In the lead-up to the centenary of the First World War, is excited to announce that it has published its holdings of Royal Naval Division Service Records from 1914 to 1920.

The British Royal Naval Division comprised men of the Royal Navy and its reserve forces. In World War One, these men, who were not needed at sea, fought on land alongside the army at both Gallipoli and the Western Front.

These records cover more than 50,000 officers and ratings who joined the Royal Naval Division or passed through the initial training centre of Crystal Palace, London.

These service records are a potential goldmine for family historians researching their ancestors’ military service in the First World War, listing biographical information, service history and some rather more unusual characteristics, such as swimming ability.

Curious records

A humorous example is the Royal Naval Division Service record of Gilbert Harry Snell, a Nottingham clerk. Gilbert, it was noted, “desires sea service.” The column opposite meanwhile answered the question “Swim?” [as in ‘can he swim?’] with a terse “No.” Surely a brave man, at least.

Physical appearance was also duly inscribed on these records, including distinguishing marks such as tattoos and scars.

Demonstrating impressive attention to detail, the record of Alfred Leyland Peters, a clerk from Crewe, UK, listed the “small hairy mole” near his elbow.

Meanwhile, Glasgow labourer John Campbell Moore was described as having an “irregular bald head”.

William Mullen, a miner from Glasgow, appears to have had an extensive array of tattoos: a “lady’s head, anchor and heart on Rt [right] forearm, and female figure on left forearm.”

On the other hand – or arm, shall we say – James McLean, a labourer from the town of Garvock in Victoria, had a man’s head inked on his left forearm.

Gallantry and tragedy

Humorous and quirky entries aside, the records also provides snapshots of the tragedy and bravery encompassed in the First World War.

Bernard Cyril Freyburg, the seventh Governor General of New Zealand, received his Distinguished Service Order while serving with the Royal Naval Division in the first two years of the war.

His service record indicates that he saw service at both the Western Front and the Dardanelles (or the Gallipoli campaign), where he in fact played a crucial role.

By cross-referencing the Royal Naval Division Service records with findmypast’s vast British newspaper collection, we uncovered an account of Bernard’s bravery in the Aberdeen Journal, 25 November 1915.

During the initial landings of Allied troops at Gallipoli, Freyburg “volunteered to swim ashore alone in the dark” and throw flares at the Turkish defenders in order to distract them from the real landings.

The newspaper account reports: “Rifle fire was opened on the beach, and the New Zealander, knowing that the water was safer than the shore, swam down the coast half a mile, then went ashore, and lit a second flare. By this time the hills were alive with the enemy, and Commander Freiburg [sic] took to the water again, and swam off to meet a destroyer which was to pick him up. He had to swim about for an hour before she found him.”

This act, described in the newspaper as “one of the finest deeds of gallantry recorded during the [Dardanelles] campaign,” earned him a Distinguished Service Order. A later act of bravery earned his Victoria Cross at the Battle of the Somme.

Bernard’s record bears out his success in the military, and is covered with neat typewritten font marking the progress of his career from Lieutenant up to Acting Lieutenant Colonel.

In stark contrast, the record of another New Zealander with an almost identical surname is almost bare. The ‘where serving’ column on the record of Oscar Freyberg, a Sub Lieutenant from Wellington, bears only two lines.

The second line simply states: “7.6.15. Report recd: Killed D’nelles [Dardanelles].”

Another record in the Royal Naval Division Service record set reveals that he was killed in action on 4 June 1915 and, given that he was born on 10 May 1881, he was just 34 years old when he became a fatal casualty of war.

Both Oscar Freyberg’s tragedy and Sir Bernard Cyril Freyburg’s courage remind us of the importance of researching, sharing and understanding our military heritage.

Search the Royal Naval Division Service Records 1914-1920 for yourself.