“Their gallant conduct is merely alluded to rather than discussed in detail by both naval historians and maritime novelists. The Royal Navy furnishes the stars and The Royal Marines supply the extras.”
THE ROYAL MARINES were the unsung British heroes of the Napoleonic Wars. They played distinguished roles in many engagements both at sea and on land; their motto of per mare, per terram reflects this. Yet all too often, their gallant conduct is merely alluded to rather than discussed in detail by both naval historians and maritime novelists. C. S. Forester’s Hornblower series was a particular offender in this regard. The Royal Navy furnishes the stars and the Royal Marines supply the extras. Marines are red coated ciphers who exist chiefly to die quickly, much like the Red Shirts in the original Star Trek television series. Admiral Lord St. Vincent, who helped them secure the “royal” designation in 1802, said of them: “If real danger should ever come to England, they will be this country’s sheet anchor.”
The Royal Marines trace their heritage back to the Duke of York’s Regiment in 1664 but they were disbanded at the end of each conflict. It wasn’t until 1755, that the force was placed on a permanent footing.
At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Marines numbered 31,000 and were divided into companies that varied in size from 120 to 178 men. The majority were dispersed in small detachments aboard ships of ten guns and above. On a smaller ship Marines made up 12-16 per cent of the crew, on a large ship 17-20 per cent. Horatio Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory carried 165 Marines.
Beat to Quarters
Although Marines performed a variety of duties at sea, first and foremost they functioned as shipboard infantry. When hostile vessels moved in close during combat, Marines laid down suppressing fire to keep enemy boarding parties at bay. And unlike army regiments of foot of the era that fired mass musket volleys in the general direction of the enemy, Marines’ shots were aimed. In fact, one of their key objectives in battle was to target enemy cannon crews. Marines were trained to reload from many positions and take advantage of any cover the ship itself afforded. If borders did gain the deck, Marines were skilled at repelling them with well-practiced bayonet charges. They were generally not part of the first wave boarding an enemy ship, that job fell to ordinary sailors who would be armed with edged weapons such as cutlasses, half pikes, and tomahawks. The Marines were however used in follow up waves where muskets and bayonets could prove decisive against an already weakened enemy.
During engagements, most Marines would be posted on the poop deck, with a smaller contingent stationed on the foc’sle. The Marine commanding officer generally stood close to the ship’s captain on the quarterdeck so he might easily pass along any shouted orders above the din of battle.
Marines also assisted in the manning of the great guns when ships of the line entered battle. Two marines were assigned to each cannon crew serving the larger caliber weapons and one marine detailed to each crew serving the smaller pieces.
The Captain’s Guard
In addition to their combat role, Marines also acted as a vaccine of sorts against the infection most feared by ship’s captains: mutiny. Armed with muskets and bayonets, they served as the captain’s personal guard and moved quickly to quell any hint of insurrection on the lower decks. It certainly was not lost on sailors that Marines were billeted between the sailors and the captain’s quarters. Fully armed sentries were posted at key points around ships, including captains’ cabins, powder magazines and spirit lockers. In battle, Marine sentries stood guard at the entrance to the companionways to prevent any less-than-stalwart sailors fleeing to the relative safety of the lower decks.
Marines pioneered amphibious landings and were often used by the Royal Navy as a sort of rapid reaction force for the British Empire. They were often considered more aggressive than their army counterparts and were frequently called upon to “kick in the door” in foreign hotspots. They understood army drill and were quite capable of fighting alongside their land based colleagues with parade-square precision. It was actually Major Pitcairn, a Marine, who ordered John Parker’s Minutemen to lay down their arms on Lexington Green during the American Revolution’s inaugural battle.
Marines from a fleet or squadron were sometimes brigaded together as a mobile strike force. Marine detachments fought gallantly at Bunker Hill in 1775, in the Peninsular War of 1808 to 1814 and even during the Washington Campaign of 1814. Marines usually fought in companies but were drilled in battalion strength formations as well.
Who Would Be a Marine?
