Royal Navy history
Royal Marines

How the Royal Marines began

Well before the days of Commandos, Marines were not ‘Royal’, or even ‘marines’ …

Royal Navy history

We have all heard of the Royal Marine Commandos, thanks to their reputation for unparalleled excellence in amphibious warfare.

A large part of this excellence stems of the elite commando training they receive. Yet, as the the history of the Marines shows, there was a time when the word ‘commando’ did not naturally follow from ‘royal marine’. 

As it turns out, there was also a time when the Marines were not royal.

And if you go even further back, there was a time when the Marines were not even marines. Instead, they were simply regiments of foot soldiers assembled for temporary duties at sea.

What follows is a look at some of the huge changes in the organisation of Britain’s corps of Marines over the course of its long history.

Britain’s First ‘Marines’

The Royal Marines may not have started out as officially royal, but they did at least begin because of an order from the king.

In 1664, Charles II decreed that a regiment of foot soldiers should be formed specifically for service aboard Royal Navy ships. The Act of Disbandment forbade the King from raising regiments for the Army, but the Navy was a different matter.

This was duly done, with men drawn from the City of London’s trained bands (essentially militia units), and officers and NCOs from other infantry regiments. 

When they were all assembled, they formed the ‘Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot’, or more simply the ‘Admiral’s Regiment’.

This was not the first time that sea-service regiments had been formed for naval duties and campaigns, and then disbanded again when a certain naval conflict was over. This process had been repeated at various points throughout English history.

The difference this time was that it was the first time these sea soldiers were referred to as ‘marines’. These first Marines were, like the sea soldiers who went before them, also eventually disbanded in 1689, though others would soon follow. 

Due to the heavy reliance on the Army in these early days, one would expect there to have been a number of similarities between marines and soldiers. And yet, significant differences seem to have emerged between them. 

For example, the Service Narrative at the National Museum of the Royal Navy quotes a politician from the 1740s who likened marines and soldiers in the Army to different species:

“A soldier and a Marine are quite different creatures, as different as an otter and a fox."

history of the royal marines
A depiction of Marine recruitment shown in a picture entitled simply 'Recruits' by H W Bunbury and published 1780 by Watson & Dickinson (image: Royal Marines Museum)

It is hard to know what this politician thought made soldiers like otters, or marines like foxes (or vice versa?), though the impermanence of the Marines probably had a lot to do with why differences emerged. The continuous forming, disbanding and reforming of Marine units prevented them from establishing an esprit de corps or the kinds of regimental traditions their counterparts in the Army enjoyed. 

Though their presence soon grew, something that naturally led to them being a permanent part of the Armed Forces. Sea service regiments went from two to 10 between 1689 and 1740, with anywhere between 750 to 1,000 men in each regiment. 

During this period, the Marines also served with distinction. For instance, in 1704, British and Dutch Marines took and held Gibraltar during a nine-month siege. 

And marines became more important as the British Empire continued its expansion in the 18th Century, since they were needed to help capture and hold overseas coastal bases for the Royal Navy.

Then, as now, the Marines were also infinitely adaptable. They served on ships, their numbers on each vessel corresponding almost exactly to the number of guns it had – for instance, a 64-gun ship would have 64 Marines, plus three Marine officers. According to the Service Narrative:

“Here they fought and boarded at close quarters, defended the ships in action and provided the ships disciplined military force. They provided raw muscle power for many ship routines but could not be forced to go aloft (i.e. into the rigging.)”

They also performed an amphibious role, attacking and holding coastal positions, and they served as garrison troops on naval bases.

A Permanent Sea Force

The first step towards the establishment of a permanent Marine corps was the decision in 1746 to bring the 10 Marine regiments under Admiralty control. 

George Anson, 1st Lord of the Admiralty, then made the Marines an official and permanent part of the Royal Navy in 1755. They would make up 11 percent of its personnel in peacetime, and a quarter of its strength in wartime, being organised into three Grand Divisions based in Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth, and, for a while, a fourth at Woolwich.

Though the official establishment of a Marine corps did not mean the Marines were yet on a par with the Army or Royal Navy – at least not in terms of status. Again, as the Service Narrative explains:

“With no trade in commissions, slow promotion, limited field commands and no regimental headquarters to shine in, officers of Marines were drawn not from the elite but the middling classes; the Corps was an unfashionable choice for officers and offered only limited social progress.”

