Royal Naval Museum



The Naval Brigades


Naval brigades were detachments from ships consisting of seamen and Royal Marines (which were soldiers on board ships) who were landed ashore to undertake naval operations or to support the army in a wide variety of campaigns. During the period from 1850-1914, the Navy did not fight any ship-to-ship actions, and most British seamen who were on active service in operations did so as part of a Naval Brigade.

The Naval Brigades were professional organisations. Both officers and men received regular training in the techniques of land warfare at the gunnery school, HMS Excellent, at Portsmouth.

The major campaigns in which the Naval Brigades were involved:

•  Burma Wars 1824-85;

•  Crimean War 1854-6;

•  China Wars 1856-63;

•  Indian Mutiny 1857-9

•  Maori Wars 1860-4;

•  Kagoshima and Shimonoseki 1863-64;

•  Gold Coast and Ashanti War 1873-4;

•  Natal and Zulu War 1879;

•  Transvaal War 1881;

•  Egypt 1882;

•  Sudan 1884-5;

•  Boxer Rebellion in China of 1900;

•  Boer War 1899-1900

During World War I, the naval brigade idea of using naval personnel to fight ashore was used for naval reservists and the Royal Naval Division was formed to assist the army in various theatres of war. The RND was disbanded in 1920.


The most famous action in which the Naval Brigades were involved - which was commemorated by the Field Gun Run at the Royal Tournament - is that of the relief of  Ladysmith during the Boer War. In October 1899, British Army chiefs were out gunned by Boer troops who were threatening the garrison at Ladysmith. An appeal was sent to the Royal Navy for guns as a last resort. How could the Navy, hundreds of miles away at their base at Simonstown, send artillery over land in time to stop the Boer attack? Rear Admiral Sir Robert Harris mounted a plan to strip guns from HMSs Terrible and Powerful and take them over land to Ladysmith. The guns, on mountings designed by Captain Percy Scott of HMS Terrible, had to be taken 800 miles by sea, from Simonstown to Durban, and from there on a 190 mile haul to Ladysmith.

Within 24 hours, Captain Lambton, of HMS Powerful, had loaded three 12 pounder guns and the two 4.7” guns on board and was steaming flat out to Durban, where two special trains were waiting to carry the men and guns to Ladysmith. The trains travelled through the night to get to Ladysmith, before the Boers could close off the town and destroy the railway line.  The guns were unloaded amongst rifle fire and a deluge of shells from the Boers. In the midst of the fighting, the naval brigade assisted by a team of oxen, hauled their guns from the station, across rocky terrain and into position where they could be brought to bear on the Boers’ heavy gun emplacements.

Meanwhile, a second naval brigade brought more naval guns to join a relief infantry force, under the command of General Sir Redvers Buller. After four months, Ladysmith was relieved on the 1st March 1900, after Buller had broken through under a barrage laid down by naval gunners to cover his advancing infantry.

Lambton brought HMS Powerful home to an unprecedented welcome. His crew pulled their guns through the street of Portsmouth and London as crowds cheered, sang and waved Union Jacks. They took their guns to Windsor where Queen Victoria invited the men to lunch.

A reading list for further information is available

©Royal Naval Museum Library, 2000

The information contained in this information sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available

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