All Marines were volunteers. The corps used no press gangs like the navy, nor crimps (unscrupulous civilians who employed all manner of tricks to lure recruits) as did the army. The Marines contained almost no jailbirds who were compelled to enlistment by Justices of the Peace.
The average Royal Marine private in Nelson’s day was between 17 and 26 years old and stood between five feet four and five feet eight inches in height. Prior to donning the red coat, many worked as urban or agricultural laborers or in the weaving trades. Roughly 17 per cent of Marine recruits had seen prior military service, usually in the army. More than 80 per cent of the men were English, many hailing from Kent, Middlesex, Norfolk and Essex, as well as London itself. Ireland, a prime source of recruitment for the regular army, was under-represented in the Marine’s because of a restriction on enlisting Catholics
Of Officers and Gentlemen
The typical Royal Marine officer was of the middle and merchant classes. Unlike their army counterparts who primarily came from the moneyed aristocracy, Marine lieutenants, captains, majors, for the most part, subsisted on their salaries alone. And while army commissions could be bought and sold by wealthy officers, those of the Marines were not for sale. As such, few of England’s higher gentry aspired to commands in the corps. In fact, only seven Marine officers bore noble titles in the period from 1800 to 1815.
The Marines represented socially approved opportunities for second and third sons of gentlemen with good pedigrees but limited wealth. One prominent general averred that Scotland was a breeding nation and her best export was her people. The character of Captain Thomas Pennywhistle featured in this author’s novels is loosely based on a Scots officer: Captain Thomas Inch.
To gain a commission, a man had to provide the Admiralty with the written endorsement of four gentlemen of impeccable reputation, at least one of whom had seen military service. “Interest,” the contemporary term for knowing the right people in the right places, was a key component. Having a patron or sponsor with close ties to the Admiralty greatly increased the chances of securing a commission. Quite a number of those seeking berths were sons of naval officers who had rendered honorable service or sons of former Marine officers. Some families enjoyed virtual dynasties in this period that continued well into the 20th century.
Officially, advancement was by seniority, which tended to create a surfeit of older officers in lower ranks. Exceptions were made for gallant conduct or wartime vacancies in distant stations that needed to be immediately filled.
Life in the Corps
The average Marine had been with the Corps 5.6 years; the average noncommissioned officer, nine. NCOs were all literate and typically came from a trade or craftsman background. Desertion rates averaged 2 to 6 men per company per year and roughly 15 per cent were listed on the books at any given time as “discharged, dead.”
Marine privates were paid a shilling a day; 11 pounds, 7 shillings, and 8 pence yearly. It was a smaller wage than that of an able seamen, but more than ordinary seamen and landsmen. Marines were furnished one new uniform per year and were allowed to keep the old one as a spare or sell it.
New recruits were promised an enlistment bounty of as much as 16 guineas. Unlike the army, Marines were also eligible for shares of prize money. If they had the luck to serve on a frigate, like Lord Cochrane’s HMS Pallas which took an exceptional number of prizes, that amount could be substantial. The officer in charge of a recruitment received a two guinea commission for every recruit from London; three pounds for others recruited elsewhere. At some point in their careers, most Marine officers served with a recruitment party.
The Marine weapon of choice was a Sea Service Brown Bess. It was a .75 caliber smoothbore musket similar to the East India Pattern variety used by the Army but had a two inch shorter barrel and simpler fittings. Three shots a minute was considered a good rate of fire. Marines were taught to duck while reloading at sea, to take full advantage of any shipboard cover.
The current Royal Marine insignia bears only one battle honor, Gibraltar, for their part in the capture of the Rock in 1704. That is far too modest for a stalwart force that has given Britain centuries of sterling service. It is high time for historians and novelists to start singing the praises of these heretofore unsung heroes.
John Danielski is the creator of the Captain Tom Pennywhistle trilogy, a series of historical novels set during the Napoleonic Period. These include: Active’s Measure, The King’s Scarlet and the forthcoming Blue Water, Scarlet Tide. Danielski has worked as a living history interpreter at Fort Snelling, a journalist and has taught history at both the secondary and university levels.