Canada’s Naval Reserve in the Early Days

by Stephen Rybak 2011

HMS Bee Recreates Early Days

From the early beginnings of modern Canada, a naval reserve force played a prominent role in the defence of Canada. The first naval reserve was established following the Seven Year’s War and the British defeat of French forces in North America.

By 1763, the British Admiralty controlled all water and transport services in North America, both on the Atlantic and the Great Lakes. Gradually the Admiralty relinquished control of inland waters, transferring its monopoly of services and transport to the Department of the Quartermaster-General’s Department of the Army. Armed transports, manned by local seamen and members of the Royal Navy, controlled lake traffic from bases in Kingston, Detroit and Oswego.

Gradually during the American Revolutionary War, the lake service began to refer to itself as the Provincial Marine. No Provincial Marine was officially created, it just grew in response to local conditions as officers from Canada, merchant sailors and local watermen gradually out-numbered Royal Navy personnel and volunteers.

While the American Revolutionary War provided an impetus for the growth of the Provincial Marine, it also sounded its death-knell. The once substantial force gradually declined as the British monopoly of transport services on the Great Lakes was ended by the successful War of Independence waged by the American colonies. The Provincial Marine could not compete with private commercial shipping and its force of transport-warships gradually disintegrated. Even Governor Simcoe’s defence memorandum, which heartily advanced the proposition that the best and cheapest mode of defence for Upper Canada would be an inland navy based on a strong provincial marine, reinforced by militia units, could not stay the slow rot.

Sailor of the Provincial Marine

By 1812, with the threat of war brewing, the Provincial Marine was but a shadow of its former self and Simcoe’s defence plan was forgotten. The remaining ships of the Provincial Marine were poorly maintained and some were even condemned as unfit for service. The ships were sadly undermanned by both officers and men, even untrained seamen. Some Captains clung to their commands hoping for retirement and a pension until they were well past 80 years of age.

The new Commander-in Chief of British Forces, Major General Sir Issac Brock appointed Lt.-Colonel H.A.Pye to reorganize the Provincial Marine and to improve its efficiency. Although Colonel Pye retired many of the Captains and improved conditions on board the armed schooners, brig and corvette, his efforts failed. With the commencement of hostilities, the Provincial Marine was in no condition to fight.

However, the Provincial Marine managed to survive the first six months of the war only because the American lake forces were even worse off, decrepit and ill-led. The British managed to maintain vital superiority and thus control of the Lakes through 1812 and by the spring of the following year the first positive steps were taken to ensure a proper naval force would be available for the approaching summer campaign. On April 22, the Provincial Marine was transferred from the Quartermaster General’s Department to the Royal Navy and on May 15, 1813, Commodore Yeo arrived to take command of British naval forces.

Commodore of the Provincial Marine

The Provincial Marine was disbanded and most of the officers discharged. A few were taken into the Royal Navy and up to 200 men continued to serve in the Lakes forces. With the conclusion of peace in 1815 and the signing of the Rush-Bagot Treaty of 1817, which eliminated naval forces on the Great Lakes, the future for a naval reserve force dimmed.

The idea of a volunteer citizen-sailor corps lay dormant for a number of years, but it did not die. The traditions established by the Provincial Marine were to be resurrected in a time of increasing tensions between the United States and the British Colonies during the 1840s. In response to the rebellions in the Canadas in 1837-38, the union of the two colonies and war scares, the Colonial Government passed a Militia Act in 1846. It provided for the formation of a provincial marine corps headed by a Commodore (the equivalent to a Lt. Colonel in the Militia). This Act was the first recognition of the concept of a duly authorized naval reserve in Canada.

Notwithstanding the provisions for a provincial marine, the Oregon crisis of the later 1840’s passed without the formation of active units and it was not until 1855 that active units of a naval reserve came into being. A new Militia Act authorized Volunteer Marine Companies at Kingston, Coburg, Toronto, Hamilton, Port Stanley, Dunnville and Oakville. Each Company was restricted to a Captain, Lieutenant, and 50 petty officers and men. Seven years later the Companies underwent a reorganization and name change, becoming Marine and Naval Companies.

