Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Birth of the Corps of Marines 1664 - 1815

by David Cook

The Corps of Marines can trace its commencement all the way to the year 1664 when Britain was at war with the Dutch Republic for control of the seas and trade routes.

It became apparent from the Dutch success that infantry units were needed on-board ship what with the increasing use of firearms. The first recognised raised unit was called the ‘Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot’ and soon after was known as the ‘Lord High Admiral’s Regiment’. These were infantrymen recruited from the Trained Bands of London and were the very first soldiers drafted for the roles of marines.

Marine of the Holland Regiment
The wholly musket-armed ‘Holland Regiment’ that John Churchill, later the 1st Duke of Marlborough, served in as a marine, wore ‘gold’ coats rather than the standard red. Today, the British Marine Corps Colours are still one part yellow to signify the ‘gold’ colour of their ancestral coats.

From the late 17th Century through to the middle of the 18th Century there were other regiments raised as marines, or Foot Regiments converted for sea duty. They fought throughout the War of the Spanish Succession, and the fragmented battles of the War of Jenkins’ Ear with notable successes on both land and sea. Once the wars were over, the units returned to their land roles.

The Corps of Marines, the infantry fighting element of the Royal Navy, were formed on 5th April, 1755. There were fifty companies in three Marine Divisions; headquartered at the major ports of Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth under the command each of a colonel commandant. Horatio Nelson was Chatham’s colonel in 1795.

The marines went on to serve with distinction during the American War of Independence, especially at Battle of Bunker Hill, where they were marked for their ‘cool ability under fire’.

Regularly enlisted like the Army, and not by impressment (press-ganged as some myths dictate) they primarily provided the Royal Navy with a force of troops that could fight on land as infantry, of manning the ships guns, acting as marksmen against enemy crews and for close quarter boarding action at sea.

Their secondary function was to supress mutiny among the seamen. In fact, their quarters always separated the RN officers’ and sailor quarters. They ensured security details and supported discipline of the crews. The ratio of marines on-board each ship was generally at a ratio of one marine per ship gun.

Marine officers during the War of Independence

After the Act of Union was passed in 1801, which incorporated Ireland into the United Kingdom, there was an influx of Irish volunteers. After 1805 nearly ten percent of each company were comprised of foreigners, mainly Maltese, German, Spanish and Portuguese. Each company on paper was to comprise 1 captain, 2 first lieutenants, 2 second lieutenants, 8 sergeants, 8 corporals, 6 drummers and 140 privates. Each Marine Division also had a grenadier and a light company, but they were abolished in 1804. With disease, shortages and battle-caused deaths, it was highly unlikely that the paper figures were ever met. The marine companies were dispersed throughout the fleet and where needed on land.

The marines had their uniforms supplied by the Navy Board, but their dress was that of the infantry. They wore the red coat, with white collar and cuffs. Plumes were the standard colours, white-over-red for battalion companies, green for the light and white for the grenadiers. Officers wore scarlet coats, with white lace and white gloves. Gorgets, worn at the throat, were purely decorative horseshoe shaped pieces of metal that harked back to the days when officers had worn armour like medieval knights. Officer’s carried straight bladed cutlasses with a thirty-two inch blade, a pistol and most commonly a dirk. The marine privates were armed with the Sea Service Brown Bess muskets and the sergeants carried halberds, and then later spontoons or half-pikes.

Marines fighting during ship-to-ship battles
The marines were nicknamed by the sailors ‘lobsters’ because of the red woollen coat, and ‘bootnecks’, a semi-derogatory term derived from the dark leather 'stock' worn round the neck inside the collar which forced a soldier to keep his head up. "Take my sea boots off your neck”, was a saying to imply the marines were wearing a piece of leather cut from the sailors footwear.

In 1802, largely at the recommendation of Admiral John Jervis, 1st Earl of St Vincent, the marines were re-titled ‘Royal Marines’ by King George III for services to their country:

“In order to mark his approbation of the very meritorious conduct of the Marines during the late war, His Majesty has been graciously pleased to direct that in future the corps shall be called the Royal Marines.”

The white facings (collars and cuffs) were given a royal makeover, changing to ‘Royal Blue’. The bicorn was replaced by the black ‘round-hat’ made of felt, but the red coat was retained.

UK stamp released in 2009
showing the new uniform of 1802
The Royal Marine Artillery (RMA) was formed in 1804 to man bomb vessels. They wore blue tunics of the Royal Artillery and nicknamed ‘un-boiled lobsters’ or ‘blue marines’.

In 1805, a fourth Marine Division was created at Woolwich and by the end of that year the corps numbered thirty thousand, the largest it ever saw during the Peninsular War.

The Corps of Colonial Marines were two units raised in 1808 from former American slaves for British service. They were created at different times and both disbanded after the wars. They were recruited to address the shortage of military manpower in the Caribbean. The locally-recruited men were less susceptible to tropical illnesses than were troops sent from Britain and knew the terrain. The Corps followed the practice of the British Army's West India Regiments in recruiting escaped slaves as soldiers, but were loathed to view themselves as mere ‘slave soldiers’. They were free men and they represented a psychological threat to the slave-owning American society by being armed. They were highly thought of and as competent as their European comrades. They also received free land grants in Canada in return for their commendable service, achieving freedom in which the 'Land of Liberty' had denied them.

Three additional Marine Battalions (numbered 1-3) were raised from among the Royal Marines specifically for action in Portugal, Northern Spain, the Invasion of France, the Netherlands, North America and the Caribbean. They were disbanded in 1815.

Throughout the French Revolutionary Wars, Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, the Royal Marines were present in every major sea battle: St Vincent, Camperdown, the Nile, Copenhagen, Trafalgar, the Dardanelles, Cape Lissa and Aix Roads.

They always formed part of any cutting out excursion - seizing an enemy ship by using their ships' boats and taking it from its anchorage by boarding it. They were used in amphibious landings and in 1812, helped disrupt coastal traffic, captured several towns, particularly Santander, and tied up the French Army of the North by not allowing it to reinforce the French Army of Portugal, which was then subsequently defeated at Salamanca.

During the Hundred Days Campaign, a RMA company was garrisoned (amongst others) at Ostend to protect Wellington’s rear in the event that the allies would have lost against Napoleon, and would had to retreat to the ports.

After 1815, the Royal Marines would serve its country again around the globe in many actions. However, it was during the wars of 1793-1815 that the force encapsulated the code and spirit of the great fighting force that today is revered throughout the world.
In 2014, the Corps will celebrate its 350th anniversary by completing a series of global physical challenges in honour to their heritage.


David Cook’s novella, ‘’Heart of Oak’’, the second in The Soldier Chronicles series, is an authentic historical story set during the liberation of the Maltese Islands 1799-1800, and will be released at the end of June as an ebook.

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