The Royal Marines in Aubrey’s Royal Navy

By Ron McGuigan

British Landing by Aleksandr Yezhov

One aspect of Napoleonic naval warfare that is somewhat difficult for denizens of the modern age to comprehend is the position of Royal Marines on Royal Navy ships. Throughout the Aubrey/Maturin series, we have the pleasure of meeting several very memorable Royal Marines, but their difference from the commissioned officers of the ship is never fully defined. Thankfully, Ron McGuigan is here to provide us with a thoroughly thorough definition, courtesy of The Napoleon Series.

Per Mare Per Terram – the Royal Marines 1793-1815

By Ron McGuigan

The following is a short, concise look at the Royal Marines during the Napoleonic Wars. Largely forgotten when calculating the forces of Great Britain, they formed a valuable reserve of men for the Royal Navy and were often available to serve quickly on land until army reinforcements arrived to assist or replace them.

The value of soldiers aboard a Royal Navy ship was long recognized with the first recorded regiment converted for sea service on 16th October 1664, shortly after the beginnings of Britain’s standing army.[1] There then followed a parade of Maritime Regiments raised for service during wartime, with land regiments serving as marines in the fleets as well, and then disbanded at the peace, although some were re-raised as land regiments and their lineage is perpetuated today.[2]

Between 1687 and 1698, a total of seven marine regiments were raised, all were subsequently disbanded between 1697 and 1698.

In early 1702, during the War of the Spanish Succession, orders were issued to raise six regiments of marines.  In 1701 and 1702, six other regiments were either converted or raised for ‘sea service’. They were either disbanded or converted to foot regiments by 1714. It is interesting to note that the marine regiments had 2nd lieutenants whilst those regiments designated for sea service had ensigns.[3]

The largest number of marine regiments was formed in 1739-1740, when ten regiments were raised for service. They ranked as the 44th to 53rd in seniority with the regular army regiments. They were all disbanded at the peace in 1748.[4]

Seven years after the last marine regiment had been disbanded, it was determined to raise a marine force on a permanent basis and on 5 April 1755 the order to raise the force was issued. With this in mind, fifty companies of marines were authorized divided into three divisions based at Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth. The companies were known as Marine Forces. A Colonel Commandant commanded each division. The main staff officer was the Adjutant General.

The year 1755 also marked the date when officers’ commissions in the Royal Marines were no longer allowed by purchase but by regular rotation of seniority. By 1762, there were 135 companies of marines which were drastically reduced to 70 companies at the peace in 1763.  Reaching 146 companies in 1782, by 1784 the establishment of the marine force had again been quickly reduced.[5] These companies served at sea and on land in the Seven Years War 1755-1763 and the American Revolution 1775-1783, sometimes as individual companies and sometimes as ad hoc battalions.[6] In 1791 an invalid establishment was created and  officers allowed to retire from active service.

Whenever the Royal Marines serve with the army, they take precedence in seniority after the 49th Regiment of Foot.[7] Royal Marine seniority is only calculated from its formation in 1755 and not by any previous service of the disbanded marine regiments.

When Great Britain found itself at war again on 1 February 1793,  it meant that for the next twenty-three years, the Royal Marines were in action around the globe.

During the years of peace between 1783 and 1793, the Royal Marines had been reduced to about 5,000 men. At the start of the war the Marines had 70 companies and in the Royal Navy estimates for 1793 the establishment was raised to 9,815 men. In July 1793, the Royal Marines were authorized to recruit in Ireland at three recruiting stations of Dublin, Waterford and Cork.[8]

In 1794 the establishment was increased to 12,000 men and in 1795 its establishment reached 15,000 men.  In 1796 it augmented the companies to 8 sergeants, 8 corporals, 8 drummers and 113 privates and later that year to 120 privates for a total establishment of some 18,000 men. There were no further augmentations in either 1797 or 1798. In 1799 its establishment reached 22,716 men and between 1800 and 1801 it reach 24,200. The number of companies increased with the augmentations in establishments.

On 29 April  1802, in recognition of their services, the companies were granted the style of Royal Marines by His Majesty King George III, “In order to mark his approbation of the very meritorious conduct of the Marines during the late war, has been graciously pleased to direct that in future the corps shall be called the Royal Marines.”[9] (Also carried in the army lists as Royal Marine Forces) The white facings of the corps were changed to blue in accordance with the practice that royal regiments all wore blue facings.

