The Batteries of the Royal Marine Artillery

Royal Marine Artillery
Crew of 2 Gun, Royal Marine Artillery working on and loading, 'Granny', a 15 inch howitzer, in position near the Menin road in the Ypres sector, one of the enormous weapons used to support the Australians in their advance of 4 October 1917, and the attacks which preceded it. AWM photograph E00923, with permission.

Strictly, the units of the Royal Marine Artillery are not of the British Army. The Royal Marines were and remain to this day a separate element of British armed forces. But as the batteries mentioned served as part of the army in the field, they can not be disregarded.

The RMA Howitzer Brigade in France

In October 1914 the RMA was reorganised to provide two artillery brigades for the Western Front. One of these became an anti-aircraft unit, but the second was equipped with twelve heavy 15 inch howitzers to form the RM Howitzer Brigade. The brigade totalled around 1,000 all ranks, but never fought as a complete unit. Although originally organised with a brigade headquarters and arrangements made that each pair of howitzers should form a battery, this organisation was not retained once in France. Lieutenant-Colonel G. R. Poole remained in command of the brigade throughout the war after August 1915, but in May 1916 was appointed to command the 26th Heavy Artillery Group and only dealt with the RMA howitzers administratively. The huge weapons were deployed as single units - each requiring a crew of 60 men - along the front line. The first landed in France on 15 February 1915. A training base was established at Fort Cumberland at Portsmouth.

The guns

The RMA guns were strange misfits, owing their existence to the private enterprise of the Coventry Ordnance Works and their presence in France to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. The Coventry Works had designed and built the modern 9.2" howitzers, which had first arrived in France for the RGA Siege Batteries in November 1914 and, after the success of this equipment, had on their own initiative decided to build something altogether bigger and more powerful. Thus was born the 15 inch Breech Loading Siege Howitzer, which had a maximum range of 10,795 yards, firing a 1,400 pound shell. In order to gain acceptance within the military establishment, a Coventry Ordnance Works Director, Admiral Bacon, exploited his connections with the Admiralty in order to effect an introduction to the Ordnance Board of the Army. Churchill, as was his wont, intervened. Spotting an opportunity for the Navy to get embroiled in the action on the Western Front - as well as sensing a good story for the press - Churchill manned the first gun with a team of Royal Marine artillerymen and sent them post haste to France. They would be followed by another eleven of the 10 ton 15 hundredweight behemoths. Churchill's enthusiasm for his Royal Marine Artillery soon waned and the twelve howitzers were turned over to the army. When approached by the Director of Artillery for further information about these unwanted 'gifts' the Ordnance Board commented acidly "These equipments were obtained by the Navy in direct negotiation with the manufacturers, and the Board was not consulted. In view of the poor range achieved, it is felt that these weapons are a waste of money and material". The guns were declared obsolete and scrapped in 1920. As will be appreciated from the photograph, the time and effort required to move, erect and fire these weapons was prodigious. Simply to move one howitzer required three specially built Foster-Daimler steam tractors.

Howitzer Notes
1  
2  
3  
4  
5  
6  
7  
8  
9  
10  
11 Landed at Boulogne on 2 July 1916.
12  

Source: Brigade war diaries can be seen at the National Archives, in document reference ADM137/3072 and 3073. No 11 Gun has a separate diary at WO95/327

It is of interest that when the land was being prepared for the construction of the Visitor Centre at Thiepval on the Somme (opened 2004), an unexploded RMA 15 inch shell was among the tons of debris removed from site.