• Si Biggs

The Carlist Wars

Unit/ Formation: Royal Marines


Location: Spain


Period/ Conflict: Carlist Wars


Year: 1836 - 1837


When King Ferdinand died in 1833 there were two claimants to the throne: his daughter Isabella, with the Queen Mother, whose supporters were known as Christinos; and his brother Don Carlos, who according to the old Salto Law was the male heir. For some reason France and England supported the Christinos, and Great Britain allowed a British Legion to be raised consisting of 2 Cavalry Regimen-be and 10 Infantry Battalions under Lieutenant General Sir de Lacy Evans.


They also lent the assistance of the British Squadron under Lord John Hay, and sent a Battalion of Marines under Major John Owen, and a Field Battery of RMA under Captain R Steele, RMA with some RA and RE detachments to assist them. The Squadron secured the possession of the north Coast of Spain, so that they could land where they pleased, but they could not go inland beyond the guns of the Fleet.



The Battalion (the Detachment from Plymouth under Major Owen, KH, embarked on 27 April) was formed at Santander in May 1836, and on the 15th of that month 100 men from the Battalion and a part of the detachment of HMS Castor under 2nd Lieutenant Halliday were sent to garrison Portugalette at the mouth of the Bilbao river. They were here joined by another detachment under Lieutenant G C Langley.


They fortified - and incidentally 'cleaned' - an old Spanish monastery and made a battery armed with two long 32 prs and two 9 pdrs On 5th May at San Sebastian the Legion, aided by the fire of HMS Phoenix and other ships, drove off the Carlists and captured some guns, but had later to fall back to San Sebastian. The RM Battalion was brought round to Portugalette and proceeded to Bilbao, but after a week was withdrawn and returned to San Sebastian.




On 27th May 1837, the Third Brigade of the Legion, supported by the Royal Marines, advanced across the river Urimea to the east of San Sebastian, covered by the fire of the steamers and gunboats, and the guns on the Fortifications together with the RMA Field Battery. They forded the river in three places and bivouacked on a hill near Ametza, whilst a feint was made to the westward by a detachment of Royal Marines in the Salamander and Reyna to draw off the Carlists. At 3 am on 6th June the Carlists drove in the pickets of the Legion and attacked in force at 8 am. The Royal Marines were called up to support the Spanish, and the three leading companies deployed and opened fire. The Carlists fell back and the Marines returned to their bivouac, Captain Garmston and two Privates being wounded.


On 28th May, 70 men of the Castor under Lieutenants Halliday and Langley were taken to the eastward and landed at Passages, where they marched to the top of the hill, which commanded the harbour and the hills round. On the next day they were reinforced by Lieutenant Clapperton and 12 RMA; here they built a redoubt, under the direction of Lord John Hay, which was shaped like a ship and was given the name of the 'Ship'. It was armed with two 6 prs and two 3prs, also a 4 pr and 20 pr Rocket Tube. Seamen from the Fleet came up to help make and can the redoubt; also a company under a Captain from the Battalion. It was only about six miles across country to San Sebastian, so they could watch the fighting going on there. About 2 am on the 9th June the little garrison of 300 was attacked by 400 Carlists. At daylight, when visibility was better, the Carlists were driven off: Lieutenant Langley was wounded in the leg and gained the Order of San Fernando. The garrison of the 'Ship' was than augmented by two companies from the Marine Battalion, also the Marines of the Pearl, Tweed, and Royalist, besides 300 Spaniards and 4 Companies from the Legion.


On 10th July, 1836, the Battalion was concentrated at Passages, and on 11th July, General Evans with about 5000 men moved towards Fuentarabia; Lieutenants Halliday and Clapperton with 52 men being left to hold the 'Ship' redouBrevet General Evans apparently wished to prevent reinforcements being thrown into Irun and Fuentarabia, so he seized the bridge near the Monastery of Guadaloupe. The bridge was secured, but the Carlists counterattacked and two companies of Royal Marines were brought up to an embankment close by, and later two more were thrown into a convent near the bridge and held the Carlists in check till late in the afternoon: the Christinos then retired to the Isquibel hills and two other companies of Royal Marines checked an attempted sortie from Fuentarabia. On the 12th the force fell back to Passages, the Royal Marines having lost two killed and 10 wounded. With the exception of a small Carlist attack on the outposts at Passages on 1st October, which was quickly driven off, the Royal Marines were undisturbed during the remainder of the year.


