The ethos of the royal marines the precise application of will

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Dr Anthony King

Department of Sociology

University of Exeter
MAY 2004
Note, Abstract ii

Acknowledgements iii

Biographical Note iii
1. Defining Ethos 1

2. Royal Marine and Commando Ethos 3
3. Unity 7
4. Adaptability 12
5. Humility 15
6. Standards 17
7. Fortitude 21
8. Commando Humour 23
9. Ethos at Work: Operations 25
10. Sustaining Ethos: Dit Culture 28
11. The Precise Application of Will 30
12. The Future of Royal Marines Ethos 32
Appendix A: Maps

Normandy 1944 34

Port-en-Bessin 35

Falkland Islands 36

Mount Harriet 37
Appendix B: Inculcating Attitudes 38
Appendix C: The Standards Debate 40
Bibliography 42

This paper was commissioned by Brigadier Nick Pounds, in his capacity as Commandant of the Commando Training Centre, in December 2003. He intended it to be an independent and external report designed to assist the Royal Marines to articulate their ethos more fully. It is hoped that the report has gone some way to fulfilling Brigadier Pounds’ remit.


The current debates about ethos in the military have been wrongly conceived. Ethos is not an intangible spiritual substance which is related in some unspecified way to the moral component of fighting power. Ethos refers simply to what a group does and how it does it. The ethos of the Royal Marines refers to their role and the way they achieve it. Since the Second World War, the Royal Marines have developed a three-fold role. They are a commando force specialising in amphibious, mountain and cold weather warfare. This difficult role requires certain characteristics which are developed in training; unity, adaptability, humility, standards, fortitude and a sense of humour. It is by means of these qualities that the Royal Marines are able to fulfil their role successfully. The ethos of the Royal Marines might be summarised as the precise application of will.


This paper could not have been written without the advice and assistance of numerous individuals. I am grateful to Brigadier Nick Pounds for commissioning it and for giving me access to all aspects of training which has been very important to the wider research project of which this report is part. I am also grateful for his comments on earlier drafts of report. Throughout the period of research, the YO training team have been extremely tolerant and helpful. I am indebted to them all: Major Alex Case, Major Duncan Manning, Captain Richard ‘Aldie’ Alderson, Captain Chris Braithwaite (KORB), Colour Sergeants Kevin Cheeseman, Mark ‘Baz’ Thrift, ‘Woolie’ Wooltorton, Sergeants Peter Baldwin, Andy Bridson, John Byrne, Robbie Hawkins, Peter McGinlay and Martin Small. In Commando Training Wing, I am very grateful to Lieutenant-Colonel Conrad Thorpe for his enthusiastic comments on earlier drafts and for the fact that he rightly insisted I needed to see some recruit training and the All-Arms Course to develop the document. Major John Rye, Captain Phil Tinsley, Captain James Price and the training team of 864 Troop, Captain Tony Lever, Sergeant Tony Phillimore and Corporals Chris Dooley, Mark Leader, Steve Randell and Kevin Roberts were all generous with their time. (Former RSM) David Chisnall read and commented on the document and I benefited from my discussions with him. I am indebted to 40 Commando’s Manoeuvre Support Group who talked to me at length about Operation Telic, despite the fact that they were preparing for another deployment to Iraq. Finally, I am extremely grateful to the librarians at CTC, Angela Twist and Rachel MacEachern. They provided essential assistance while I was researching this document.

Biographical Note:
Anthony King is a reader in sociology at Exeter University. He has published books on football and social theory and is currently researching military culture and European defence policy.


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1. Defining Ethos

Since the 1980s, it has become necessary for public services to justify themselves in order to secure adequate levels of state funding. In addition, since the end of the Cold War, the strategic situation has become increasingly complex for the military and security agencies with new security and defence threats emerging. The current concern of Royal Marines about their ethos is a response to these new economic and strategic pressures. Like other publicly funded services, the Royal Marines need to express their ethos so that they are able to ensure they have a useful role in the new millennium when new military and budgetary threats are imposing on them.

