A Small Group of Rare and Important Military General Service Medals

Date of Auction: 14th April 2021

Sold for £28,000

Estimate: £12,000 - £16,000

A very rare and important M.G.S. medal for the capture of Martinique in 1809, awarded to Major-General John Robyns, K.H., Royal Marines, one of only 15 M.G.S. medals issued to Royal Marine recipients; he was afterwards actively employed in North America 1813-14, where he commanded a battalion of 400 marines at the capture of Washington in August 1814, and in the action before Baltimore in September 1814, when he was severely wounded and General Ross was killed - for these services he obtained the brevet of Major in October 1814 - and later in the battle of New Orleans and operations around Mobile in 1815

Military General Service 1793-1814, 1 clasp, Martinique (J. Robyns, Capt. R.M.) toned, extremely fine £12,000-£16,000

Footnote

Provenance: Bonham’s, May 1994.

The ‘Journal of John Robyns R.M.L.I. 1786-1834’ is in possession of the Royal Marines Museum, Portsmouth, temporarily closed. Numerous extracts from this important unpublished journal formed the basis of a lengthy and very detailed study of the career of Major-General John Robyns by Dr Donald F. Bittner, Professor of History at the Marine Corps University, Quantico, Virginia, U.S.A., as part of his ‘Officers of the Royal Marines in the Age of Sail’, published by the Royal Marines Historical Society in 2002, small parts of which are quoted below.

John Robyns was born in 1779 and received a commission as Second Lieutenant in the Royal Marines in March 1796, soon after which he went in H.M.S. La Verginie, 44, to the East Indies, where he was stationed nearly five years, with visits to such other places as Macao, Shanghai, Formosa and the Philippines. Upon his return he was employed on the Irish station, engaged extensively on convoy duty, primarily to and from the West Indies. Promoted to Captain in June 1807 and joined H.M.S. Neptune, 90, in which ship he served on the West Indies station between 1808 and 1810.

The capture of Martinique

In the West Indies in 1809, Robyns experienced his initial major combat ashore on Martinique. Although not part of the newly authorised Royal Marine Artillery, Robyns, with Marines and seamen, landed three times to erect mortar and howitzer positions to fire on the French positions. This included one battery of six pieces on 3 February 1809, which fired effectively on Pigeon Island, a strong fortification in Fort Royal Bay to the south of its entrance. It surrendered the next day, and he counted five enemy killed, four dangerously wounded, and 140 prisoners.

Amidst the movements of the two forces, he noted the French were “now cooped up in Fort Bourbon, an amazing strong fortification on a hill commanding Fort Royal and the town”. Preparations then continued for the attack on Fort Bourbon, with his mortars and stores moved to the opposite shore. Then, on 9 February another position, Fort Edward, was unexpectedly evacuated by the French with the garrison retiring to Fort Bourbon. Robyns assessed Fort Edward after the York Rangers took possession of it and noted the “excellent bomb proofs hewn out of the solid rock... will effectively screen our men from the fire of Fort Bourbon”.

The ensuing days saw Robyns land again with 80 Marines to erect further batteries and an exchange of fire between the two forces which he duly assessed: on 10 February, “A smart fire kept up between Fort Edward and Fort Bourbon, also on own camp, but without doing any material damage”, while on 21 February a little excitement occurred: “Batteries still playing but with little intermission, our shells apparently doing great execution; our ammunition tent blew up this morning at 10 o’clock, killing and wounding several men.” Two days later, fortune favoured the attackers: “This morning at 3 o’clock one of the magazines in Fort Bourbon blew up by one of our shells with a tremendous explosion; at daylight they proposed terms which were rejected, opened again a heavy fire”. The next day the French surrendered, and Robyns succinctly commented that “the capitulation was soon signed, our loss has been trifling compared to them”. That evening, 24 February, he and his Marines returned to H.M.S. Neptune. On 7 March the French evacuated Fort Bourbon, “marching out with the Honours of War, amounting to about 2000”. Two days later Robyns made his final comment on this successful joint co-operation between the British Army and Royal Navy: “The capture of this important island, considering its strength was effected in a very short space of time, and the exertions of the seamen is above all praise, the utmost unanimity prevailed between both services which could not but lead to the most favourable result.”