With the American Civil War at its height and relations between Britain and the United States worsening, a new Militia Act authorized Naval Companies with complements increased to 75 and a Garden Island Naval Company was added. As the American Civil War ended and the threat of Fenian cross-border raids became more pronounced, five still-active Naval Companies (Garden Island, Toronto, Hamilton, Dunnville and Port Stanley) were called out on short periods of active status. In March 1866, the Garden Island unit was transformed into a company of infantry and almost immediately saw action in a naval encounter. The Company was called out on active duty to man the steamer Watertown to repel a Fenian raid. It was the only company to see action; by June all five units were returned to inactive status. The inactivity culminated in the disbanding of the Toronto Company in August 1866, Dunnville in 1867 and Port Stanley in 1868.

By this time, Canada was a fledgling nation and took initial steps to arrange for its own defence with the passage of a new Militia Act in 1868. It made provision for Marine Militia units of seamen whose normal occupation was in ships and vessels navigating Canadian waters. Further, the Act called upon those Naval Companies still in existence by October 1 to signal their intention to remain active. The remaining Hamilton unit failed to meet the deadline of February 1869 and so phased itself and Canada’s first, formal naval reserve out of existence.

But the naval spirit continued to show life in parts of Canada. The Royal Navy maintained installations at Halifax and Esquimalt. Those bases consisted mainly of dry docks, coaling stations, provisioning stores, naval stores and hospital facilities. They were Canada’s front line of naval defence. It was in those areas that the sea and Navy beckoned. Numerous Nova Scotians joined the Royal Navy and seven Canadian officers attained Flag rank. Sir Provo William Wallace was appointed as an Admiral of the Fleet in 1877.

But the Canadian Government made further attempts under the same Militia Act to keep Naval and Marine units active. A Naval Brigade was formed in Halifax, but it lasted only two years until it was amalgamated into the 2nd Artillery Brigade in December 1870. Two Marine companies were raised in Quebec at Bonaventure and New Carlisle. A third Marine company was raised in Carleton, Quebec, only to exist for four years. With a general reduction in Militia forces ordered for June 1874, the Bonaventure and New Carlisle companies were disbanded.

The concept of a Canadian naval reserve never completely died. An international crisis in 1878 prompted the notion that Canada, once again, should make some provision for naval defence. The following year, the Commanding officer of the Militia recommended the establishment of a naval reserve as a powerful support to land forces in time of war to defend Canada’s long coastline, internal waterways and make use of the body of some 90,000 Canadian fishermen and seamen. He thought the British Admiralty might be persuaded to lend Canada a frigate for training reserves and boy seamen and to provide a measure of naval defence in Atlantic waters and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

In 1880, the Governor General forwarded the official request to the Colonial Office. The Admiralty’s favourable response effectively set back the creation of a Canadian naval reserve for 30 years. The Admiralty sent the Canadian government HMS Charybdis, a 20 year-old steam corvette on her way home from a seven-year tour of duty on the China Station. The Charybdis was in need a very major refit and her boilers were almost worn out. The boilers were repaired at Canadian expense and the Charybdis limped across the Atlantic to her new home in Saint John, New Brunswick.

The impression the ship made on her new home port still hasn’t been forgotten. During a storm, she tore loose from her moorings and careened about the harbour damaging local shipping. Later in the summer of 1881, the Charybdis claimed the lives of two citizens who fell through the ship’s rotten gangplank and drowned. While the Charybdis remained inactive, the Government was being severely criticized in the House of Commons for their ‘folly’. Canada returned the Admiralty’s ‘gift’ in August 1882, claiming the Charybdis was too expensive to maintain, too large a ship and too unwieldy for use by reserves. Charybdis was towed to Halifax where she was handed back to the British.

Even though Canada was still without a Navy, the new Dominion was essential to the Empire’s sea defences. One of the first cargoes to travel on the new (1885) Canadian Pacific Railway was a load of naval stores bound for Esquimalt. The railroad shipment cut time from Halifax from three months to seven days.

The combination of the deplorable saga of the Charybdis, the absence of any military threats and initiatives to establish Canadian sovereignty stilled any official enthusiasm to establish a naval reserve. Any references to the training of naval reserves conjured up the humiliating spectre of the Charybdis. The creation of a naval reserve, with any links to the Admiralty, would have run contrary to the efforts Canada was exerting to remain free of any Imperial or Colonial defence agreements.

