The corps that cheated death

The Royal Marines
August 31, 2001

In 1664, Charles II directed that "twelve hundred land soldiers" be raised and prepared for sea service with His Majesty's Fleets, the said men to be put into one regiment, emerging as the duke of York and Albany's Maritime Regiment of Foot. Because the duke of York was lord high admiral, this Maritime Regiment became known as the Admiral's Regiment and formed part of the army.

The Admiral's Regiment was first mentioned as "marines" at the beginning of the third Dutch war by Captain Taylor, secretary to Lord Arlington, citing the "stout behaviour" of "those marines of whom I so oft have wrote you". In 1747, marine regiments moved under full Admiralty control, and eight years later Parliament approved the establishment of 5,000 marines, 50 independent companies organised into three divisions. The Royal Marines emerged early in the 19th century. On April 29 1802, George III ordered that on his birthday, June 4, the marines should take the honorific "Royal" in recognition of their achievements since 1755.

In popular imagination, the very name Royal Marines conjures up the picture of a super-elite force committed to and expert in amphibious operations, its expertise applied across the continents and globally acknowledged. In his excellent history of the Royal Marines, outlining the evolution from "sea soldiers" to today's elite force, Major-General Julian Thompson, himself a distinguished Royal Marines senior officer, demonstrates how very recent that amphibious capability is. Thompson's study is no recital of derring-do. On the contrary, what emerges is that the very survival of the Royal Marines is something to be marvelled at.

Marines of the 18th century were by no means trained as, nor intended to be, an elite force. Marines were paid less than seamen. Many marines left the corps to become able seamen and earn higher pay and higher social standing aboard ship. In the navy, neither securing a commission nor promotion was by purchase. For years, the marines attracted officers who could not afford to purchase a commission in the army. According to Thompson: "The marines became a poor man's regiment." At sea, the highest rank a marine officer could hope for was captain, possibly major. Ashore, his chances were much improved within his division, where a colonelcy might materialise, in late Victorian times even the rank of brigadier-general. The esteem in which officers and men were held was low.

This condition was not improved by the disbandment that followed each war, despite the continuous and remarkable contributions from marines. At Bellisle, the French saluted the achievements of "les petits grenadiers", referring to the marines wearing Grenadier caps but lacking the stature of Grenadiers. The recognition of achievement came in 18 with George IV's award of the "Globe encircled with Laurel" badge as "most appropriate" of the 106 battle honours to which the marines were entitled. After the Napoleonic wars, the corps was not disbanded but its status remained low.

Although acknowledging First Sea Lord "Jackie" Fisher's contribution to modernising the navy in the early 20th century, Thompson is critical not only of his hostile attitude to the marines, but also of his lack of foresight in not ensuring that the greatest fleet in the world had an amphibious capability. Using marines in the fleet had become an anachronism. Long-range big-gun engagements ruled out boarding parties. Soldiers as part of ship's crew were also an anachronism. Fisher recognised this but did not draw the right conclusions, namely to withdraw the marines from ship detachments and use the manpower saved to establish "a permanently constituted expert landing force". Fisher's interest in mounting amphibious operations on the German coast, the Frisian Islands and the Baltic involved the army, a "projectile to be fired ashore by the Navy", leaving the marines manning the guns on the supporting ships.

It was 30 years before the missed opportunity was recognised - years traced by Thompson through the Dardanelles, the battle of Jutland, Royal Marines Light Infantry battalions in France, Zeebrugge, latterly North Russia 1918-19 and the interwar years. The Royal Marines were not regarded as an amphibious force in their own right; their contribution to pre-1939 amphibious planning was minimal. Early in the second world war, a substantial segment of Royal Marine manpower was absorbed by two MNBDOs (Royal Marine Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation), which drained away valuable talent and manpower into a defensive role.

But the days of what Thompson calls "the great reorganisation" were almost to hand. In 1943, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten highlighted the stark choice: either the Royal Marines converted to the commando role and put themselves into landing craft or hazard their postwar existence. The Royal Marine Division and the two MNBDOs were disbanded. The manpower saved went to the nine commandos already formed or being formed and to manning landing craft, full control of which the Admiralty assigned to the Royal Marines. It was a decision that, according to Thompson, marked a decisive turning point in the wartime fortunes of the corps and indeed in all of its history.

But commandos and landing craft notwithstanding, the corps barely escaped with its life after 1945. Consideration of disbanding completely was parried by the Admiralty proposal for a strength related to the need to man ship detachments. But as the ships steadily disappeared, so would the Royal Marines. In the event, Lieutenant General Sir Leslie Hollis saved the day for the commandos, for the marines and for a future as a lead player in amphibious capability.

Thompson's vivid narrative and incisive analysis cover the spectrum of organisation and activity that has seen the Royal Marines move from a force generally respected to one enjoying unquestioned elite status. The narrative itself is rich, amply filled with official history, memoirs and private records. Fascinating though these particulars are, what comes across in striking fashion is how much time had to pass and what crises had to be surmounted, including frequent challenges to the corps' very existence, before there was a satisfactory resolution of the key issue: "What are the marines for?"

As much as this volume is an important contribution to military history, it is equally an illuminating exposition of how military attitudes form, how operational roles are identified and apportioned, and how expertise is or is not exploited. That the latter case was very frequent is something Thompson cautions the marines to forget at their peril.

John Erickson is emeritus professor and honorary fellow in defence studies, University of Edinburgh.

The Royal Marines: From Soldiers to a Special Force

Author - Julian Thompson
ISBN - 0 283 06315 7 and 0330 37702 7
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £30.00 and £10.00
Pages - 699

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