As for the men, they were mostly drawn from England (i.e. rather than Scotland or Wales) and the majority had been semi-skilled labourers or tradesmen before joining up, though some came from very poor backgrounds or had been criminals.

No matter what the background of a Marine at this time, a sense of adventure seems to have been the primary reason for joining up:

“It was the potential for a share in prize money and a chance to discover the world as much as pay and prospects of promotion which attracted officers and men to the Corps.”

Discover the world they soon would. 

Royal Marines Museum Napoleonic Wars
St Pauls, Isle de Bourbon, which was raided by the British in 1809, during the Napoleonic Wars (image: Royal Marines Museum)

The Marines Become ‘Royal’ Marines

Because of the vastness of their empires by the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, British Marines who fought against the French during this period took part in what were really world wars, before the term became official in the 20th Century.

The Marines were particularly important because troops who could serve on land or at sea were essential for protecting Britain’s various imperial domains. To take a few examples, the Marines fought on ships during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, and on land they attacked the imperial holdings of the French and Spanish in Africa, Canada, Cuba and the Philippines. 

In fact, the lack of a traditional system of regiments became an advantage at this point, giving the Marines a flexible structure that helped them fill the various roles they needed to perform. 

The Service Narrative quotes First Lord of the Admiralty Earl St Vincent as saying of them: 

“I never knew an appeal made to them for honour, courage or loyalty that they did not more than realise my highest expectations. If ever the hour of real danger should come … they will be found the country’s sheet anchor.”

In 1802, Admiral St Vincent secured a ‘Royal’ title for the service from King George III.

Henceforth, they would be known as the Royal Marines.

Royal Marines history
‘A Private of the Royal Maines’, shown here in 1815 (image: © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

Serving Under Queen Victoria And Into WW1

Throughout the 19th Century, the service continued to grow, with the number of Royal Marines increasing to 18,800 men by the year 1900.

Unlike today, they did not all serve in one organisation but two distinct branches with their own uniforms. By 1900, 15,000 Royal Marines Light Infantry (RMLI) were wearing red uniforms, while 4,000 men in the Royal Marines Artillery were in blue uniforms.

Of these two groups, the Service Narrative points out that they not only looked different, but drew different types of people to the service:

“The RMA – bluff, stolid, traditional, technically expert; the RMLI – more fleet-of-foot, versatile, wearing the Light Infantry bugle in their cap badge.”

As for the officers, many were Scottish or Irish and most were of modest means. Unable to purchase expensive commissions in the Army or elsewhere in the Navy, they were drawn to the Royal Marines, given the relatively few high ranks within the service coupled with the opportunities to see action around the world.

That action continued to be varied and demanding, with Marines serving great guns on ships or shore batteries, forming landing parties and going further inland to support the Army in its campaigns.

Towards the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th, the emergence of coal-powered, motorised metal battleships (‘castles of steel’, as they have been dubbed) made the Marines less important. Amphibious assaults and large-scale, ship-to-ship sea battles were rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

Yet the importance of the Royal Marines became apparent again during the First World War when the Corps expanded from 18,000 to 55,000 men who saw action throughout the conflict. They defended Ostend and Antwerp in 1914, fought in Battle of Jutland in 1916, the Gallipoli campaign the year before, and on the Western Front and elsewhere throughout the conflict, winning five Victoria Crosses over the course of the war. 

The Light Infantry and Artillery Arms of the Corps were also joined into one service during World War 1, though perhaps the most important action for the future of the service took place in 1918 on the coast of Belgium.

This was the Zeebrugge Raid, a daring mission to trap German U-boats in their base at the Belgian port of Bruges-Zeebrugge. 

In a sense, it was a forerunner to the Commando raids they would participate in during World War 2, which forms the next part of the Royal Marines story, that is when the Royal Marines became the Royal Marines Commandos.

Thanks to the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN), Royal Marines Museum (part of the NMRN) and to the Royal Marines Historical Society for assistance with this report. For information on the Royal Marines, visit the NMRN or refer to the timeline of Marines’ history at royal-marines.net.