John is a historian and researcher interested in the relation between war and society.
The Royal Marines Memorial, also known as the ‘Graspan Memorial’, is located next to Admiralty Arch on the Mall in London. Originally established by the Royal Marines with the conviction to honour fallen comrades, as a cultural representation of a military organisation the Royal Marines Memorial can inform us about some of the institutional and cultural aspects of Britain’s Corps of ‘Sea Soldiers’. The memorial was established at a time when the Royal Marines faced an existential crisis, struggling how best to demonstrate and influence their purpose and mission within the Royal Navy. Since its inception, the interpretation of this monument has evolved over time with the many challenges faced by the Corps.
The role of the Royal Marines was very much under threat by the mid-nineteenth century. Significant changes were taking place in Britain, and for the Royal Navy this meant a developing dialogue on how Britain envisioned its own defence requirements. Morale and discipline in the navy had also improved with the introduction of fixed contracts for sailors, thus eroding the traditional occupation for marines at sea in keeping order and discipline. Improvements to naval gunnery also decreased the likelihood of close actions at sea, and it was also accepted that sailors were just as capable at repelling boarders with instruction on the use of small arms.
More alarming perhaps, was the employment of bluejackets ashore as improvised infantry in ad-hoc ‘naval brigades.’ The idea that sailors could and might replace the once traditional roles of marines, was a challenging development for the marines who believed themselves best suited to such tasks based on their training and occupational role. With all these developments, the role of the marines was becoming increasingly ambiguous and many of their traditional roles were now viewed as redundant. As a new century approached, there were increasing questions as to what purpose the marines might serve, as well as an advocacy by some in the Admiralty and in Government, for the outright dissolution of the Marines.
A memorial for the marines
By 1900, events had taken place which prompted marines to lobby for the placement of a memorial to remember fallen comrades. The memorial was conceived in order to commemorate the service and sacrifices of the Royal Marines in the campaigns of the South African, or Boer War, in 1899 and the recent war in China known as the ‘Boxer Rebellion’ in the summer of 1900. Shortly after these events, serving marines and old comrades societies petitioned the government for permission to establish a memorial commemorating the fallen of these conflicts, and that it should be placed prominently in London. At this time, no monument to the Corps of any significance existed in the capitol. It was hoped by the Royal Marines that the memorial would also serve to remind the government and the nation of the services rendered by their Corps.
On April 25th, 1903, the new memorial was unveiled by HRH The Prince of Wales, the Royal Marines Colonel in Chief. The monument itself was paid for by the subscriptions of mainly serving and former Royal Marines, which were advertised in the Corps journal ‘The Globe and Laurel’. Early on, the memorial had had the backing of the Prince of Wales, later George V, who would throughout his life take a keen interest and devotion to matters affecting the Corps.
While the memorial is today located on the Mall in London, just opposite Admiralty Arch, which at the time the memorial was the erected in 1903, Admiralty Arch did not exist. The statue was originally located adjacent to the Admiralty Buildings and the Horse Guards Parade in what was called the Cambridge enclosure of St James’s Park.
The monument itself is otherwise unchanged from its original inception. It consists of two bronze figures on a Portland stone plinth, designed by sculptor Adrian Jones, of a Marine with rifle and bayonet levelled protecting a wounded comrade at his feet. Carved dolphins on each corner of the plinth evoke and emphasise the nautical traditions of the Corps. Two bronze relief plaques by Sir Thomas Graham Jackson depicted the respective campaigns meant to be commemorated. The first for South Africa, here marines and sailors are employing naval guns on improvised gun carriages for service on land.
The next for Peking and the Boxer Rebellion in which the Royal Marines are seen repulsing a Boxer attack. This scene also includes a representation of a United States Marine as the US Marine Corps and Royal Marines did in fact serve side by side in this action defending the foreign legations.
The front of plinth displays a representation of the Corps emblem of the time, the globe and laurel, which included a now obsolete feature of the bursting bomb for the Royal Marines Artillery and the bugle for the Royal Marines Light Infantry; by 1923 following serious revisions around the costs of the armed forces, these two distinct branches were amalgamated into the Royal Marines. The reverse of the monument lists the names all those who died in both conflicts, twenty-five from Africa and forty-five from China.
