The Royal Naval Canadian Naval Reserve 1914–1919

by Stephen Rybak 2011

RNCVR Pacific

RNCVRs of the Pacific Division Lower left – Percy Tribe. Upper right – Alan B. Ford

The Naval Force authorized under the Naval Service Act in 1910 was never implemented. With a change in government in 1911, a new naval policy was introduced, but no action taken until the spring of 1914. As the Liberal-dominated Senate would not pass the Naval Aid Bill, the Borden administration made another attempt to aid the British. Privy Council Order 1313 of May 18th authorized the establishment of a Naval Volunteer Force, similar to the unofficial unit that had been formed in Victoria.

This 1200–man strong force would have its own permanent staff and officers and, if called out in an emergency, would be required "to serve in the vessels of the Naval Service of Canada or in those of the Royal Navy". Four days later, the Deputy Minister of the Naval Service requested the assistance of the Admiralty to train this force and asked for 25 officers and men on loan from the Royal Navy.

The proposal that Canadians serve in other than Canadian ships was heatedly debated in the House of Commons. The Liberal opposition attacked the measure on the basis that it would turn Canada into a recruiting ground for Imperial cannon fodder. Laurier stated:

" If we are not to have a (Canadian) Navy we do not want any sailors – if we take part in our own defence – then we should do it ourselves like men, having our own ships and our own men also".

Despite the Liberals’ fears that Canada would have no say in the matters of the future and well–being of the men, the measure was passed by the House of Commons.


Original Members of the Canadian Naval Volunteers at the Parliament Buildings Victoria BC

The Order–in–Council authorized three Sub–Divisions (Atlantic Coast and St. Lawrence; Lake; and Pacific) with each Sub–Division organized into companies of 100 men, four Officers, 11 Chief Petty Officers and Leading Seamen, plus one Writer. The Volunteer force was further broken down into three classes: those who lived near the sea coast and could easily go to sea for training; those living in the Lake Division who could not readily go afloat; and the fishing community. Rates of pay ranged from $4.00 a day for Lieutenants to $1.01 for Petty Officers and $.85 for Able Seamen, with allowances for specialists. Recruiting for the force was hampered by the lack of instructors, the outbreak of war and the great reluctance of the Royal Navy to loan trained personnel to Canada. With the out–break of hostilities on August 4, 1914, PC 2050 put the Canada’s Naval Forces and the Naval Volunteer Forces on active service – 68 Officers and 545 men in the Navy and 18 Officers and 427 men in the Volunteer Reserve. The Victoria volunteers were absorbed into the fledgling RNCVR.

Ships of all descriptions were borrowed from other government Departments, chartered, purchased or accepted as gifts or loans from private citizens; were armed; and sent out on patrol manned largely by reservists. Canadian reservists helped man the RCN’s two cruisers, Niobe and Rainbow, and provided the complete crews for the two submarines purchased by the Government of British Columbia. Crews for the 12 anti–submarine trawlers that were built for the Navy and the 94 on loan from the Admiralty were manned by reservists.

For the first two years of the Great War, recruiting of volunteer forces was not pressed at all. The Canadian government explained that its energies were focused on recruiting for the Canadian Expeditionary Force and not for the Imperial Navy, as the Admiralty expressed confidence they had sufficient manpower for the Fleet. Men were needed in the trenches of Flanders, not on the North Sea. Even those members of the Volunteer Naval Force were not utilized for service overseas.

Still more than 1,000 Canadians, ex–servicemen or RN reservists volunteered for duty and 200 Officers joined the Royal Naval Air Service. But by 1916, the Royal Navy was willing to take Canadian recruits and train them in England, if they would serve at Imperial rates of pay. Accordingly a Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve Officer was sent on a recruiting mission to Canada but found that "the raising of a body of men for the Royal Navy at Imperial rates of pay I found to be practically hopeless" as those patriotic enough to suffer the financial loss had already joined the CEF.

With pressure mounting on the government to recruit sailors, the policy was adopted to recruit a Royal Navy Canadian Volunteer Reserve at Canadian rates of pay with those moneys beyond Imperial pay scales to be held in Canada. It was hoped to recruit 2000 men under these terms in 1916 and additional 300 the following year. Commander White RN, was appointed to supervise the recruiting efforts, which had to overcome severe organizational handicaps. By January 1917 only 851 men had been recruited under the RNCVR plan and the Canadian government withdrew service personnel from the recruiting offices, leaving the task to enthusiastic civilians. Later pay rates for the RNCVR were raised equal to those for the RCN.

Most Men and Officers were trained in England in RN depots and then posted to ships in European waters, but some even found themselves serving in Canadian waters onboard armed trawlers. As of December 31, 1917, 47 RCN Officers were on loan to the Royal Navy and 1,147 RNCVR served overseas. In addition 382 Officers served with the Royal Naval Air Service and 300 Sub-Lieutenants and 100 men saw duty with the RN Auxiliary Motor Boat Patrol Division.

Despite the recruiting difficulties, by the end of the war the RNCVR had grown from 3 Officers and 40 ratings (May 1914) to 745 Officers and 6,613 ratings. In addition to manning the variety of Canadian coastal ships, the two submarines and shore establishments, Canadian Reservists crewed trawlers and drifters in British home waters, Gibraltar and West Africa. At the same time, the strength of the Royal Canadian Navy grew to 391 Officers and 1,080 ratings and more than 600 Canadians had enlisted directly in the Royal Navy and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.

The only Canadian Naval vessel lost during the Great War was HMCS Galiano, a former fisheries vessel crewed by 39 RNCVR Officers and men. The ship foundered in hurricane–like conditions off the northern tip of Vancouver Island on October 29, 1918 while re–supplying radio stations. A total of 150 Canadian Naval personnel died on active service during the First World War.

The RNCVR was a valuable and very necessary organization in war, but it had no place in Canada after "the war to end all wars". Indeed, the military, it was publicly claimed, had outlived its usefulness.

As part of his post–War Empire tour, Admiral Viscount Jellicoe provided the Canadian government with requested recommendations on a Naval Service. Jellicoe suggested independent Dominion units to protect their coasts and shipping and for the security of the seas as a whole. His "report" included a section on the organization and training of a reserve force. As demobilization continued the Government was reluctant to spend any funds on Naval upkeep and officers, men and civilian employees at Headquarters and Dockyards were let go. All ships but the destroyers Patrician and Patriot and four armed trawlers were laid up or paid off; the Naval College closed and the strength of the Canadian Navy was reduced to 366 all ranks. The unstated policy seemed to be one of "carry on the Canadian Naval Service along pre-war lines".

In May 1922 the Mackenzie King Government introduced further economic measures, cutting the Naval Service appropriation of $2.5 million for 1923 by $1 million. A National Defence Act transferred the Radiotelegraph Service, Hydrographic Survey, Tidal and Current Survey, Fisheries Protection Service and Patrol of Northern Waters from the Naval Service to the Department of Marine and Fisheries.

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 "Stone Frigates" 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".

To quote from this article please cite:

Rybak, Stephen (2011) The Royal Naval Canadian Naval Reserve 1914–1919. 2011.

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