North America 1813 to 1815

In August 1813, he went to North America in H.M.S. Albion, taking part in patrols as well as some captures. Thus, a day after capturing the American South-sea man Monticello, the Albion had another seizure. As Robyns briefly noted on 9 December 1813, “captured this afternoon, a beautiful packet sloop of about 60 tons, from Charleston, bound to New York having passengers and a cargo of cotton and rice, a number of bales they threw overboard during the chase. Sent her to Bermuda”. On 3 January 1814, he recorded another capture, another American South-sea man returning from Chile, but ruefully noted that she had only 350 barrels of oil; the next day was better, for one sloop, the Dove out of Charleston bound for New York, was captured with a cargo of rice and cotton.

On 25 January 1814, Albion and other accompanying vessels were off New London, Connecticut. There, he noted that four miles from town, “the United States ‘Macedonian’ and ‘Hornet’ are at anchor; the town is defended by four strong forts, particularly one on the hill”. Two days later, he further noted that, “The American squadron moved from their anchorage some distance up the river above the town, apprehensive I suppose of an attack”.

By April 1814, operations of the force of which Robyns was part shifted south, to the Chesapeake Bay area, including the Potomac and Patuxent rivers. The character of the war slightly altered, and he addressed this with an entry on 5 April about Tangier Island where an officer and 20 Marines landed, “as a guard to protect some work intended to be erected thereon; it is intended to apply this place as a depot for the run away Negroes, but I fear it is badly calculated for it being all sand and swamp and covered with myriads of mosquitoes”. Then another initiative occurred, which he noted on 11 May 1814: “Forming a black battalion of colonial Marines from the refugee Negroes, who are in general fine able stout fellows. We now have about 80”. He then also commented on a rarity for the time, a commission from the ranks: “Admiral Cochrane gave my sergeant major Wm Hammond an acting order as Ensign and Adjutant to them”.

Between May and August 1814, the British operated in the vicinity of Washington, and Robyns was constantly employed ashore in various aspects of riverine operations. On 28 May, 100 Marines and 30 colonial Marines embarked in small boats and went up Pingo Teak Creek, their goal to destroy two batteries. The next day, alarm firing along the shore announced their movement and later a field piece opened fire. With men in open boats, there was only one counter: to land and fight the enemy ashore. Robyns then described what followed: “In advancing, they gave us round of grape from their field piece and then abandoned it, maintaining afterwards a sharp fire of musquetry with us in the wood. Their force was treble ours”. The abandoned artillery piece was seized and the battery position later destroyed. British losses were light, several seamen killed and two Marines wounded. Enemy losses were uncertain, but Robyns claimed to have seen three dead on the ground and observed several wounded being removed from the field. He also commented on a new weapon, but with less than an enthusiastic endorsement: “We used some of the Congreve rockets but I think they were of little service”.

On 25 June, in a similar operation at Chesamissock Creek, the boats left at night to attack an enemy position, and grounded 300 yards from it while fire was received from a field piece. The troops waded ashore, drove the foe from their entrenchments, burnt the guard-house and a quantity of provisions, and brought off the field piece, all without any loss. On 9 July Robyns averted a near battle after his men had landed to seize some corn, when 300 militiamen seen the previous day approached them. As Robyns commented, “I had only 30 Marines with which I made a shew of advancing towards them, when they precipitately retired”.

