Royal Marines Landing
Marines have traditionally been sea-going infantry, able to fight as well on land as on board ship. During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, all navies had a complement of marines on board their vessels, and when there was a shortage of such troops, resorted to using soldiers from the army.
On board ship, marines were associated with helping to maintain discipline and enforce regulations below deck, suppressing mutinies, and performing guard duties. British marines (they received the title “Royal” in 1802) were to stand guard whenever punishment was inflicted. In the Royal Navy it was normal practice to maintain a social barrier between the marines and seamen, to ensure that the former did not form a bond with the seamen in the event of mutiny. However, this policy did not always succeed, as many marines took part in the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore in 1797.
Marines played an important role in the amphibious warfare that was a notable feature of the era. Small landing parties could consist of a mix of marines and armed seamen, while for specific operations large detachments of marines would be involved. In 1808 a party of 300 marines from all the Royal Navy ships on the Portugal station were brought together and landed at Figueras in support of a local uprising. A Royal Marine battalion was added to Sir Home Popham’s forces on the north coast of Spain in 1812, taking part in many landings, including the capture of Santander.
Apart from amphibious operations, marines were used extensively on land. They formed garrisons in friendly ports, especially when enemy colonies were captured. In Europe, French marines formed the garrisons of many coastal fortifications. French colonial garrisons also included detachments of these men.
In battle at sea, marines had a number of roles to play. Detachments would be used to fire disciplined volleys of musketry at opposing ships when they came into range; individual marines in the rigging would fire onto enemy decks, aiming at officers and gun crews. Boarding parties would consist of both marines and sailors, and the former would help defend against such onslaughts. On the capture of an enemy vessel, marines played a prominent role in securing the prize and guarding prisoners of war.
The employment of artillerymen from the army on board ship often gave rise to disputes over who had authority over such non-naval personnel. In 1804 the British Admiralty formed the Royal Marine Artillery to man the mortars and guns on bomb vessels, and these troops were landed (often with howitzers) in support of naval operations on land in the Iberian Peninsula and in America during the War of 1812. The French had no marine infantry units as such after 1795, but did have units of marine artillery who were trained and equipped as infantry and expected to perform all the duties of marines. After 1803 many French marines found themselves in the armies marching across Europe, especially in the campaigns of 1813 and 1814, as Napoleon sought ever-more troops to bolster his dwindling forces.
In addition to its ordinary crew, every warship from sloops through frigates and ships of the line was supplied with a contingent of marines, who comprised about a fifth of a ship’s company. Approximately 120 marines served aboard a 74-gun ship, whose full complement numbered about 550. About 150 served aboard a first rate. Marines (who were designated ‘Royal Marines’ from April 1803) had originated as soldiers, drawn from foot regiments and assigned for service at sea. Unlike many sailors, marines were never pressed, but rather were composed entirely of volunteers who normally agreed to serve for the duration of the war. Many other differences separated sailors and marines, as one contemporary observer noted:
No two races of men, I had well-nigh said two animals, differ from one another more completely than the ‘Jollies’ and ‘Johnnies’. The marines … enlisted for life, or for long periods as in the Regular Army, and, when not employed afloat, are kept in barracks, in such constant training, under the direction of their officers, that they are never released for one moment of their lives from the influence of strict discipline and habitual obedience. The sailors, on the contrary, when their ship is paid off, are turned adrift, and so completely scattered abroad, that they generally lose … all they have learned of good order during the previous three or four years. Even when both parties are placed on board ship, and the general discipline maintained in its fullest operation, the influence of regular order and exact subordination is at least twice as great over the marines as it can ever be over the sailors.
When hostilities began in February 1793 the marines numbered only 5,000, but by 1802 they had expanded enormously to 30,000, a figure which remained about the same until fighting with France ended 12 years later. The Royal Marines were based at four locations: Chatham, Portsmouth, Plymouth and Woolwich.
The Marines performed two functions: when at sea when their ship was not in the presence of an enemy they stood watch at various points in the ship such as at the admiral’s and other officers’ quarters, the magazine, the spirit room (where alcohol was stored) and other areas that required some form of security. In this capacity, marines served to prevent indiscipline and mutiny, and it is unsurprising that their own quarters, separate from those of the sailors, were strategically located near the wardroom, thus providing a buffer between the officers and seamen. When not acting as sentinels, marines assisted in various tasks, such as in adding their strength to those seamen engaged in heavy lifting and hoisting. Marines often assisted in hauling ropes, turning the capstan when raising the anchor to get under way, and carrying heavy loads. Marines were not required to work amongst the rigging, but might do so as volunteers keen to acquire the skills of an able seaman.
When their ship engaged the enemy, the marines’ principal function was to provide small-arms fire, usually from the quarterdeck, when an opposing ship came within range of their muskets. They would also lead boarding parties or repel boarders on to their own vessel. Where their firepower and close-quarter fighting skills were not required, marines assisted at the guns, usually in some simple capacity that would enable them to leave this temporary post to assume their customary role elsewhere. During operations they provided a spearhead for soldiers or sailors, particularly against fortified positions and naval installations. Marines were also used in cutting-out operations, which involved seizing enemy vessels at anchor and either sailing them away as prizes or setting them alight. Marines could also be sent ashore to guard prisoners, weapons, powder or buildings.
References and further reading Brooks, Richard. 2002. The Royal Marines: A History. London: Constable and Robinson. Chartrand, René. 1990. Napoleon’s Sea Soldiers. London: Osprey. Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. 2005. Nelson’s Sailors. Oxford: Osprey. Lavery, Brian. 1989. Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men and Organisation, 1793-1815. London: Conway Maritime.