The War Pensions and Services Act 1919
In 1919, a compassionate and beautiful Act of Parliament was passed in Britain for all Commonwealth soldiers returning from the First World War.
In Bermuda, it guaranteed free hospital treatment for life at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, pensions for wounded soldiers, widows and dependents, and grants for veterans to set up businesses, acquire family homesteads and gain further education.
The Government of Bermuda also promised scrolls of honour for soldiers who lost their lives, and a War Memorial, the foundation stone of which was laid in 1920 by King Edward VIII on the grounds of Cabinet.
What a wonderfully changed Bermuda there would have been if the Act had been followed!
But only very few returning war veterans ever received these advantages, which were claimed by a privileged few. The War Memorial was never built and the other life-changing opportunities never materialised.
The situation remained unchanged and in 1947 after the end of the Second World War, returning soldiers were told: “Men, go to your homes”’ and there was no further acknowledgement of the opportunities in the Act.
At the time, there was serious unemployment in Bermuda, and black BMA soldiers who had driven tanks in the North African desert were not allowed to drive buses in Bermuda.
The War Memorial remained unbuilt, and the medical and educational benefits unclaimed. As one veteran remarked, sadly: “The only work we could find was breaking stones in the quarries.”
A job fit for convicts, not War Veterans.
During the war, United States president Franklin D. Roosevelt had informed Congress: “Gentlemen, if Bermuda were to fall to the enemy, we could expect the arrival of Nazi aircraft over the East Coast in three hours.”
The defence of Bermuda was of paramount importance, as the island could have provided an ideal refuelling base for German U-boats and aircraft.
Bermuda’s soldiers were divided into those serving overseas, and those chosen to defend the island. Full-time attested soldiers who had experience in road repair, masonry, shipbuilding and construction were kept in Bermuda to rebuild the infrastructure in case of bombing attacks, spending up to six years serving as a full-time defence force.
Some of the most vital sea battles of the war were fought by radio from Admiralty House, while enemy submarines circled the island as a constant threat to the merchant mariners who supplied the island with the necessities of life.
Bermudians too young, old, or in reserved occupations — ineligible for regular military duties — served in a Home Guard unit and patrolled the coastline.
It was only after a further 62 years, in 2007, that the Progressive Labour Party government of the day brought in amendments to the WPSA that provided all war veterans of Bermuda pensions and benefits, healthcare and caregiving benefits.
Every single MP on both sides of the House rose one by one and endorsed the new Act. One MP remarked that the war veterans were still fighting the same battles and meeting the same challenges that they faced during wartime.
Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch remarked appropriately that “it’s never the wrong time to do the right thing”.
The War Memorial was built, commemorating all the men and women who served in the world wars and, above all, Bermuda’s veterans now have their recognition and acknowledgement.
This year, there is no parade, and the whole world is dealing with the challenge of Covid-19. We are keeping our precious remaining veterans safe, but it is vital that we keep them, and their service and sacrifice, safe in our hearts.
• Carol Everson, MBE is a welfare caseworker for the Bermuda Legion. For donations to Bermuda’s war veterans and widows, visit HSBC account number 010 731354 001