With the peace in 1802, it was reduced to 100 companies and 12,100 men. But in 1803, with war again declared, the Royal Marine establishment was raised to 22,467 men. With another increase in 1804 it reached 29,000 men.  A fourth division was formed at Woolwich in 1805 and the Marine establishment set at 30,000 with four artillery companies. The year 1806 saw additional companies raised to accommodate supernumerary Marines. Between 1807 and 1814 the establishment remained at 31,400 men. The peace of 1814 brought the usual reduction in numbers.

Even these augmentations proved inadequate and many line regiments served in the fleets between 1793 and 1814, although becoming less prevalent in the later years.[10]

The Royal Marine Artillery was raised c.1804 for service in the bomb-ketches and other like vessels with one company raised for each division. A fourth company was raised in 1805 when the Woolwich Division was formed. They first saw service with the Boulogne Squadron and then at Copenhagen 1807.

In 1747, the deployment aboard ship was usually at a ratio of one marine per gun with officers. This ratio was maintained when the Marine Forces were re-raised. The following gives a rough look at the complement of marines per ship for the Napoleonic Wars:[11]

Guns Rate Marines
100 1st 104
98 2nd 102
80 3rd 84
74 3rd 78
70 3rd 74
64 3rd 67
60 4th 63
50 4th 52
44 5th 45
36 5th 37
32 5th 33
28 6th 29
24 6th 25
20 6th 21
18 sloop 19

The Marines were present in every notable, and not so notable, fleet and ship-to-ship action between 1793-1815. For example they were at 1st of June, St Vincent, Camperdown, the Nile, Copenhagen, Trafalgar, the Dardenelles, Cape Lissa and Aix  Roads. They always formed part of any cutting out excursion (i. e. seizing an enemy ship by using ships’ boats and taking it from its anchorage). But the Marines also distinguished themselves on land either serving with the army or serving as part of a naval brigade (a force made up of both seamen and marines) such as at Tenerife in 1797 or Santa Maura in 1810.

Other examples are 1799 in the Helder where they helped garrison the forts or in 1812, where the Royal Marine Battalions served aboard Commodore Home Popham’s squadron off the north coast of Spain. Together with Spanish forces, they disrupted coastal traffic, captured several towns and ports and tied up the French Army of the North not allowing it to reinforce the Army of Portugal, which was subsequently defeated at Salamanca.

Most marine battalions were ad hoc formations temporarily made up from the marines serving in the fleet or squadron. There were Royal Marine battalions formed by the fleets for locations such as South Africa 1795, Acre 1799, Naples 1799, Malta 1800, Egypt 1801, Elba 1801, South Africa 1806, South America 1806-1807, Portugal 1808, Walcheren 1809, Anholt 1811, Java 1811, Netherlands 1813, North America 1814-1815 and Marseilles 1815.

There were, however, three more permanent battalions formed in Britain for service overseas:

The 1st Battalion at Chatham, formed 30 September 1810 for service in Lisbon as the Royal Marine Battalion (numbered when the 2nd Battalion was raised). It left Lisbon in early 1812 to reorganize in Britain and returned to the north coast of Spain in 1812.  Left for Britain again in December 1812 and arrived in Chesapeake Bay in June 1813 taking part in all of the operations there.  In October 1813, the 1st Battalion left for British North America where it served until July 1814 when it was ordered to be distributed in the Great Lakes squadrons.. A cadre reformed the battalion in Bermuda and it went to the Georgia coast, where it  last saw action at St. Mary’s River, Georgia in January and February 1815. It was finally disbanded in Britain July 1815. It had an artillery company and a small rocket corps attached.

The 2nd Battalion at Chatham, formed in July 1812 for service in the Peninsula. The 2nd Battalion arrived on the north coast of Spain in August 1812. In company with the 1st Battalion, it left for Britain December 1812. It arrived in the Chesapeake Bay in June 1813 taking part in all of the operations there. The 2nd Battalion was sent to British North America in September 1813.  By order of the Admiralty in May 1814, the 2nd Battalion was  broken up and dispersed among the Great Lakes squadrons. A cadre went to Chesapeake Bay where in August 1814, the 3rd Marine Battalion was now re-designated the 2nd Marine Battalion.  It saw service at Bladensburg. In December 1814, the 2nd Battalion, with the 3rd Battalion, went to join the 1st Battalion at St. Mary’s River, Georgia. The 2nd Battalion was disbanded in Britain July 1815.  It had an artillery company attached.