Bladensburg and the capture of Washington

Such small actions continued throughout the summer, but were preliminary to a much larger one - and forces were arriving for it. As he penned on 15 July, reinforcements arrived from Britain, including three battalions of Marines totalling 800 men, plus a company of Royal Marine Artillery. In August, skirmishes occurred on the 3rd and 8th with ensuing slight casualties. By the 17th more troops had arrived, under the command of Major-General Robert Ross. The ground force, now consisting of four regiments of 3,000 troops and 400 artillery, proceeded up the Patuxent River and landed at Benedict, Maryland. On 22 August 1814, a small detachment proceeded upriver and tested former President Thomas Jefferson’s concept of passive national defence, rooted in gunboats and militia, in this instance an important element in the defences of Washington. Robyns described what happened to the defenders, commanded by Commodore Joshua Barney:

“Our force of about 50 boats and 350 Marines from the ships formed into a battalion which as senior officer I commanded. In some places the river is so narrow that it was necessary to land us to scour the country and prevent the Americans firing into the boats from the banks. The landing and reembarking which we were obliged to do several times going up was very difficult from the shallowness of the water, wading up to our backs each time. At 10 AM landed about a mile from the town of Pig Point and dispersed a large body of militia who had assembled there for the protection of the flotilla; on our boats opening the point, the Americans blew them up one after another in number 17, fine vessels carrying two heavy guns each, the Commodore’s was a cutter of 4 guns, the men escaped on shore; one of the boats we captured; some horsemen appeared on the heights, but dispersed, on my spreading my men in the country. Captured a few light schooners and found in town some large stores full of tobacco, remained here for the night with a division of boats.”

This was a prelude of what followed. The next day Robyns was only 18 miles from Washington, in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, with orders to ‘retain possession of it’. He described the place as “a small town situated in a pretty country between Washington and Baltimore”. He then quartered his men in the Court House and procured cattle for them. He also noted that, “The Inhabitants were very civil to the officers and offered the accommodation of their homes”.

The next day, 24 August 1814, occurred the finale: the battle of Bladensburg, and the capture and burning of Washington. In this, Robyns participated, but his comments on what occurred are succinct:

“This afternoon our little army came up with the enemy treble their numbers strongly posted and supported by batteries, at Bladensburg, near Washington. Our Light Brigade only, consisting of 1500 men, attacked and totally routed them, marching immediately without opposition into Washington, where they burnt the Capitol, President’s House, Navy Yard, a new frigate ready for launching, Treasury, War Office, Gun Foundry, etc. Our loss was only 200 killed... With so small a force this must be considered a most dashing and daring enterprise, and succeeded beyond our most sanguine expectations.”

Following these successful operations, Admiral Cockburn wrote in his despatch to Sir Alexander Cochrane, “Captain Robyns, who has had, during these operations, the marines of the ships united under his orders, has executed, ably and zealously, the several services with which he has been entrusted, and is entitled to my best acknowledgements accordingly.”

Baltimore - severely wounded

Next came the battle for Baltimore on 12 September 1814. Robyns landed at dawn with his battalion of Marines, 10 miles from the city. His Marines were brigaded with the 4th and 44th regiments of foot and formed the right brigade. “It was one of the hottest days I ever remember”, he noted, and it affected the troops of his brigade. In the morning, his troops passed entrenchments abandoned by the enemy and, later: “At 2 PM heard some firing in the distance and soon after passed Gen Ross mortally wounded by some riflemen in the woods. Thus fell at an early age an officer who was an ornament to his profession, enjoying the fullest confidence of the Army for his skill... and bravery”.

“At 3 PM discovered the enemy in great force strongly posted in a wood defended by field pieces and a strong palisade in their front, we could only approach them but over three open fields”. Although noting his men “were much exhausted by a hot march of seven miles”, when the bugles sounded they advanced “with the greatest coolness under a tremendous fire of round, grape, and musketry from 8000 men. We never fired a shot until within 40 yards of them, when we gave then a volley and charged”. But Robyns’ participation in the battle now ended: “At this time I received a wound from a musquet ball which passed through the ham of my left leg between the main artery and tendons by which I was completely disabled and obliged to be taken to a barn in the rear where I was soon joined by ten more officers some dangerously wounded. Also a vast number of men”. Robyns proudly noted the enemy broke under the impact of the frontal assault and fled. He estimated friendly losses at about 250 killed and wounded, but that of the Americans “must have been immense, the wood was covered with their dead and wounded”. After 36 hours in the barn, all the wounded there were returned to their ships.

