Bermuda’s Great War sacrifices remembered
One hundred years ago this week Bermuda went to war.
Volunteers from what was then a British colony signed up to fight in what became known as the war to end all wars.
Bermudians served on land, sea and in the air during the First World War — and by the end of the conflict a total of 80 had died.
The first Island casualty came only weeks after Britain and its allies opened hostilities with Germany on August 4, 1914, after Germany had declared war on France and Belgium.
William Smith, a first class cook in the Royal Navy, went down with his ship HMS Aboukir off the coast of Holland on September 22 that year.
William, who was 22, of Harmon’s Hill, Somerset, was one of 527 who died on the Aboukir, which was sunk by a German U-boat, and he is commemorated on the Chatham Naval Memorial in Kent.
In a Bermuda still segregated, black soldiers served in the Bermuda Militia Artillery (BMA), which became part of the Royal Garrison Artillery, while white soldiers trained as infantrymen in the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps (BVRC).
Soldiers from the BVRC were the first volunteer colonial troops to arrive in France, with a total of 87 joining the Lincolnshire Regiment on June 15, 1915.
A further BVRC contingent — a total of 38 soldiers — joined the same regiment in October, 1916.
The BMA sent a total of 263 troops to the front, the first contingent leaving Bermuda in May 1916 and the second in May 1917.
The BMA served mainly in ammunition dumps, delivering shells to gun batteries in the field and served at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and were later attached to the Canadian Army at Vimy Ridge and at Ypres.
The first day of the Somme on July 1, 1916 cost the British Army 60,000 casualties — the bloodiest day in its history.
By the time the battle ended five months later the casualty toll had risen to 400,000 and the front line had advanced just eight miles.
The British commander in France, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, gave the BMA a unit commendation for their courage under fire.
He wrote: “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 also conspicuous for their cheeriness under all conditions.
“On more than one occasion the dumps at which they were employed were ignited by hostile shellfire and much of their work was done under shellfire.
“Their behaviour on all these occasions was excellent, and commanded the admiration of those with whom they were serving.”
The General commanding IX Corps, where the BVRC served, wrote in June 1918 that the BVRC had been in every action fought by the Lincolnshires since 1915 — including at the Somme, Arras and Ypres.
He added that in the spring of that year, BVRC soldiers had been “constantly fighting”.
And he said: “In addition to the above they have done almost continuous duty in the trenches.
“They have at all times displayed great gallantry and devotion to duty.”
Both regiments are commemorated in the modern-day Bermuda Regiment, with its cap badge incorporating the Maltese Cross of the BVRC and a cannon wheel and cannon honouring the BMA.
Between the two units, a total of eight Military Medals were won, along with an OBE and a Distinguished Flying Cross.
One soldier, Joe Watlington, then a private in the BVRC, wrote in December 1915: “We are back in the trenches again. They are terrible — up to your knees almost everywhere with water or mud and some places deeper and we are kept at it pretty well all day and night, pumping and working at places where the sides have fallen in trying to keep them somewhat in shape.
“But it is a terribly hopeless and uphill job and I think the water keeps a good length ahead of us.”
And he spared a thought for the German troops in their own trenches only yards away across No Man’s Land.
Joe wrote: “I often wonder how our friends across the way are getting on. Good Lord, isn’t it ever going to finish?
“From our point of view, it seems more hopeless than it does from yours although we know of course in the end that we are wrong.
“Still, to look across at that long line of earth running parallel for mile after mile with our trenches and never moving, it makes one feel a little dispirited.”
Pte Watlington, who was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant and transferred to the new Royal Flying Corps, was killed in action in June 1917 when his plane crashed behind enemy lines.
Another Bermudian — who survived two wars — was Fred Dolan, who served in the Boer War while living in South Africa and joined the British Merchant Navy at the outbreak of the First World War at the age of 54.
He lived in London and returned to Bermuda after the war.
And the war still holds some mysteries — BMA Gunner Joseph Symons was listed as killed in action on October 20, 1918 — but Field Marshal Haig’s list reports him as returning home in July 1919 and he does not appear on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission list of war dead.
IN MEMORIAM (Great uncles of the writer of this article, Raymond Hainey): Edward Sweeney, Seaforth Highlanders, killed in action, France, Saturday, November 2, 1918, aged 21.
John S McEwan, Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) died of wounds, France, Wednesday, September 29, 1915, aged 37.
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