On 10th March 1837 the British Legion and a body of Spanish troops, supported by the Royal Marines, made an attack on the Ametzegana position (a redoubt constructed by the Royal Marines at Passages). The Christinos, covered by the guns of San Antonio, made a feint on the villages of Lezo and Rentirea; part of the Legion stormed the Ametzegana position, and a Spanish regiment supported by the Marines captured Gabara. So the whole position fell into the hands of the Christinos. The guns of the RMA drove out the enemy at San Marco, who put up an obstinate defence. It was then decided to attack the Carlists who were in position near the village of Hernani, 7 or 8 miles from San Sebastian.


On 15th March 1837, the RM Battalion advanced on the Hernani Road as far as the Windmill Battery in the Ayette Lines. The Carlists were strongly posted at the Vents of Oriamendi, and when at 2 pm the Marines advanced they came under artillery fire at about 800 yards, to which the guns of the RMA replied with considerable effect. The Christinos were making a flank attack round the Carlist right, and at 5 pm the Legion drove the Carlists from a line of heights which enabled the guns to be brought to close range of the Venta. At 7 pm the Venta was stormed and its defenders took refuge in the town of Hernani.

Plan of the battle of Oriamendi

By 8 am on 16th March the RM Battalion was in position on the Oriamendi plateau, about 1.5 miles from Hernani, covering the movement of the heavy artillery on the right of the Venta Hill; close here the RMA 24 pr howitzers were posted under Lieutenant Savage RMA. The RM Battalion was with the 5th Division of the Legion; in their front were the 2nd Spanish LI and the 6th Regiment of the Legion in extended order. When the advance began fire was opened by three Carlist guns on the left of the town, to which the Heavy Artillery Battery replied.


At 11 am the Carlist Lancers made a charge which was met by the Lancers of the Legion and over-thrown. Four Carlist Battalions then suddenly appeared on the left from a gorge and drove back the skirmishers. Lieutenant Colonel Owen at once deployed 5 Companies of the Royal Marines under cover of a natural breastwork, and opened a heavy independent fire which checked and drove off the Carlists, whilst a flank attack on the right was defeated by the RM as also an attempt to get on to the San Sebastian road in their rear which was met by a company placed en echelon by Colonel Owen. The Carlists in front of the Marines fell back towards Hernani, but on the British left they continued to gain ground, so that the RM Battalion was ordered back to cover the San Sebastian road and eventually halted in column, where they had first come under fire on the day before - ie about 800 yards in rear of the Oriamendi Plateau.


By 3.20 pm the Christinos and the Legion were falling back in such disorder that the Carlists were only checked by the Royal Marines deploying into line and showing such a threatening front that the Carlists ceased their pursuit, and the Christinos were able to gain the shelter of the fortifications at San Sebastian: the Battalion marched in that night and was quartered in the Church of St. Francis. The Spaniards and Legionaries had behaved so badly that it was only the steadiness of the Royal Marines that saved the day from disaster.


On 21st March, General Evans published the following order:


"The unshaken firmness of the British Royal Marines under Lieutenant Colonel Owen, in repulsing, as they did, four times their number, afforded you a noble example of the irresistible force of military organisation and discipline, which the Lieutenant General feels confident on future occasions you will be proud to emulate."


For the remainder of the year (1837) they were constantly moving about over the ground between Passages, Hernani, and San Sebastian. On 18th May, Irun was captured by assault and Fuentarabia surrendered the same day. The Battalion then proceeded to Passages.



Showing the attack of the Carlist on the position held by Gen. Evans on the 16th March 1837 and the last position of the Royal British Marines drawn on the spot by TlL. Hornbrook. Marine Painter to H.R.H. The Duchess of Kent.


Thomas Lyde Hornbrook (May 6, 1807 – August 17, 1855) was a British marine artist. He was the eldest son of Richards Lyde Hornbrook, who was an officer in the Royal Marines stationed in Plymouth. He exhibited in the Royal Academy (1836 and 1844) and around 1833 became marine painter to the Duchess of Kent and her daughter later Queen Victoria.


Blumberg's History of the Royal Marines 1755-1914




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