In his subsequent despatch to Sir Alexander Cochrane, Admiral Cockburn enclosed a return of the wounded, including ‘Captain Robyns, R.M. (severely)’ and further mentioned him thus: ‘The marines landed from the ships, and commanded by Captain Robyns, displayed their usual gallantry... Captain Robyns, who commanded the marines of the fleet, I also beg to recommend to your favourable notice and consideration.’

New Orleans

So ended the major operations along the littoral region of the mid-Atlantic states of Virginia and Maryland. Although the war was nearing its end, one last major endeavour occurred in the Gulf of Mexico against Louisiana. Thus, on 7 December 1814, Robyns found himself anchored 90 miles from New Orleans. On 14 December, operations commenced with the capture of some gunboats and on the 23rd the landing of troops. On New Year’s Day of 1815, Robyns was again commanding a battalion of Marines formed from the units aboard ships of the fleet. On 8 January, whilst the main British Army engaged in a disastrous frontal assault against the American defences on the east bank of the river, south of the city, Robyns operated with his brigade on the west bank with some success, as he later reported:

“Having with much labour cut a communications canal on the landing place to the Mississippi, drew the boats up, on which the 85[th Foot] and four of our companies crossed over to the opposite side of the river, where they had some strong batteries; we effected our landing at day light without opposition, and immediately advanced carrying every battery in succession. Our force engaged was about 400, the enemy 700, but we drove them at the point of the bayonet into the woods, our loss was not great.”

Meanwhile, he wrote, “The Army made an attempt to carry the enemy’s lines by storm, but were unfortunately repulsed with a severe loss, Gen Pakenham killed, Gen Gibbs mortally wounded, and Gen Keane slightly so, near 2000 men and officers were killed and wounded. On this we re-crossed the river and prepared to embark the stores, etc. The enemy’s loss could not be great as they were completely undercover. Their lines were immensely strong, a deep wet ditch in front and flanked by heavy batteries, they have three between them and the town.” He concluded: “Thus has ended this ill-fated expedition, the weather throughout has been most severe, several have died of the cold, and the West Indian regiments from it have been totally useless; the boat crews for seventeen days and nights never left the boats, and were indefatigable in supplying the army with provisions and bringing up stores.”

Following a minor success with the capture of the fort at Mobile, Alabama, in February 1815, Robyns recorded, “Arrived the ‘Brazen’ Sloop of War, 45 days from England bringing news of a peace between the two countries.”

In the early part of January of that year, Robyns had received news of his brevet Majority for his services in North America, and by May 1815 he had returned to Headquarters with the Portsmouth Division. His subsequent career was uneventful apart from a serious accident in August 1820 when he “Received a very severe accident in a concussion of the brain by a fall from a horse on my way to Exeter races.” Almost a month later, the effects were still apparent, as he lamented on 4 September: “Recovered from my accident in some measure, but a bad sensation in my head.”

Robyns retired from the Royal Marines on full pay on 24 September 1835. Shortly before that he was one of the lucky Captains to receive one of the few substantive promotions to field grade rank. As he wrote on 16 April 1832, “Got my promotion as an establishment Major to the Plymouth Division.” Reflecting a basic problem in the Corps of slow promotion and limited opportunities for service above that rank, Robyns had served just under 25 years in the rank of Captain. Ironically, on the retired list, further promotions occurred: to Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel on 10 January 1837, Brevet Colonel on 11 November 1851, and finally to Major-General on 20 June 1855. The crown, on 16 October 1816, had also awarded him a pension for war wounds. On 25 January 1836, he was made a Knight of the Royal Hannovarian Guelphic Order by King William IV. Remarkably, Robyns was one of only nine Royal Marine officers ever to be honoured as a member of the Order of the Guelphs, comprising three Knight Commanders (K.C.H.) and six Knights (K.H.). Major-General John Robyns died at Penzance, Cornwall, on 22 March 1857.

Sold with comprehensive research.