The Bermuda Militia Artillery and the Great War in France
Soon after the old Queen’s Birthday in 1916, a convoy left Bermuda including one ship with over two hundred black Bermudians and their white officers, Bermudians to boot.
On 9 June, the English coast at Devonport was sighted and the leader of the Bermuda Contingent of the Royal Garrison Artillery was heard to comment: “Well, we’re about to see how the native Bermudian from the land of eternal peace can adapt himself to the brutalities of war … I believe that our men have the guts.”
Indeed, so it proved but Major Thomas Dill might have thought the same about the contingents of the white Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps, who were also in the thick of it in northeast France.
They were infantry and the RGA contingent were the ‘gunners’, being trained in the use of the great 6-inch and 9.2-inch guns then obtaining at several forts in Bermuda from around 1905, but in particular at St David’s Battery, the home base of the Bermuda Militia Artillery, as the largely black corps was named.
Reporting in late December 1917 on the Bermuda Contingent of the Royal Garrison Artillery, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig noted: ‘This contingent served with the Canadian Corps during the operation in May and June, subsequent to the capture of Vimy Ridge.
“They were employed on Heavy Ammunition Dumps, and great satisfaction was expressed with their work.
“Though called upon to perform labour of the most arduous and exacting nature at all times of the day and night, they were not only willing and efficient but conspicuous for their cheeriness under all conditions. “Their officers rendered valuable services in the management of the dumps.
“The unit also worked on ammunition dumps from end of June to the beginning of September in another Corps.
“On more than one occasion the dumps at which they were employed were ignited by hostile shell fire, and much of their work was done under shell fire. Their behaviour on all these occasions was excellent, and commanded the admiration of those with whom they were serving. In fact the manner in which they carried out their work under all conditions was strikingly good.”
The Bermuda Militia Artillery was formed in the mid-1890s and centered in St George’s Parish, which had most of the big guns of the Island at that period, a number of which would shortly be replaced in the first decade of the 1900s with modern, wire-wound ‘rifles’ of steel, as opposed to the cast and wrought iron guns of the Victorian period.
The force was segregated and drawn from the black population of Bermuda, but its officers were white, while the NCOs were black.
After 70 years of servi ce, the BMA would be amalgamated (and integrated) with the Bermuda Rifles (successor to the BVRC) into the Bermuda Regiment in 1965, a proud corps that next year celebrates its fiftieth anniversary of service to the Island.
No one could foresee the Great War of 1914—18, but men signed up for six years with the BMA as volunteers, although part of the agreement was that they could be called up to serve in the event of a conflict involving the British Empire, of which Bermuda was the oldest overseas territory.
In August 1914, the heavy artillery that involved British gunners commenced action in northern France, the beginning of an epic, four-year struggle that has been termed the first ‘industrial war’ and the first of two world wars.
Once in Britain, the BMA Contingent received orders to proceed immediately to France and arrived at Ancre on 24 June 1916, a site within the infamous area that comprised the Battle of the Somme:
“All Bermudians were under fire a few days later when they were engaged in the attack of the Somme, 1 July.”
That was the day that that epic battle began and it ended in mid-November 1916, with the loss of over a million men killed or wounded, making it “one of humanity’s bloodiest battles”, one aspect of the conflict being the presence of great numbers of heavy artillery, unexploded shells of which still turn up in farmer’s fields in France.
After service in northeast France from midsummer into the autumn, the Bermuda Contingent began to feel the effects of a European winter and pneumonia was ever present.
Major Dill obtained leave for the corps and they arrived at Marseilles to refresh themselves, in the “salubrious climate of the South of France”.
In 1917, they returned to the Western Front and acquitted themselves “heroically during the attack on Vimy Ridge on 9 April”.
At the end of June, forty more men and two officers arrived from Bermuda and thus increased the strength of the force, 17 months to go before the end of the war on 11 November 1918, during which time men were killed, wounded and gassed.
The Bermuda Contingent returned to a tumultuous welcome on 1 July 1919, three years after they had set sail as volunteers for a conflict of unknown proportions.
Gunners H Knights and A Manders received the Military Medal “for bravery in battle on land”, but Mr Manders died at Flushing, New York in 1921, perhaps as a result of injuries obtained in the Great War.
The full story of the Bermuda Contingent of the Royal Garrison Artillery has yet to be written, but perhaps this 100th anniversary year might inspire someone to take up the pen, instead of the sword, and do research battle to obtain as full a picture as possible of those heroic Bermudians that ventured to serve in foreign fields, so that all here could enjoy the now century-long fruits of their sacrifices.
Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Director of the National Museum. Comments may be made to firstname.lastname@example.org or 704-5480.