Daniel J McLean, The Royal Marines on the Western Front (Pen & Sword, 2021)
Daniel McLean posits that the public perception of the Royal Marines stems from their actions in World War II, but the Regiment goes back to 1664 and they already had an enviable record before the 1940s. He traces their development briefly, but his focus is on World War I. And what a story he has to tell.
In 1914, the Royal Marines numbered just under 19,000 men with too few officers. In August they defended Ostend but returned to England within weeks. Some left for France with armoured cars, which performed well, but they too were soon withdrawn. Then they went back to Belgium and this time they saw action at Antwerp against overwhelming odds. The RM were almost wiped out at Gallipoli, but that is outside McLean’s remit. The shattered RM went from Gallipoli to France via Mudros in May 1916 where they refitted and trained for trench warfare. The RM also kept its naval distinctions despite the best efforts of the army to make them conform. In November, they took part in an assault near Beaucourt with only one-quarter coming out healthy. And this was a victory!
Trench fighting continued in February 1917 on the Ancre and so did the heavy casualties even though the RM were again successful in their attacks. They fought with distinction at Arras in April despite suffering their heaviest single day casualties in their history. In October, the RM was pitched into the fight for Passchendaele in horrendous conditions. In 1918, the RM bore the brunt of the German Spring Offensive and were soon conducting a series of withdrawals; but they also took part in the counter-attacks, including Cambrai, that ended the war.
In the rest of his book, Mclean delves into the RM artillery, one brigade of howitzers and another of anti-aircraft guns. They also operated a Heavy Siege train in 1917. The author includes a rollicking chapter on the raid on Zeebrugge in April 1918, and a fascinating account of Lt Louis Stokes, based mainly on his letters, who was killed in November 1916. McLean concludes with brief synopses on miscellaneous RM units and personalities. An appendix lists RM medal winners.
McLean’s account of the RM in WWI provides a valuable insight into an unusual force. It is obvious that the men who fought in the RM saw themselves as something different with a reputation to protect and enhance, and that applied to most outsiders who joined their ranks as combat wore down the RM rank and file. The experience of war for the RM, however, quickly resembled that of the army units they fought alongside in the drudgery of the trenches. The book feels a bit unbalanced with not enough emphasis on the narrative of operations and the men doing the fighting, and a bit too much on medals as indicators of how the RM performed. Nevertheless, the chapters on artillery and Zeebrugge are very useful and overall WWI readers will no doubt enjoy this book as I did.