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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

A History of the Royal Marines - Part One

For more than three and a half centuries, the Royal Marines - Britain’s elite sea soldiers - have been an integral part of the country’s armed forces, serving literally across the globe, as their motto claims, “Per Mare Per Terram” - “By Sea, By Land”.

Of course, the idea of having soldiers on board ships dates back to ancient times. The 5th century BC Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides referred to epibatai, or heavily-armed sea-soldiers, in the Greek fleets, while Polybius, in the 2nd century BC, described milites classiarii, a category of Roman soldiers organised and specially armed for duty aboard warships.

Later on, Enrico Dandolo, who became Doge of Venice in 1192, created the earliest known organised marine corps when he set up a regiment of ten companies, variously distributed on ships, to participate in the Fourth Crusade, which resulted in the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. In 1550, these forces would become known as Fanti da Mar, although the oldest marine corps still in active service in the world is Spain's Infantería de Marina, formed in 1537 by Charles I of Spain.

Later, as Britain attained more colonies, her dependency on a strong fleet to defend and maintain them grew, as did the need for specially-trained soldiers for permanent sea duty, who would be able to board enemy vessels, as well as launch raids on enemy territory from the sea.

Thus, on 28th October 1664, King Charles II of England made a proclamation in Whitehall to raise The Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot, to be made up of 1,200 men, organised in six 200-man companies. Their uniform consisted of a yellow tunic with scarlet leggings, supposedly the favourite colours of James, Duke of York and Albany. It was the fifth European marine unit formed, after Spain's Infantería de Marina (1537), the Fanti da Mar of the Republic of Venice (1550), the Portuguese Corpo de Fuzileiros (1618), and France's Troupes de Marine (1622).

The Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot wore a uniform that consisted of a yellow tunic with scarlet leggings

The Duke of York and Albany's Maritime Regiment fought most gallantly in the Second (1665-67) and Third (1672-74) Anglo-Dutch Wars, a series of conflicts fought between England and the Dutch Republic over trade and overseas colonies.

Although most of the battles were naval engagements, the Duke of York and Albany's Maritime Regiment‘s first battle honour came in the Battle of Landguard Fort, near Felixstowe, when 400 musketeers from the regiment, together with some 100 artillerymen and 50 cannon, successfully repelled repeated assaults by Dutch marines on 2nd July 1667. The Dutch, who lost around 150 men killed, wounded, or captured, abandoned their plan for an attack on the English naval anchorage at Harwich as a result. The English had suffered only ten casualties.

When in 1685, James, Duke of York and Albany, ascended the throne as James II, the regiment was given to his son-in-law, Prince George of Denmark, and hence its name was changed to Prince George of Denmark’s Regiment. It was during this time that the uniform colour changed to red coats with white stockings. In 1689, the regiment was disbanded, shortly after James II had been deposed in the Glorious Revolution. In subsequent years, several other marine regiments would be raised for various specific wars, only to be disbanded or converted into ordinary army infantry regiments when the war was over.

When James II ascended the throne, the regiment was given to his son-in-law, Prince George of Denmark, and hence its name was changed to Prince George of Denmark’s Regiment

In 1702, for example, six regiments of marines were formed for the War of the Spanish Succession. The marines would see action in battles in France, Spain, and North America, but it was their capture and subsequent defence of Gibraltar that would be immortalised. On 1st August 1704, a force of 1,800 English and Dutch marines, led by Prince George of Hesse-Darmstadt, carried out an amphibious assault against the Spanish fortress, forcing its surrender three days later. By October of that same year, French and Spanish troops had besieged the Rock, but after a dogged defence by the marines, the six-month siege was finally abandoned in May 1705.

Between 1739 to 1748, Britain was once again at war with Spain, this time in the War of Jenkins’ Ear, which was mainly fought in New Granada and the Carribbean. A total of ten marine regiments were raised for this war, including one large regiment, Gooch's Marines, which was made up of American colonists, and served alongside British marines at the Battle of Cartagena de Indias, in Colombia, and at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Although all ten regiments were disbanded after the war as usual, the need for having a more permanent force of marines was becoming more apparent, and after many years of campaigning by senior Royal Navy officers, on 5th April 1755, approximately 5,000 men were formed into His Majesty's Marine Forces. These were organised in fifty companies in three divisions, to be headquartered at Chatham, Portsmouth, and Plymouth. From this point onwards, the Marines would see near continuous action, as Britain sought to expand her empire.