Each battalion organized for service in North America originally contained:

1 Major Commanding; 1 Major; 8 Captains; 16 Lieutenants; 1 Paymaster; 1 Adjutant; 1 Quartermaster; 1 Surgeon; 1 Assistant-Surgeon; 2 Staff-Sergeants, 40 Sergeants; 40 Corporals; 16 Drummers and 672 Privates.

Each battalion also included one company of Royal Marine Artillery:

1 Captain; 4 Lieutenants; 4 Sergeants; 4 Corporals; 6 Bombardiers; 2 Drummers and 60 Gunners.

Artillery consisted of:

Four light 6 pounders; two light 5 ½ inch howitzers; two 10 inch mortars and two 8 inch brass howitzers.

The 3rd Marine Battalion at Portsmouth, formed in January 1814, by detachments there and by Royal Marine detachments withdrawn from serving in the Netherlands. It consisted of:

1  Major, 4 Captains, 21 Lieutenants 1 Adjutant, 1 Quartermaster and 10 Companies of 100 men each. Attached was one company of Royal Marine Artillery.

It arrived in Chesapeake Bay in July 1814. In August 1814, the 3rd Battalion was re-designated the 2nd Battalion and in September Vice Admiral Cochrane[12] ordered the formation of a new 3rd Battalion using three companies of Royal Marines from the old 2nd Battalion and three companies of Colonial Marines. The Colonial Marines had been formed in Maryland, in May 1814, from escaped slaves and had been serving on the Atlantic coast. They saw service at Bladensburg and North Point.

The 3rd Battalion, with the 2nd Battalion, left Chesapeake Bay in December 1814 and rendezvoused with the 1st Battalion at St. Mary’s River, Georgia.  In April 1815 the Royal Marine companies were separated from the Colonial Marine companies of the 3rd Battalion. The Colonial Marines were joined by three new companies recruited from escaped slaves in Georgia, continued to be known as the 3rd Battalion, and finally disbanded in August 1815 in Trinidad.

In 1815, the Royal Marines once more went on a war footing. Officers just recently placed upon half-pay were brought back on full pay. The establishment was to be raised to two-thirds of its former war strength. The naval squadrons were reinforced by marine forces including detachments of the Royal Marine Artillery. One RMA company served in Wellington’s army where it was  stationed at Ostend.  Commanded by Captain Charles Burton, it consisted of 124 officers and men. Its original armament was to be of four 6-pders and two 5½-inch howitzers. These guns were left behind when the company sailed for Ostend in the first week of June. It remained in garrison at Ostend and the company was recalled home at the end of September.

For their services the Royal Marines received medal awards as diverse as the Portuguese Cayenne Medal 1809 awarded to the Marines of HMS Confiance and the Spanish Medals for Bagur and Palamos 1810. They were also eligible for the Naval General Service Medal (awarded in 1849) with clasps for specific fleet and ship-to-ship actions and as well as for boat service (e. g. cutting out excursions by using a ship’s boats). Royal Marines were also eligible for the Army General Service Medal (awarded 1848) with clasps for Martinique 1809, Guadeloupe 1810 and Java 1811

Between 1814 and 1816, the Royal Marines were reduced to a peacetime establishment set at eighty companies (four of artillery) of 6,222 men.  This reduction, of course, did not last and its numbers again increased and you see the Royal Marines once again  called upon to serve around the globe both at sea and on land.

Further Reading:

In addition to the books on the history of the Royal Marines listed in the sources, other further reading sources are:

Blumberg, H. E. (Herbert Edward), Sir. Britain’s sea soldiers: a record of the Royal Marines during the war 1914-1919. Devonport : Swiss & Co., 1927.

Field, Cyril. Britain’s sea soldiers : a history of the Royal Marines and their predecessors and of their services in action, ashore and afloat, and upon sundry other occasions of moment. Liverpool: The Lyceum Press, 1924. (2 v.)