Although the military have felt the need to articulate their ethos in the 1990s, the discussions of it, although extensive, have been confused and unhelpful (e.g. Naval Review 1996). Ethos is initially defined in these discussions, following the Oxford English Dictionary, as ‘the characteristic spirit of a particular community’ (Macdonald 1996: 10). As such it is seen as part of or as supporting the moral element of fighting power alongside the physical and conceptual components. Yet, beyond a few adjectives (honour, commitment, integrity, courage, discipline) which remain abstract because they are never defined in relation to specific military practices, the analysis of ethos quickly moves on to quite different questions. Specifically, the analysis of ethos becomes a rumination on ethics. Commentators on ethos are, in fact, diverted by irrelevant questions of morality. In this way, the discussion of ethos focuses on the question of the relationship between the military and civilian society and the potential need for the military to be different from civilian employers. Above all, commentators begin to ask the difficult question of the morality of war and killing. This is clearly an important issue but it is a mistake to conflate ethos with ethics.1 When ethos is confused for ethics, the subsequent discussions do nothing to justify the existence of a military organisation to a government which is seeking to reduce the defence budget nor do they help the military to define its role in a new era. The confusion of ethos with ethics has reached a high point in the USMC where the discussion of ethos is merely a way of trying to ensure that marines do not engage in illegal practices away from their duties. As such, ethos has almost nothing to do with the operational effectiveness of the Corps. It is little surprise therefore, that in an attempt to create an ethical Corps, the USMC has found it difficult to inculcate its new ‘ethos’ onto operational units. The ethos which they have identified as honour, courage and commitment is irrelevant to what these units actually do (Karcher 2001; Lance 2001). These are merely abstract words which have no practical usage.

In the Royal Marines, the same confusions have often been apparent. In response to the question of what their ethos is, most Royal Marines are unable to express any tangible concept; it is described merely as a jelly which must be nailed to the wall. The task is considered impossible. Ethos is regarded as something magical or sacred which somehow binds Royal Marines together but about which nothing can be said. Indeed, nothing should be said lest this magical mystery is profaned; ‘we should not let daylight in on the magic’, ‘ethos itself cannot be dictated, it can only be felt’ (CGRM 2000: A- 1). Current discussions of ethos reach only stalemate. Yet, all members of the military insist that ethos is central to their role. There are two solutions to this paradox. Either, ethos is irrelevant to what the military actually do and the military is simply mystified about its significance. It is unspeakable because like the famous gas, phlogiston, which was once the subject of great scientific investigation, it does not actually exist. Alternatively, ethos exists but the military is unable to speak about it simply because they have misunderstood what they are talking about. It is plain that the latter is the case. The military have, up till now, struggled to discuss ethos not because it does not exist but because they have thought about it in the wrong way. When considering ethos, the military have abstracted from what they actually do until there is nothing left to discuss. In order to advance current discussions, it is necessary only to redefine what is meant by the term, ethos.

Despite the conceptual difficulties which have plagued current discussions, ethos is, in fact, one of the most tangible aspects of human reality. Every social group has an ethos for it is precisely the existence of an ethos which denotes a social group. Ethos certainly includes a spiritual dimension; it encompasses the shared understandings of the group. Yet it is more robust than this spiritual communion. Ethos refers simply to what a human group does and how it does it. Ethos refers to the collective goals which unite humans into recognisable groups and the way those groups together decide how to achieve their goals. Every single human group has an ethos; from football fans to bakers. When the members of a group no longer have an ethos; they dissipate once again into isolated individuals. At a theoretical level, ethos is a simple and tangible reality. Yet, this is not to say it does not present problems when it comes to studying it. In particular, although the underlying reality of every social group, ethos is sometimes difficult for the members of a group to recognise. This is not because it is abstract. The intangibility of ethos results not from its distance from every interaction but precisely the reverse. Ethos is often invisible and un-expressible by members of a group because it is assumed in every single interaction. Only weak groups need to point out their collective ends to members explicitly. In strong groups, the collective purpose and the shared ways of achieving that purpose are intimately understood by every member. They do not need to be expressed explicitly but they are already assumed in every single social encounter. In strong social groups, no encounter occurs without these common ends and means having already been assumed. Consequently, because every encounter presumes these common values and understandings, they become invisible to the members of a group. They become invisible but they are utterly critical to the group’s existence.2