5th April 1755 saw the formation of His Majesty's Marine Forces, organised in three divisions, headquartered at Chatham, Portsmouth, and Plymouth

The Seven Years' War (1756-63) was a global conflict that involved most of the European great powers and was fought in Europe, the Americas, the West African coast, India, and the Philippines, with the opposing alliances being led by Britain and France respectively, both seeking to establish global pre-eminence at the expense of the other. In 1759, British Marines took part in the famous victory at the Battle of Quebec, under the command of General James Wolfe, who had started his career as a Marine officer. That same year, they also participated in the capture of Guadeloupe from the French, while in 1761, they helped capture the French island of Belle Île, off the Brittany coast. Manila, in the Philippines, was taken from the Spanish in 1762.

During the American War of Independence (1775-83), two Marine battalions under the command of Major John Pitcairn, formed part of the British garrison at Boston, Massachusetts, and participated in the battles of Lexington and Concord. On 17th June 1775, they particularly distinguished themselves at the Battle of Bunker Hill, where they succeeded in driving the enemy from their fortified position on top of Breed’s Hill after the army had twice failed to do so.

Under the command of Major John Pitcairn, two Marine battalions distinguished themselves at the Battle of Bunker Hill, on 17th June 1775

Throughout the 18th century, the Marines also played a part in exploration. They accompanied Commodore George Anson in his voyage around the world (1740-44), while on 29th April 1770, they landed with Lieutenant James Cook at Botany Bay, Australia. In fact, Marines were mainly used for landing parties, to protect ship’s officers and crews when they went ashore, whilst on board, they provided security of a different kind, protecting the officers from mutiny.

The last decade of the 18th century also saw the start of the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802), between the French Republic and several European monarchies, including Great Britain. Although the 1802 Treaty of Amiens temporarily ended hostilities, conflict soon erupted again with the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15).

The Marines were heavily involved throughout both conflicts, serving onboard Royal Navy warships in every notable naval battle, including Admiral Horatio Nelson's three great victories at the Nile (1798), Copenhagen (1801), and Trafalgar (1805). They also saw action in various amphibious operations, and distinguished themselves on land too, either serving with the army, or as part of a naval brigade, in places such as Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, and North America.

The Marines were present on Royal Navy warships in every notable naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars, including Admiral Horatio Nelson's famous victory at Trafalgar in October 1805

In the meantime, on 29th April 1802, King George III bestowed the title of 'Royal' to the Marines, in recognition of their service, whilst in 1804, the Royal Marine Artillery (RMA) was formed to man the artillery on board bomb vessels - specialised ships designed for bombarding fixed positions on land - a job previously done by the Royal Regiment of Artillery. The RMA adopted the blue uniforms of the artillery, and thus became known as the "Blue Marines", while the infantry element, who continued to wear the red coats, became the "Red Marines".

In the War of 1812 (1812-15), fought between Great Britain and the United States of America, the Royal Marines were present at several naval and land battles. They also took part in a series of British raids along the shores of Chesapeake Bay, including the Burning of Washington on 24th August 1814, when British troops set fire to multiple government buildings, including the White House and the Capitol.

Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Marines would be almost continuously engaged in numerous conflicts associated with the expansion of the British Empire during the 19th century. On 27th August 1816, they were present at the Bombardment of Algiers, a joint effort by Britain and the Netherlands to end the slavery practices of the North African Barbary States. Royal Marines also took part in the Anglo-Ashanti wars (1824-1900), a series of conflicts between the British and the Ashanti Empire, in what is present-day Ghana, while on 20th October 1827, they participated in the naval Battle of Navarino, which saw the destruction of the Ottoman fleet during the Greek War of Independence (1821-29).