Canada, under the prime ministership of Sir Wilfred Laurier stoutly resisted British and Canadian pressure to form Imperial defence leagues and agreements on the basis that Canada could not help pay for the increasing cost of Imperial defence as she had more important, internal national priorities. Canada rejected participation without an effective voice in the direction and control of such schemes. England was simply asking for money and giving little in return.

Even with the out break of the Boer War, jingoist support for a Canadian navy was scarce. The war was a land war and the British had the necessary shipping to transport and protect Canadian volunteers and supplies on the voyage to South Africa. Laurier even proposed the creation of a Canadian Naval Reserve in 1902, but the question of control left the matter in its proposal stage.

In response to the beating of the drums of war during the German Naval scare of 1908, the Britain turned away from its Imperial concept to strengthen and increase its Home Fleet. While accelerating the armaments race with dreadnought building programs, Britain turned over its two establishments in Canada. Whether Canada wanted it or not, Canada now had the rudiments of a Navy. Laurier succumbed to the pressure both within and without Canada to help the British in their ‘hour of need’.

Laurier chose a middle ground. Canada would form a navy and a naval reserve, but a Canadian navy, under Canadian control. On May 4, 1910 the Naval Service Act passed the House of Commons. Canada procured two training cruisers, HMS Niobe and Rainbow from the Royal Navy and assigned them to Halifax and Esquimalt respectively.

Admiral Charles Kingsmill RN (Retired), a Canadian, was appointed as the Director of the Naval Service and charged with the task of developing a program to train enough men and officers to completely man a modern squadron. This squadron was to be constructed to match the training of crews and would eventually provide Canada with her own effective Navy. While a regular force would have to be trained, Kingsmill was also responsible for the training of a Naval Reserve and a Volunteer Reserve force.

While the Act became law, it was never fully implemented. Laurier’s government fell and was replaced by Sir Robert Borden’s administration in 191l. The $3 million which was to be spent annually on building a squadron of 11 ships was never spent. No contracts were let for construction. The existing Naval Service was running down from disuse with only 350 recruits over two years. In 1912 there were 126 recruits and 149 desertions. The provision for the two reserve forces was never enabled, despite the enthusiasm of an unofficial volunteer reserve unit in Esquimalt.

Instead of implementing Laurier’s Act, Borden introduced his own Naval Aid Bill in 1912. Turning away from the opportunity to build and man a uniquely Canadian Navy, Borden proposed to build three dreadnoughts for the British Navy or contribute $35 million to the Royal Navy’s armaments program. He saw it as the only way in which Canada could effectively aid the mother country in the naval arms race.

Under Laurier’s Act, ships would be built in Canada and, accordingly, tenders were called for the dreadnoughts. But Canadian shipbuilding technology was not up to the task, so Borden ignored the seven tenders that were filed and turned to British shipyards to build Canada’s contribution. Laurier fought the Bill on the grounds that it relinquished Canadian control of Canada’s money and Navy. The Bill passed the House of Commons but could not pass the Liberal-dominated Senate. The money matter was defeated. Borden decided to wait for Senate vacancies to develop and fill them with Conservatives. Before that could happen, the ‘War to End All Wars’ broke out.

The Royal Navy Reserve was called out on August 2, 1914 and two days later the Royal Canadian Navy and the newly created Royal Navy Canadian Volunteer Reserve went on active duty.

Small Boats of the Provincial Marine

Author’s Note: I am indebted to the staff at the Directorate of History for their assistance in my research for the 50th anniversary of the Naval Reserve in 1972-73. Contributions from the 16 Naval Divisions in existence at the time helped illuminate the efforts to take the idea of a navy to the people of Canada and nurture it far from coastal waters. That historical material, which included the above, formed the basis of Commander Fraser McKee’s 1973 ‘Volunteers For Sea Service, A brief history of the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve’. A more complete organizational history of the Naval Reserve is to be found in the recently published ‘Citizen Sailors, Chronicles of Canada’s Naval Reserve, 1910-2010’. Stephen Rybak.

The images were created by John MacFarlane at Niagara on the Lake Ontario in 1992 at the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Lord Simcoe to create responsible government in Canada.


To quote from this article please cite:

Ryback, Stephen (2011) Canada’s Naval Reserve in the Early Days. Nauticapedia.ca 2011. http://www.nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Rybak1_Early Days.php

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