Although well received by the Royal Marines, the memorial invariably drew some criticism. A long standing critic of the Corps was the First Sea Lord, John or ‘Jackie’ Fisher, whose ambition for reforms in the ‘Selborne-Fisher’ included a plan to make the role of the Royal Marine Officer redundant by replacing them with naval officers; the plan was seen by many as the inevitable demise of the Corps. Fisher likewise privately expressed his own views on the memorial in a letter to Sir William May, Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Fleet. In the letter, Fisher stated his views on Royal Marines officers as “always hankering after the Army”, that “the Marine Officer can’t be loyal”. Fisher also referred to “that statue outside the Admiralty in honour of the Marines, recently put up by them”, viewing its presentation and proximity to Horse Guards as a snub to the navy.
A new Corps, a new future?
During the Second World War, the Corps would acquire a new purpose alongside their duties at sea manning gun turrets. The newly found role as commandos, would eventually result in the complete transformation of the Corps. It was also at this time that the memorial itself, removed during the war to make way for a new bomb proof operations centre for the Admiralty, known as the Admiralty Citadel, nearly fell into obscurity. In 1940, the memorial and statue, along with another memorial to the Royal Naval Division of the FWW, had been stored in Nine Elms on the Southbank on an industrial estate, not far from the newlyy relocated United States Embassy.
At the war’s conclusion, it was noted in July 1945 by the Royal Marines’ Old Comrades Associations in London, that no plans were seemingly underway for the restoration of the statue, and they petitioned the Ministry of Works for its reinstallation. From the Ministry documents in the National Archives, it is also clear that the original plans for the return of the statue were not in keeping with the Corps’ legacy or best interests in mind; the bureaucrats were more concerned with the aesthetics of the grounds and parks under their care. When considering spaces in the park for the return of either the Naval Division fountain or the Royal Marine Memorial, “the fountain” it was felt, “is much the better”, and suggested that, “the far from distinguished Royal Marines Memorial should go to Chatham Barracks”.
Finally, an alternative plan emerged where the statue might be returned close to its original location. By placing it opposite the statue of Captain Cook, erected in 1914, this would have the effect of “completing an otherwise somewhat incomplete corner of the Admiralty Arch environs”. The plan was approved internally by the Ministry, with a recognition in a footnote admitting that “the removal of the Royal Marines [Memorial] to Chatham would probably have offended the Corps”. In November of 1946, it was confirmed that the statue would be re-sited opposite Captain Cook adjacent to Admiralty Arch on the Mall – but following delays, it was not restored until August of 1948.
The replacement of the monument in 1948 coincided with an intriguing internal debate over the renaming of the Corps itself. Following the invention and adoption of the Commandos during the war, the suggestion was raised for Corps to be renamed “The Royal Marines Commandos”. The Royal Marines Commandos of today are in many ways very different from their predecessors, but the importance of heritage and a regimental lineage remain of importance today. By 2000, the Royal Marines Memorial was rededicated to the memory of all Royal Marines; especially the fallen in war. Today, the annual parade in London in May of each year held by the Royal Marines Association at the memorial on the Mall, is known ‘The Graspan Parade’.
The experience and outcomes of a particular battle are perhaps felt most intensely by those participants, but as shown can be lost when considered in context to a wider campaign and other events of war. Embodied in the monument are the struggles of the Corps’ founding years, and the struggle to demonstrate their contribution and the challenge to define their operational mission. In this way, the monument also depicts the challenges which all military organisations face, namely, that the linkage between battle honours or efforts at commemoration do not translate easily translate easily to coherent mission statements. Ultimately, the interpretation of a memorial will evolve over time with different meanings for different beholders, even for those organisations who create them.
Notes on Sources
1) Documents related to the establishment of the memorial are at The National Archives (TNA), Kew, under WORK 20/55.
2) The Prince of Wales, later George V, who himself had enjoyed a brief naval career as a younger son of the then Prince of Wales Edward, later Edward VII, before royal duties and the death of his elder brother ended his naval career.
3) TNA ADM 1/29279, RMA and RMLI, Amalgamation, Extract Board Minutes, 23 November 1922.
4) The Fisher Papers, Vol. 1, Navy Records Society, vol. CII, (London: Navy Records Society, 1960) 405-406.
5) TNA, WO 20/138, papers related to the monument under the new government ministry.
6) This memorial was installed after the First World War in memory of the war service of these divisions of sailors and marines who fought in the land and naval campaigns, such as Gallipoli and on the Western Front.
7) TNA, WO 20/138
8) TNA, WO 20/138
9) TNA, WO 20/138
10) TNA, ADM 201/98, ‘Suggested Alteration of title “Commando”’