many casualties and where Sub-Lieutenant Tisdall, a London Division Officer was to win his VC on ‘V' beach.

In May 1916, the RND went to France fighting under the control of the Army and renamed the 63rd Royal Naval Division. The Division was brought up to strength in supporting arms and additional infantry Battalions. The 1/ 28th (County of London) Battalion The London Regiment, 1/ 1st Battalion Honourable Artillery Company, 2/ 2nd (City of London) Battalion The London Regiment and 2/ 4th (City of London) Battalion The London Regiment all served with the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division.

The Division memorial stands at the left hand corner of the Admiralty building on Horse Guards recording and commemorating the 11,379 members who lost their lives, including 179 from the London Division.