If ethos refers merely to what a military group does and how it does it, then ethos is not a supporting factor of the moral dimension. On the contrary, ethos underpins and encompasses all the three components of fighting power. Physical assets, moral values and concepts are not related to ethos; together they comprise the ethos of any fighting force. To speak of any one of these elements in any context is to talk directly of the ethos of that military organisation. Each component of fighting power has a necessary bearing on what any military organisation does and how it does it. The primacy of ethos is illuminated most effectively by example. From 1750 to 1850, the British Army became adept at the battlefield tactics of time. In opposition to the column of France’s revolutionary armies, the British preferred to deploy in lines. What these lines lost in terms of shock effect (emphasised by the French column), they gained in firepower (Holmes 2001; Howard 2000; Keegan 1994). The line maximised the amount of fire which could be brought to bear with the muskets which were then in use and, apart from the American War of Independence where extraneous factors came into play, the British were rarely defeated employing this tactic of the line. The use of the line necessitated the development of certain obvious qualities; exemplary drill, rigid discipline and almost incredible courage. In certain British regiments, these practices and the qualities associated with them are still highly prized. Once again, the ethos of the British Army at this time was not simply some spiritual aspect which supported the moral element. The very moral elements of rigid discipline, drill and courage were inextricably bound up with the conceptual elements (deploying in lines) and the physical assets (the musket). The ethos of the British Army referred to this whole phenomenon, just as the ethos of the French Army, inspired by nationalist and revolutionary ardour, prioritised élan and offensive action. It is notable that in the French Army of the Napoleonic era, the standards of musketry were lower than in the British Army. The ethos of the French Army emphasised shock not fire.

The ethos of a military organisation is not intangible, nor is it a subsidiary part of the moral component. Ethos refers to what a group does and how it does it. Ethos refers simply to how the military actually fights and how it organises and prepares itself to do so. In short, ethos is the mission and the means. However, although ethos is manifestly identifiable, the claim often made by Royal Marines that ethos is sacred or magical is not completely mistaken. Social groups exist insofar humans recognise a special bond of mutual obligation to each other. Consequently, it is understandable why Royal Marines should see their ethos as magical or sacred. For the Royal Marines to be a unified group, members of the Corps must invest their relationship with each other with a special power; they regard themselves as obligated to each other. However, although the bond between Royal Marines must be special in order for this group to operate effectively, their ethos is, nevertheless, not ineffable. The ethos refers to the common goals which the Royal Marines pursue and how they achieve them. A description of ethos does not profane the sacred. It recognises and describes what the special relationship between Royal Marines allows them to do. Moreover, a description of ethos may allow members of this organisation to recognise its distinctive characteristics and strengths. In addition, with a greater knowledge of itself, the Royal Marines may be better positioned in relation to an increasingly uncertain world.

