The destination for history

Rupert Brooke’s Royal Naval Division friends on the Somme, 1916


On 5 May 1916 four Royal Naval Division officers met up at London’s Charing Cross station, from where they were waved off on the cross-Channel train by a small group which included the Prime Minister’s wife, Margot Asquith.

The four men, who had met in 1915, had shared difficult times over the past year. They had buried their Hood Battalion brother-in-arms Rupert Brooke on the Greek island of Skyros and seen other friends and comrades die on the scorching, trench-scored battlefields of Gallipoli in a campaign during which all four had been injured or succumbed to disease. Happily, however, there were other, less sad ties which bound them.

Edward Nelson had been a scientist on Captain Robert Scott’s 1910-3 Antarctic expedition, an experience which Bernard Freyberg, an ex-New Zealand swimming champion and adventurous traveller, envied him. Frederick Kelly, an aspiring concert pianist and composer, had, when living in London in 1909-10, responded to Scott’s fund-raising appeal for the expedition. The fourth officer, Arthur Asquith, was the son of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, a friend of – and sitter for - Scott’s widow, sculptor Kathleen Scott. To close this particular ‘Antarctic circle’, Nelson had recently introduced Freyberg to Kathleen Scott, so Freyberg could learn more about Scott and the expedition.

After a safe Channel crossing and passage through France the four friends enjoyed a good dinner and fine wine in Marseilles (where other RND men were due to arrive by ship), before heading by various circuitous routes to their billet at Pont Rémy, near Abbeville. Since the December 1915 Gallipoli withdrawal, the depleted RND battalions had been incorporated into the 189th Infantry Brigade of the British Expeditionary Force’s 63rd (Royal Naval) Division. Freyberg, Asquith and Kelly were to remain with Hood Battalion; Nelson was to transfer to Nelson Battalion, of which he had recently been appointed 2nd in Command to the experienced and popular Lt-Col. Norman Burge.

Once installed in the Somme area all RND battalions were to undergo rigorous BEF-style training exercises to prepare them for the planned ‘big push’. As the July 1916 offensive got underway Nelson and other RND battalions, despite being technically still ‘in training’, suffered casualties during trench ‘rotations’ and while working to keep waterlogged trenches in fighting and habitable order. 

On Saturday 16 September, following several moves of billet, Nelson found himself sufficiently close to Hood Battalion’s quarters to ride over and join Freyberg, Asquith and Kelly for dinner and an open air performance by the Hood Silver Band, conducted by Kelly, of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – complete with ‘live’ battle effects by Hood artillery and mortar cannons. But soon after this welcome interlude, Asquith learned that his elder brother Raymond had died whilst leading his men in battle. Raymond, a friend of Brooke and rising star in the legal profession, had refused to be relegated to ‘staff duties’ simply because he was the Prime Minister’s son – a stand Arthur Asquith maintained when the same suggestion was made to him shortly after Raymond’s death.

During the autumn Edward Nelson and his men were trained in aircraft-to-infantry communication, had their first glimpse of the tanks Winston Churchill and others hoped might change the course of the war on the Western Front and suffered from the effects of German tear-gas shells. In late October Arthur Asquith was badly injured by a ‘Minnie’ (minenwerfer) mortar bomb and invalided back to England. On 1 November it was noted in the London Gazette that Nelson had been mentioned in dispatches for his ‘distinguished and gallant service’ at Gallipoli, where he had commanded a cutter which supported Freyberg on a dangerous midnight swim (for which Freyberg had been awarded a DSO).

The plan in the Nelson and Hood Battalions’ sector of the front was to break through and capture German front line trenches and fortifications around Beaucourt-sur-Ancre, near Thiepval ridge. Victory would allow the Allies to regain control of Thiepval’s high vantage point and of nearby river crossings, roads and railway lines.

In the early hours of 13 November, Freyberg, Kelly and the men of Hood Battalion readied themselves for their charge. A stubborn blanket of thick, freezing mist had descended on the still-dark battleground, which gave them cover, but drastically reduced visibility as they moved forward. Nelson was based at Hédeauville, several miles from the attacking line, where he was to dispatch RND men and weaponry forward based on messages and orders passed down the chain of command from Freyberg and others. As news of heavy casualties also arrived, however, Nelson found himself dealing with younger men who were visibly afraid of what lay ahead of them.

The fighting lasted all day; after darkness again blanketed the battleground, shells continued to whistle through the air. On the morning of 14 November, Freyberg led a group of battle-weary men into the now-ruined village of Beaucourt. They found large numbers of German soldiers prepared to surrender, but it was not long before a fresh German bombardment from beyond the village sent them scuttling back into now-empty German trenches. Freyberg was hit and badly wounded but after a fellow-officer had dressed his wounds and he had self-administered a dose of morphine (which he carried for such eventualities) he was helped to a crowded first-aid post. He was close to death, but after life-saving emergency treatment was evacuated back down the line and away from the area.

As the battle for Beaucourt-sur-Ancre drew to a close Nelson learned that his commanding officer, Lt-Col Burge, had been killed and that over thirty Nelson Battalion men had died, with a further 200 wounded and 100 missing or unaccounted for. Nelson, who was immediately placed in temporary command of his battalion, had no time to mourn his comrades. Hood Battalion had also suffered heavy casualties, including Nelson’s friend Frederick Kelly, who had been killed whilst attacking a bombing post on the German third line of trenches.

As 1916 drew to a close, Freyberg, still under doctor’s orders in London but on the road to recovery, was awarded a Victoria Cross for his leadership and courage in battle. Asquith, now recovered from his wounds, was back on duty in France. Edward Nelson, following a period as both Battalion and Brigade temporary commander, was in England a period of leave with his wife and baby daughter. Frederick Kelly, who at the beginning of the year had been working on a musical elegy for Rupert Brooke, was now buried in what his poet friend had famously described as ‘a corner of a foreign field, which is forever England’.

Another year of war was over but Edward Nelson, Bernard Freyberg and Arthur Asquith would need to wait to see what 1917 would bring.

By Anne Strathie

You might also be interested in:

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books