Walking to war

Published on August 4, 2014
The old train station in Avondale, one of the routes used by members of the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve to respond to the mobilization order of Aug. 2, 1914. — Submitted photo

Aug. 2 marked 100 years since the mobilization of the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve, two days before war was declared on the Aug. 4, 1914.

The naval reservists quickly found out about the order. The Evening Telegram reported on Aug. 3, 1914 that “Copies of the order were immediately posted at all of the principle places and telegraphed to the magistrates in the outports.”

“Forty naval reservists in

St. John’s reported for duty immediately,” reported The Telegram, “and as many more ex-reservists volunteered for service.” Champion swimmer and instructor William Clance was the first to report, and was awarded a prize of £2, great incentive for reporting at six in the morning!

About 400 of the 535 sailors to report were engaged in the Labrador fishery. Coastal captains like Capt. Parsons of the SS Kyle were directed to give these reservists free passage to St. John’s. Did these fishermen go home first, to say good bye to loved ones and pick up their kit prior to going to St. John’s, or did they go straight from the Labrador? This must have added to the amount of time taken to comply with orders.

They could also have travelled by train. Ironically, The Evening Telegram advertised there were “Regatta Specials” on Aug. 4 and 5 from Carbonear, Placentia and Renews. Can you imagine what the atmosphere was like in the carriages with all these young men headed for war travelling with the Regatta revellers?

Certainly, on Aug. 6, William Coaker wrote about how shameful it was that St. John’s “frolicked” at the Regatta while the Empire was being brought to a war posture. But, as the average age of the reservists was 20, it is likely that they must have been doing a bit of frolicking themselves prior to reporting for duty.  

My great uncle recalled young men being driven by horse and cart to Woodford’s Station in Holyrood to catch the train for duty. Retracing their steps, but having no horse or cart at my disposal, I set off with my dog on foot, walking from my house in Harbour Main to the Avondale Station.

The Admiralty order to report was pretty clear: “Men are to appear in uniform and bring their certificates RN2 and any necessities with them.”

This would mean most sailors would have travelled in their uniform. If any of them had to walk any distance in the hot August sun, they must have needed to square themselves off before reporting to duty, with some serious work to do on their boots.

 It took me an hour through the paths and rail bed to Avondale Station, a route that could have been used in 1914. The local Magistrate would have been waiting with travel warrant in hand and to wish the boys luck.

In short order, all 535 trained sailors plus other wartime volunteers reported to HMS Calypso, and the volunteers kept coming as the reserve force was increased to 1,000 on Aug. 7.

“I got them”, said Commander MacDermott, “every man jack of them, even though some had to walk to get here.”

One hundred and seven sailors and officers of the Royal Naval Reserve were the first people of Newfoundland and Labrador to go to war, leaving to hunt German submarines in HMCS Niobe on Sept. 3, 1914.

This August, find out if any naval reservists set out from your community 100 years ago. Take your friends and family, and walk a mile in their memory to your nearest railway or coastal boat station. Think of the practicalities of signing up, and how the very act of reporting for duty was a challenge in itself.

Lt.-Cmdr. Shannon Lewis-Simpson

Commanding Officer, HMCS CABOT