When the First World War broke out on August 4, 1914, Newfoundland and Labrador had little in the way of armed forces. There was a local branch of the Royal Naval Reserve, but the closest thing the dominion had to any land forces was a handful of paramilitary groups – civilian-run organizations that provided its members with varying degrees of military training. These groups became an important source of early recruits for the Newfoundland Regiment.
Most paramilitary groups were affiliated with Christian denominations. They combined religious instruction with military training, based on the example of the British soldier.
The Church of England established the first of these groups in Newfoundland in 1892, when it formed a branch of the Church Lads' Brigade (CLB) at St. John's. Within a decade, CLB companies had also formed at Heart's Content, Trinity Bay, and at Channel, on Newfoundland's southwest coast. Membership, however, was by far the largest in St. John's. In 1905, the CLB Old Boy's Club formed to accept former brigade members who were 18 years and older.
Other denominations also established paramilitary groups. The Catholic Cadet Corps raised its first company at St. John's in 1896, followed by four more over the next 15 years. By 1914, it had a membership of 600 in the city and had opened a sixth company at Bell Island. The Corps accepted volunteers between the ages of 13 and 21.
In September 1900, the Methodist Church created the Epworth Guards at St. John's. By December, the group had about 60 members and was renamed the Methodist Guards. Finally, the Presbyterian Church established the Newfoundlander Highlanders at St. John's in 1907. Members wore red tunics and kilts to honour the group's Scottish connections. Neither the Highlanders nor the Guards had branches outside the city.
All four church brigades followed similar training programs. Cadets learned how to march in formation, deliver first aid, and respond to emergency situations. Each corps maintained its own marching band and sports teams. They competed against each other at various sporting events, such as football, hockey, and shooting tournaments, and the annual St. John's Regatta.
There was also the non-denominational Legion of Frontiersmen. It was an Empire-wide paramilitary group for adult men that had formed in Britain in 1905 and then spread throughout the Commonwealth. Branches opened at Newfoundland and Labrador in 1911.
Unlike the church brigades, which were concentrated at St. John's, the Legion of Frontiersmen had a strong presence outside the city. There were chapters in Labrador at Battle Harbour, Nain, Mud Lake, Grand River, and Red Bay, and on the island of Newfoundland at St. Anthony and St. John's. By 1914, there were about 150 frontiersmen in the dominion. They trained primarily in marching and marksmanship, although members had to supply their own guns.
When Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, many members of the Legion of Frontiersmen and the four church brigades wanted to enrol for military service. At first, it was expected that local volunteers would have to join British, Canadian, or other Allied forces. But on August 21, 1914, Newfoundland Governor Sir Walter Davidson issued a proclamation calling on single men, between the ages of 19 and 35, to enlist in the newly created First Newfoundland Regiment for service overseas.
The response was enthusiastic, particularly among the paramilitary groups. Of the approximately 700 men who volunteered for service by the end of August, more than 400 were from the Legion of Frontiersmen and the church brigades. They comprised the bulk of the First Five Hundred recruits and provided the Newfoundland Regiment with many of its officers.
The church brigades helped the Newfoundland Regiment in other ways as well. They donated tents to the Regiment's training camp in St. John's and miniature rifles for target practice. Brigade officers, along with members of the St. John's Rifle Club, also helped to train recruits.
Members of the Legion of Frontiersmen also played an important role in home defence. They guarded posts in various areas of Labrador and they manned Fort Waldegrave, near the entrance to the St. John's harbour. The men received government pay for their work and served as temporary attachments to the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve.
After the war, financial and recruiting difficulties forced some of the paramilitary groups out of existence. The Newfoundland Highlanders and the Catholic Cadet Corps disbanded in 1924. By then, the Methodist Guards had transformed itself into the Guards' Athletic Association to promote local sports. As of 2014, the association is still active. So is the CLB, which in 2014 had more than 1,000 members in 22 companies spread across the Avalon Peninsula, and in one company on the Bonavista Peninsula.