Marines haven't fought as cavalry, but there were Horse Marines, and they weren't a joke and they weren't misfits. The painting below pictures a mounted Mule Marine patrol in the mountainous backwaters of Nicaragua. The men who fought the different banana wars would often use horses and mules in their search for bandits, but dismounted to engage the enemy. In November 1903, seventeen Marines from the USS Brooklyn rode mules when they accompanied Robert Skinner on a diplomatic journey across the bleak landscape on the Horn of Africa. Mr. Skinner was the first American representative to the nation of Ethiopia, and traveled from Djibouti, French Somaliland to Addis Ababa to meet Emperor Menelik II. In his book about this mission, Skinner wrote that his Marines were idolized by the natives, who tried to mimic the rakish manner that these sea soldiers wore their campaign hats. During the 1940's, mounted Marine guard detachments patrolled naval ammunition depots and bases that were too large to cover on foot and with too rough a terrain for a Jeep. Guantanamo Bay, Trinidad, Hawaii, and Terminal Island, California all had these special Horse Marine units. Typically, a Marine on horseback would stand an eight hour shift every other day. Four hours during daylight and four hours at night. On Guadalcanal, Marines put horses that had been abandoned by the Japanese to use as a "courier service."
The famed Peking Legation Horse Marines were formed January/February 1912 to serve as couriers and, if necessary, warn Americans and other foreigners living in the Chinese countryside of danger. In the photograph below, "C" Company, the mounted troop, is pictured outside city walls wearing their winter greens. This uniform included the unusual all-fur cap that was pretty much unique to North China Marines. The cap ear flaps helped protect from the icy winds that originate in arctic Siberia. Dust storms off the Gobi Desert were responsible for the photo title, which originally was a phrase used for a story published in the Legation Guard News, circa early 1930's. And yes, an apology to Zane Grey is probably in order. This popular mounted unit would parade Saturday mornings wearing their dress blues, and armed with their Model 1913 Patton sabers. These weekly parades were enjoyed by the American families the Marines were in Peking to protect. A parade highlight was the mock cavalry charge pass the reviewing stand. In 1938, the Horse Marines were disbanded, and Mameluke and the other Mongolian ponies were sold for ten dollars each. This bargain price included the M1904 McClellan cavalry saddle. Americans living outside the Legation compound bought the Marines' faithful horses, keeping them from become glue, eaten or pulling overloaded carts for the rest of their lives. The top of the Tartar Wall pictured behind the mounted troop was guarded by a Marine sentry. This section of the old city wall was used as a promenade by the 1930's white families living in the Legation Quarter, and off-limits to all Chinese except amahs with foreign children. Yes, that's the same Tartar Wall that Private Dan Daly, USMC, heroically defended during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. From his position atop the wall, and roughly fifty yards in front of the rest of the defenders, Daly faced the dreaded "Sha! Sha! Sha!" --- "Kill! Kill! Kill!" screaming Boxers with a 6mm Lee straight-pull Model 1895 rifle and a bayonet. Because of a miscommunication, he defended this forward position by himself. Pvt. Daly was awarded the first of his two Medal of Honors (he was recommended for a third!) for the courage that he displayed the night of August 14th--15th, 1900. Both of Daly's MOHs are on display in the new Marine Corps museum at Quantico, Virginia. During the 1840's, when a US sailor called a Marine a 'horse-marine' it was a sign of contempt. There wasn't anything comical about Horse Marines.
Vaudeville ditty composed 1868
1. I am Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, I often live beyond my means, I sport young ladies in their teens, To cut a swell in the army. I teach the ladies how to dance, how to dance, how to dance, I teach the ladies how to dance, For I'm their pet in the army. (Spoken. Ha!ha!ha!) Chorus: I'm Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, I give my horse good corn and beans, Of course it's quite beyond my means, Tho' a captain in the army.
2. I joined my corps when twenty one, Of course I thought it capital fun, When the enemy came then off I run, I wasn't cut out for the army. When I left home, mama, she cried, Mama, she cried, mama, she cried, When I left home, mama, she cried, "He aint cut out for the army." (Spoken. No, she thought I was too young, but then, I said, ah! mama,) Chorus
3. The first day I went out to drill, The bugle sound made me quite ill, At the Balance step my hat it fell, And that wouldn't do for the army. The officers they all did shout, They all cried out, they all did shout, The officers they all did shout, "Oh that's the curse of the army." (Spoken. Of course my hat did fall off, but, ah! nevertheless,) Chorus
4. My Tailors bills came in so fast, Forced me one day to leave at last, And ladies too, no more did cast, Sheeps eyes at me in the army. My creditors at me did shout, At me did shout, at me did shout, My creditors at me did shout, "Why kick him out of the army." (Spoken. I said, ah! gentlemen, ah! kick me out of the Army? Perhaps you are not aware, that) Chorus
Most Marines are cocky, but it seems that the Peking Horse Marines were especially so. Kemp Battle Nye, USMC, a member of this elite mounted unit, described his troop this way: "trained by the descendents of Genghis Khan, and fought recklessly, loved carelessly, and lived dangerously." About 1936, Corporal Nye, a most handsome, charming and flamboyant Marine, was Pearl S. Buck's lover. In 1932, Ms. Buck won the Pulitzer Prize for her classic novel, The Good Earth, a book about Chinese peasant life. Surprised that a famous missionary woman would have anything to do with an enlisted China Marine? Well, later in life Nye was described as: "charming, distinguished, handsome, incredibly energetic, gregarious, and flamboyant, a bon vivant, a natural storyteller, and one of the greatest pitchman who ever lived." The swashbuckling Corp. Nye went on to storm several beaches during World War Two, become a successful North Carolina businessman, plus author of at least five semi-autobiographical books. In conclusion, and strictly because it's neither here nor there but fun trivia, I want to mention that the successful 1903 Ethiopia diplomatic mission ended with a gift. Emperor Menelik II visited the Marine encampment, and had been impressed with the knowledge of a private who had demonstrated the workings of his service rifle. The end result was a set of magnificent elephant tusks that the emperor sent to President Teddy Roosevelt, who displayed them, along with his Rough Rider campaign hat, in his Sagamore Hill home in Oyster Bay, NY. And lastly, the Peking Legation Horse Marines didn't just ride Mongolian ponies--horses imported from Australia were also their mounts.
A special thank you to Dirk, a retired Air Force Officer, for sharing his wonderful Peking Horse Marine photograph. I also want to thank Matt, who graciously shared the research he has done in preparation for publishing his biography of Sergeant Major Dan Daly, and Australian Sam Cox for sharing his snippet about the Australian bred horses.