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May 02 2013

A load of Shute

 

In August 1914, the British Fleet having been fully manned and brought up to its wartime complement, Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, had a surplus of seamen. The solution soon came to hand with the formation of the Royal Naval Division; a Division of seamen who would fight as soldiers alongside normal Army Divisions.

Royal Naval Division recruiting poster

Named after famous naval personages,[1]at the start of the war the Battalions of the Royal Naval Division remained under Admiralty control, although for all practical purposes they were part of the Army. Since the Division was initially made up of Reserve personnel from the Royal Naval Reserve, Royal Fleet Reserve and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve with a brigade of Marines, this duel control at once created a number of problems, not the least being that the Navy paid more than the Army. Further complications arose in that the members of the Division kept many of their naval traditions including, but not limited to, the right to wear beards.

Royal Marines Light Infantry with beards. c.1916

The Royal Naval Division was initially sent to Belgium and by 4 October was involved in the defence of Antwerp. Unfortunately, during the confused retreat on 8 October, most of the 1st Brigade, the Hawke, Benbow and Collingwood Battalions crossed the frontier into neutral Holland, one presumes in error, and were interned at Groningen.[2]

After service in the Gallipoli campaign and on the Salonika front, in neutral Greece, but that’s another issue, the Royal Naval Division, by July 1916 under Army control and renamed the 63rd (R.N.) Division, was based in France in preparation for the later stages of the Battle of the Somme. With death of their Divisional Commander, Major-General Sir Archibald Paris KCB RMA (Royal Marine Artillery) in action on 13 October 1916, the Army took the opportunity to attempt to introduce some army style discipline into the Division and appointed Major General Cameron Shute CMG DSO to take charge.

Major General Cameron Shute. 1918

A former commander of the 2nd Battalion The Rifle Brigade, Shute had no time for naval discipline or traditions and soon got the nickname ‘Schultz the Hun’ for his attempts to shake up and reform the Division. According to one account, on an inspection tour of the trenches the Division had newly taken over for a Portuguese regiment, a regiment not renowned for its hygiene,[3] Shultz publically harangued the offices and men of the Division, complaining about the state of the trenches and in particular the state of their sanitary arrangements…or lack of them. It is alleged that his disposition towards the Naval Division was not improved when he discovered that the platform on which he had stood when he made his impromptu speech was, in fact, a box of hand grenades.

Serving in the Division at that time, as Adjutant with Hawke Bn., though it’s not clear whether or not he was actually present at the incident in question, was one A.P.Herbert, later to be a well known writer and Independent M.P. and, during the Second World War, the only serving M.P. in the Navy not to be an commissioned officer – he was a Petty Officer on a patrol vessel on the River Thames. Herbert was less than impressed with Shute and, in memory of his comments on the state of the trenches wrote the following which was apparently taken up with alacrity by the men of the Division and sung to the tune of  “Wrap me up in my tarpaulin jacket”:

The General inspecting the trenches

exclaimed with a horrified shout,

“I refuse to command a Division

which leaves its excreta about.”

 

And certain responsible critics

made haste to reply to his words,

observing that his Staff advisers

consisted entirely of turds.

 

But nobody took any notice

No one was prepared to refute,

That the presence of shit was congenial

Compared with the presence of Shute.

 

For shit may be shot at odd corners

and paper supplied there to suit,

but a shit would be shot without mourners

if somebody shot that shit Shute.[4]

 

This however, was not the end of Herbert’s versifying at Shute’s expense. In 1918 Herbert published a poem, albeit anonymously, in Punch. Again, this was based on real events. It transpired that Shute had ordered the men of the Division to shave their beards off but one of them, a Sub. Lt. Codner, had refused to do so and, citing Kings Regulations as they applied to Navy personnel, appealed to higher naval authority. Perhaps unsurprisingly he was successful in his attempt to retain his beard.

 

THE BATTLE OF CODSON’S BEARD

I’LL tell you a yarn of a sailor-man, with a face more fierce than fair,
Who got round that on the Navy’s plan by hiding it all with hair;
He was one of a hard old sailor-breed, and had lived his life at sea,
But he took to the beach at the nation’s need, and fought with the R.N.D.

Now Brigadier-General Blank’s Brigade was tidy and neat and trim,
And the sight of a beard on his parade was a bit too much for him:
“What is that,” said he, with a frightful oath, “of all that is wild and weird?”
And the Staff replied, “A curious growth, but it looks very like a beard.”

And the General said, “I have seen six wars, and many a ghastly sight,
Fellows with locks that gave one shocks, and buttons none too bright,
But never a man in my Brigade with a face all fringed with fur;
And you’ll toddle away and shave to—day. But Codson said, “You err.

“For I don’t go much on wars, as such, and living with rats and worms,
And you ought to be glad of a sailor lad on any Old kind of terms;
While this old beard of which you’re skeered, it stands for a lot to me,
For the great North gales, and the sharks and whales, and the smell of the good grey sea.”

New Generals crowded to the spot and urged him to behave,
But Codson said, “You talk a lot, but can you make me shave?
For the Navy allows a beard at the bows, and a beard is the sign for me,
That the world may know wherever I go, I belong to the King’s Navee.”

They gave him posts in distant parts, where few might see his face,
Town-Major jobs that, break men’s hearts, and billets at the Base;
But whenever he knew a fight was due, he hurried there by train,
And when he’d done for every Hun—they sent him back again.

Then up and spake an old sailor, “It seems you can’t ‘ave ‘eared,
begging your pardon, General Blank, the reason of this same beard:
It’s a kind of a sart of a camyflarge, and that I take to mean
A thing as ‘ides some other thing wot oughtn’t to be seen.

“And I’ve brought you this ‘ere photergraph of what ‘e used to be
Before ‘e stuck that fluffy muck about ‘is phyzogmy.”
The General looked and, fainting, cried, “The situation’s grave!
The beard was bad, but, KAMERAD! he simply must not shave!”

And now, when the thin lines bulge and sag, and man goes down to man,
A great black beard like a pirate’s flag flies ever in the van;
And I’ve fought in many a warmish spot, where death was the least men feared,
But I never knew anything quite so hot as the Battle of Codson’s Beard.

Like Herbert, Shute survived the War, and his encounter with the Naval Division, and after the War he became GOC of 4th Division, finally becoming General Officer Commanding of Northern Command in 1927. He retired in 1931, dying in 1937.

Having enlisted in the Royal Naval Division as an Ordinary Seaman, been promoted in the field and having won the MC at the crossing of the L’Escaut Canal with the 63rd (R.N.) Naval Division, Codner also survived the war. He was demobilised in 1919 and in the absence of evidence either way, one can only assume his beard was demobilised with him.[5]

Further information on the Royal Naval Division can be found at Jack Clegg.

A detailed list of the make-up of Division as the War progressed can be found at:

The Naval Historical Collectors and Research Association.

 


[1] http://www.royalnavalmuseum.org/info_sheets_RND.htm   Accessed 09.00 1 May 2013

[2]http://www.nhcra-online.org/20c/rnd1.html  Accessed 09.15 1 May 2013

[4] In various versions of this song, the order of the second and third verses is sometimes reversed.

1 comment

  1. Stewart Crichton

    Love your bit about the 63rd!

    One.wee thing though – Archibald Paris wasn’t killed, he was injured badly and had to give up command of the division – he didn’t die until 1937

    But otherwise a goos bit of info!

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