2. Royal Marines and Commando Ethos

The Royal Marines were first formed in 1664 as sea-soldiers for the Second Dutch War. The long history of the Corps is a source of pride to serving marines and the Globe and Laurel, the Corps cap-badge, is an important totem for this social group. However, the role which the Royal Marines perform today – and subsequently its current ethos – has a much more recent history. In response to Churchill’s demand for the raising of raiding forces to harass the Continent after the debacle of May 1940, the first Commando units to be raised were explicitly Army ones, consisting of volunteers from all regiments and services. It is true that some Royal Marines volunteered for these forces but in so doing they resigned from the Corps itself. The Royal Marines only became associated with the commando role from 1942 when Admiral Mountbatten designated the Royal Marines for this role. The first Royal Marine Commandos was a volunteer unit, designated A Commando, and later renamed 40 Commando. Regular Royal Marine battalions were subsequently seconded to commando training, with those that failed the training process returned to the Division. The primary reason for raising Royal Marines Commandos was purely numerical - the Special Service Brigades needed enlarging - but there were also other significant reasons. In 1941, as commando units began to be raised, there was concern of how to use them properly. Admiral Roger Keyes, Chief of Combined Operations, cogently argued that these amphibious forces could be employed effectively only if they were closely integrated into the Royal Navy. He emphasized that the Army had no understanding of how to employ amphibious commando troops: ‘The War Office and the Army commanders have never had any use for them’ (Keyes 1981b: 229). The Royal Navy, by contrast, had extensive experience of transporting troops (above all the Royal Marines). It was at this point that the Royal Marines became particularly relevant. For Keyes, the conversion of the Royal Marines into a commando force would obviate the difficulties inherent in combined operations because the Royal Marines were already under the formal institutional control of the Royal Navy: ‘By using Marines in the initial stage [of an assault on Norway in 1940], when the time factor was of vital importance, the Royal Navy would be independent of delays consequent on combined action with a General, who might not work with the Admiral as well as Wolfe did with Saunders off Quebec’ (Keyes 1981a:37; see also Globe and Laurel August 1942: 74). Citing the historical precedents of the Heights of Abraham and Zeebrugge, Keyes and, then, Mountbatten claimed that the Royal Marines were Britain’s natural commando force, which role had been usurped by the Army. In fact, the Royal Marines became a commando force due primarily to immediate operational and institutional reasons; it was in the Royal Navy’s (and the nation’s) interests that they should become a commando force because the Royal Navy would have closer control over these forces and would, therefore, be able to deploy them more effectively. Interestingly, the Royal Marines themselves, unlike Mountbatten and Keyes, did not see the commando role as their obvious birthright. There was considerable friction between the Commando Royal Marines and their blue-bereted associates during the War and up into the 1950s when the Royal Marines became a totally commando-oriented, green-bereted organisation. It is noticeable that in various accounts of Achnacarry, some Royal Marines who were seconded to commando training were not initially enthralled by its ethos. Some Royal Marines officers were appalled that they would have to undergo the same training as their men (Gilchrist 1960: 68-69). In the Corps magazine, Globe and Laurel, suspicion of the commando role is clear. There are few initial references to the commandos in 1942 at all. In December 1942, the editors apologized for the absence of any report on the Dieppe raid which was attributed to the fact that the correspondent had ‘over-indulged in the sort of rough fun and games to which commandos are addicted’ or more bluntly ‘perhaps his green beret has gone to his head!’ (Globe and Laurel December 1942: 271). Although a joke, the tone of the apology demonstrates a clear distinction between the Royal Marines and the new commando formations, of which the former were minimally suspicious. In August 1942, Globe and Laurel published a feature article from the Picture Post which described Commando Training and which argued that the Royal Marines were the natural force to adopt this role. The piece concluded memorably:
The commandos are tough. Vaagso is the proof of that. The Marines are tough. Crete and Norway – where they fought two hopeless Thermopylaes – are the proof of that. Wait till they mill in together. (Globe and Laurel August 1942: 75)

Although the piece intended to demonstrate the natural union of Royal Marines and Commandos, it in fact highlighted the difference between them. Were the forces as compatible as the author made out, then his argument would have been supererogatory and the Royal Marines would have moved naturally in the 1940s to a commando role. The piece urged a union of the forces precisely because the Royal Marines saw no necessary connection between themselves and the Commandos. The positioning of the article in the Globe and Laurel was also extremely significant. It was clearly intended as a way of publicly expressing and easing the mounting tensions between the new Commando units and the established blue-bereted Divisions. This tension persisted after the War. General Sir Jeremy Moore, for instance, has recorded hostility on the part of blue-bereted officers for his selection of the commando role above a traditional Royal Marines one (Neillands 2000: 44). For them, he had betrayed the true Royal Marines ethos.

The history of the Corps and the Globe and Laurel itself are an essential part of the ethos of the Royal Marines today but it is important to realise that contemporary ethos is not a natural product of three hundred years’ service. The ethos of today’s Marines emerged in the 1940s as the Corps took on the commando role and became completely institutionalized in the 1950s when the Royal Marines were reduced to a single brigade; 3 Commando Brigade. At that point, Royal Marine ethos and the commando ethos became indivisible. The history of the Corps and the Globe and Laurel are significant because they support and affirm this commando ethos, appropriated relatively recently by the Corps. It is noticeable that the Globe and Laurel are now always imagined to be attached to a green beret. The blue beret, once taken as the symbol of the true Royal Marines, is now reserved only for untrained marines. The Globe and Laurel signify the Royal Marines’ separateness from other infantry units and denotes their distinctive, commando identity. It does not communicate to Royal Marines serving today the once honourable roles of naval gunnery or regular light infantry. The institutional memory of the Royal Marines remains important not because the Royal Marines really are the direct descendants of those soldiers who fought at Trafalgar then, but because this institutional memory imbues the current commando ethos of the Corps with a sacred tradition. The current appeal to a three hundred year history is a case of an invented tradition. Current practices and the current ethos are given a history longer than they in fact deserve in order to empower them in the imaginations of serving marines today. The symbol of the Globe and Laurel remains appropriate because, like the forebears, the Royal Marines today must be prepared to fight and win anywhere. The difference is that their current commando role – the way they fight – has little to do with their forebears who also wore this badge, although for both, the globe was their theatre of operations. The badge has effectively changed meanings in the course of history, once communicating a noble blue-bereted role, now signifying the green-bereted commando role. The ethos of the Royal Marines today is a commando ethos and, ultimately, the commando ethos is now embodied by the Royal Marines.3

