Sacrifice at Sea: The Canadian Merchant Navy and the First World War

During the First World War, the Royal Canadian Navy, and the Canadian Merchant Navy played a pivotal role in the Allied victory. Had it not been for thousands of Canadian sailors and their vessels, the War could have taken a turn for the worse.


At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the United Kingdom boasted one of the most powerful Naval fleets in the word– the Royal Navy. In Canada, on the other hand, the Royal Canadian Navy was just four years old, with only two ships in operation and fewer than 350 personnel.  By the end of the war in 1918, the Royal Canadian Navy would grow to nearly 9,500 sailors, with over 130 commissioned vessels, and countless other merchant marine vessels and sailors.


Lacking in supply vessels, troop carriers, and trained sailors, thousands of Canadian merchant sailors and mariners uprooted their lives to serve for crown and country. Selflessly, these men and women left behind the comforts of home and familiar waters, to fight for freedom around the world. Mariners who once sailed cargo from port to port in North America, were now tasked with making the dangerous trans-Atlantic trip to a land engulfed in war.


The Challenge


Surrounded by ocean, the United Kingdom had for centuries held its strategic advantage as an isolated island. However, starting in the early 20th century, the isolation nearly led to the demise of the entire British Commonwealth. For one of the first times in modern history, Allied Navy personal were up against a new enemy, one that was able to silently lurk beneath the surface and strike at will – the German U-Boat.


The First World War saw German submarines take a great toll on the Canadian Merchant Navy, which was tasked with carrying troops and desperately-needed supplies from North America to Europe. These vessels acted as a lifeline for the troops fighting overseas. At the time, the United Kingdom was operating and producing at capacity. In order to survive, food, munitions, oil, and various other goods had to be imported to feed the war machine.


With a vital flow of resources nearly cut off, the Allies moved to a convoy system, placing merchant ships into large groups and escorting them across the ocean with warships for protection. These trans-Atlantic convoys would sometimes consist of upwards of 60 ships, and would routinely make the haul from Eastern Canada, to ports in Europe. The challenge was great, but Allied efforts at sea helped turn the tide and allowed enough war materials to make it through for the Allies to eventually win the war in late 1918.


We will never forget


As a union that represents Canadian seafarers working in the Canadian maritime industry, every day we fight to protect Canadian sailors and honour the history of the Canadian maritime industry. It is with great pride that we recognize and remember the sacrifices of those who served without hesitation during Canada’s, and the world’s time of great need.


Our union roots are deep, and it is for this reason we pause year after year to remember and honour the Canadian men and women who have served our country and fought for freedom around the world.  Time may fade, but our memories cannot, we are the Seafarers International Union of Canada, and together, we are stronger!


Back to Articles