In the 18th and 19th centuries the men of Lewis were reluctant to join the Navy, which promised a hard and unpleasant life aboard, and they preferred the Army when pressed into service. However, when the Royal Naval Reserve was founded in 1859, it proved more acceptable. Experienced seamen were paid a retainer, given training, and held in readiness for service, without normally being required to spend long years away from home. In 1903 the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve was established to take in volunteers to support the Royal Naval Reserve.
In remote parts of Lewis, the Royal Naval Reserve also helped to inject a little money into the local economy at a time when paid work was scarce.
Some 70,000 naval reservists from all over the country served during the First World War, and at its outbreak over 20,000 were superfluous to sea-bound requirements. These were sufficient to form two Naval Brigades: seamen barely retrained to be infantrymen. The Royal Naval Division was first posted to the defence of Antwerp in October 1914, where 1,500 were quickly interned, and it also took part in the Gallipoli campaign.
During the First World War, a good half of the Lewismen in service were in the Royal Naval Reserve – a total of 2,267, or 7.7% of the total population. Of these 970 were from the parish of Stornoway, 560 from Barvas, 349 from Uig and 388 from Lochs. All told there were 4,320 Lewismen in service during the First World War, about 15% percent of the island population, which at the time stood at 29,487.
The Royal Naval Reserve and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve were mobilised again during the Second World War; by 1945, about three-quarters of the Navy’s manpower were reservists. The two reserve forces merged in 1958 and today the Royal Naval Reserve comprises about 3,250 volunteers.
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