The Boys In The Fighting Tops

The derivation of the word “marine,” familiar to those who know their Latin, is from “mare,” or the sea. There is, however, another definition for this word: an elite soldier who serves aboard ship or with a naval force.

The first marines were, not surprisingly, created by the British in 1664. Originally known as the Admiral’s Regiment, this unit was formed as a result of an Order-in-Council, which directed that, “1,200 soldiers be distributed in His Majesty’s fleete prepared for sea service.” More maritime militia than conventional military unit, these combat forces were raised and organized as war clouds gathered, but they were just as quickly disbanded when hostilities ceased. In 1755, however, a fundamental revamping of the organization occurred. The most important change involved the permanency of the force; no longer were units formed only when war was imminent. The regimental system was abandoned, and henceforth, a Corps of Marines would exist at all times, serving aboard all warships of every type and size. Marines served as sentries, participated in armed landing parties, acted as snipers from a rig’s fighting tops and, with the advent of the steam warship era, manned at least one of the ship’s gun turrets as well as forming the nucleus of the ship’s band.

The British Corps of Marines distinguished itself, fighting on both land and at sea in the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolution, the French Revolutionary Wars, the Napoleonic Wars, among countless other conflicts both large and small. In 1802, the Corp of Marines became the Royal Marines, a designation they use to this day.

The elite nature of the Royal Marines was surpassed only, perhaps, by the smug and cynical disposition of 19th-century Royal Navy sailors. They considered themselves consummate professionals, and with good reason, as England’s Navy was at that time peerless. Sailors, therefore, had little use for Marines, whom they considered but landsmen at best, or simply another infantry unit that relied on the Navy for transport to distant battlefields.

Thanks to the uneasy relationship that existed between Royal Navy tars and Royal Marines, sailors, some of them in lofty positions, composed the expected sarcastic and witty aphorisms for which they are so well known. Legend has it that, while dining aboard one of His Majesty’s men of war, King William IV, known as England’s eccentric sailor king (at the time, he was still Duke of Clarence), directed a steward to, “clear away the dead marines,” in reference to a number of empty wine bottles that littered the dinner table. When a Marine officer protested, William backed his sails, clarifying his statement and indicating that, like the Royal Marines aboard ship, the wine had done its duty honorably and would be ready to do it again when called upon. Jack Tar, however, was not bound by political correctness, and thus his definition for the phrase was more cynical and somewhat less flattering. Sailors considered an empty wine bottle as useless as a dead Marine, live ones being useless enough.

As if there were any doubt as to the volume of love lost between 18th- and 19th-century Royal Marines and Royal Navy sailors, another phrase, originally attributed to King Charles II, dispels this uncertainty. The King had great confidence in the war-fighting ability and veracity of his, “Marine Regiment of foot.” He directed that, “henceforth, ere we cast doubts upon a tale that lacks likelihood, we will first tell it to the Marines.” Once again, England’s sardonic Royal Navy sailors morphed this aphorism into an altogether different meaning. Because they considered shipboard Marines to be gullible, dim-witted and ignorant in the ways of the sea, they were often the butt of much of Jack Tar’s raillery. If an unbelievable tale were told to a sailor, his response would likely have been, “Go tell it to the Marines,” as in, sailors are too clever to believe it.

By Ocean Navigator