Ladd, James D. By sea, by land : the Royal Marines, 1919-1997 : an authorised history. Rev. and updated ed. London : HarperCollins,1998. ISBN: 000472366X

Thompson, Julian. The Royal Marines : from sea soldiers to a special force. [new ed.] London : Pan, Year: 2001. ISBN: 0330377027


Chichester, Henry Manners & Burges Short, George, The Records and Badges of the British Army, second edition, Gale and Polden Ltd. Aldershot 1900, reprinted by Frederick Muller Ltd. London 1970

Fraser, E. and Carr-Laughton, L. G., Royal Marine Artillery 1804-1923, volume I, The Royal United Service Institution London 1930.

Frederick, J. B. M., Lineage Book of the British Army, Hope Farm Press, Cornwallville, 1969

Gillespie, Alexander, Major. An historical review of the Royal Marine Corps : from its original institution down to the present era, 1803. M. Sweeney Birmingham [England], 1803. 423pp

Gordon, Major Lawrence L., British Battles and Medals, 3rd Edition, Gale & Polden Ltd., Aldershot 1967.

Haythornthwaite, Philip J., The Napoleonic Source Book, Facts on File Inc., New York 1990

Joslin, E. C., Litherland. A. R.  & Simpkin, B. T., British Battles and Medals,  Spink & Sons Ltd., London 1988

Nicolas, Paul Harris, Historical record of the Royal Marine forces.  423pp. 2 vols. Thomas and William Boone London 1845

The Times, newspaper various issues.


[1] This is believed to be Sir William Killigrew’s Regiment raised October 1662. Now formally designated the Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot (The Lord High Admiral’s Regiment). Usually known as the Admiral’s Regiment and disbanded 28 February, 1689.

[2] These were the 8th Foot, 30th Foot, 31st Foot and 32nd Foot, perpetuated today in The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment and the Light Infantry (to become The Rifles in 2007), respectively.

[3] Gillespie, An historical review of the Royal Marine Corps, page 12. The six Marine Regiments were the 30th Foot, 31st Foot, 32nd Foot along with Harry Mordaunt’s Marines, Henry Holt’s Marines and Viscount Shannon’s Marines which latter three were disbanded in 1713. The six ‘sea service’ regiments were the 6th Foot, 19th Foot, 20th Foot, 34th Foot, 35th Foot and 36th Foot, perpetuated today in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, The Yorkshire Regiment, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment and The Worcerstershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment (to become The Mercian Regiment in 2007), respectively.

[4] Although officially known by the name of their regimental colonel, they are often referred to as the 1st through 10th Marine Regiments

[5] The end of the war reduced the peacetime establishment again to 70 companies and 4,495 men.

[6] In May 1775, two battalions of Marines were organized in Britain for service in North America. Commanded by Major John Pitcairn they each consisted of one grenadier company, eight centre companies, numbered one through eight,  and one light infantry company.  The battalions saw service in Boston Massachusetts 1775-1777. They were consolidated into one battalion in 1777, then garrisoned Halifax Nova Scotia and returned to Britain in 1778.

[7] The 49th Regiment of Foot was ordered formed 25 December 1743 and today is perpetuated by The Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Light Infantry (to become The Rifles in 2007).  The next senior army regiment, the 50th Regiment of Foot was ordered raised 18 December 1755 and today is  perpetuated by The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.

[8] Chichester & Burges Short, The Records and Badges of the British Army, page 898.

[9] The Times, 8 July 1793.

[10] Line regiments which served in the fleet included the 2nd Foot, 7th Foot, 11th Foot, 14th Foot, 18th Foot, 25th Foot, 29th Foot, 30th Foot, 49th Foot, 50th Foot, 51st Foot,  56th Foot, 63rd Foot, 69th Foot, 86th Foot, 87th Foot, 89th Foot, 90th Foot, 97th Foot, 118th Foot plus the Experimental Corps of Riflemen, Royal Newfoundland Fencible Infantry, Royal York Rangers and The Scotch Brigade.

[11] The Napoleonic Source Book, page 389.

[12] Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane (1758-1832) commanding the North American Station.

Courtesy of Ron McGuigin and The Napoleon Series.

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