Royal Marines took part in the Anglo-Ashanti wars (1824-1900), a series of conflicts between the British and the Ashanti Empire, in what is present-day Ghana

During the First Carlist War (1833-40) a battalion of Royal Marines, as well as detachments of the RMA, were sent to Spain as part of the British Auxiliary Legion, which supported the Liberals and Queen Isabella II against the Carlists. Royal Marines also served in the First (1839-42) and Second (1856-60) Opium Wars, arising from disputes over trade and diplomatic relations between China and the British Empire, and in the Māori Wars (1845-72), a series of armed conflicts that took place between the New Zealand colonial government and indigenous Māori.

In 1855, the "Red Marines" were renamed the Royal Marines Light Infantry, which would be slightly altered to Royal Marine Light Infantry (RMLI) in 1862. During this period, the Royal Marines were very much involved in the Crimean War (1853-56) against the Russians, where three Marines earned the Victoria Cross, as well as in the Indian Mutiny (1857-58). They also fought in the Egyptian Campaign of 1882, and later the Sudan Campaign, between 1884-85.

Corporal John Prettyjohns became the first Royal Marine to be awarded the Victoria Cross, for his actions at the Battle of Inkerman, during the Crimean War

The closing stages of the 19th century would see the Royal Marines involved in two wars in different parts of the empire. The first of these was the Second Boer War (1899-1902), fought between the British Empire and the Boer Republics over British influence in Southern Africa. One action that stands out in particular was the Battle of Graspan, on 25th November 1899, when, as part of a naval brigade, Royal Marines advanced through heavy and accurate fire to drive the Boers dug in atop Graspan kopje at the point of their bayonets, despite suffering 92 casualties out of a total of 206 men.

The second conflict was the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901), an anti-foreign and anti-Christian uprising in China, led by a group of rebels known as the "Boxers", who believed themselves invulnerable to bullets and death. Foreign nationals from several countries and their military contingents were barricaded inside a fortified area of Beijing, known as the Legation Quarter. It was here that Captain Lewis Halliday won the Royal Marines’ fourth Victoria Cross. The siege was finally lifted when an international force of 20,000 men from several allied countries fought through to Beijing, destroying the Boxer movement.

Captain Lewis Halliday, of the Royal Marine Light Infantry, won his Victoria Cross during the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901)

For the first part of the 20th century, the Royal Marines' role was the traditional one of providing shipboard infantry for security, boarding parties, and small-scale landings. By this point in time, Britain had the largest navy in the world, and all ships above that of destroyer size had a Royal Marines detachment on board. On the larger ships, Royal Marines were required to operate one of the main gun turrets, as well as the secondary armament.

During World War I (1914-18), in addition to their usual stations aboard ship, Royal Marines were part of the Royal Naval Division which served at Ostend and Antwerp in Belgium in 1914, and later took part in the amphibious landing at Gallipoli in 1915. The Royal Naval Division also served in the trenches of the Western Front. On 23rd April 1918, Royal Marines also participated in a daring amphibious raid on the German-held port of Zeebrugge, in Belgium, in an attempt to prevent it from being used by German U-boats.

On 23rd April 1918, Royal Marines participated in a daring amphibious raid on the German-held port of Zeebrugge, in Belgium

As well as action on land, the Royal Marines also saw considerable action at sea, being present in all the major naval engagements. This included the Battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916, the last major battle in history fought primarily by battleships. It was here that Major Francis Harvey, of the RMLI, serving on board HMS Lion, won the Victoria Cross, one of five earned by Royal Marines during WWI. The end of the conflict also brought little peace to the Royal Marines, who were to be involved during the revolutions in Russia (1918-19), Ireland (1919-21) and Turkey (1919-22).

Notwithstanding their invaluable service, an urgent need for cost-cutting measures in the post-war period led to considerations towards possibly abolishing the Royal Marines, but instead, on 22nd June 1923, the RMLI and the RMA were amalgamated. The abandonment of the Marines' artillery role meant that going forward, they would now have to rely on Royal Artillery support when ashore. As a form of consolation, the dark blue uniform of the RMA became the full dress of the entire Corps.

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