The indivisibility of the commando and Royal Marines identity is clearly demonstrated by the Commando Course itself. There are many non-Royal Marines commandos (about 30 per cent of 3 Commando Brigade) who perform vital support roles in the Brigade; 29 Commando Regiment, 59 Commando Squadron Engineers, for instance. The purpose of the All-Arms course is to train and test members of the three services in order that those who pass can take their place within the Brigade. Unlike the Second World War, where the Royal Marines came to the independent Basic Commando Training Centre at Achnacarry as candidates, the Royal Marines are in complete charge of the All-Arms course. The course is based in the Commando Training Wing at Lympstone and is run by a Royal Marines training team, assisted by green-bereted army staff. The Royal Marines are the guardian of commando standards, determining who will be allowed to join this exclusive club. Similarly, the indivisibility of the commando ethos from Royal Marine ethos is demonstrated on the Commando Course for recruits and Young Officers (YOs). The candidate who most displays the commando qualities (which does not necessarily mean that they are the best candidate on the course) is awarded the Commando Medal. Although the Medal reflects the commando values, these values are in practice indistinguishable from Royal Marines qualities. A recruit who wins the Commando Medal embodies the ethos of the Royal Marines. From 1942 until the 1950s when there were blue- and green-bereted Royal Marines, it would have been possible to identify Royal Marines values independently of commando ones. An excellent Royal Marine might lack many of the essential qualities which are represented by the Commando Medal. In the Globe and Laurel, for instance, 45 Commando’s correspondent draws a clear line between commando and Royal Marines values. He regretted that ‘we have lost many officers, NCOs and men’ who failed to pass the course at Achnacarry but jokily encouraged others to volunteer for commando service; ‘it is safe to say that if you can run like an antelope, climb like a gibbon and carry a load like a packhorse, all at the same time of course, you are missing your vocation where you are and should come along and be one of us’ (Globe and Laurel October 1943: 251). The line between ‘us’, commandos, and ‘you’, Royal Marines, is stark. Today there is no such disjunction. The Commando Medal represents the central values of the Royal Marines for the Medal like the Globe and Laurel itself is worn by a green-bereted individual.

For the last sixty years, that is, in the years of institutionally effective memory, the Royal Marines have been a commando organisation. Commando units differ from line regiments in the kinds of missions which they carry out. Commando units are designed to operate in the most difficult circumstances. They are a theatre-entry force which will often operate in environments where the enemy outnumber and out-gun them. Commando units are able to achieve objectives which might be unattainable by other units by exploiting high levels of professional skill and endurance. As part of its commando role, the Royal Marines specialises in amphibious assaults and in mountain and cold weather operations. These specialisms are a historic product. The amphibious role is directly related to the Second World War where all green bereted commando units, be they Army or Royal Marines, operated from the sea. The mountain role also comes from the Second World War. A Commando Snow and Mountain War Training Camp, created in the winter of 1942, eventually became part of the Brigade Patrol Troop of 3 Commando Brigade (Dunning 2000: 163). The Royal Marines’ mountain specialism has historical roots in its Second Wold War amphibious role as well. One of the main obstacles which threatened amphibious operations were cliffs and the commandos developed a Cliff Assault Wing during the Second World War. By 1970, the Cliff Assault Wing had expanded its sphere of operation beyond cliff-climbing to mountaineering in general and became the Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre (Foster 1993: 102-3). These two historically separate origins of the Royal Marines’ mountain warfare specialism have now merged and are institutionally indistinguishable. The result is that Royal Marines are regarded as amongst the best mountain troops in the world. Amphibious and mountain commando operations are the specific task of the Royal Marines Commandos, although their sphere of activities extends to all theatres.4 The Royal Marines have a certain way of carrying out their commando mission – and this distinctive mode of operation is their ethos.

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