Ninety-nine years of sorrow
‘Some wars name themselves. This is the Great War' — Maclean's Magazine, October 1914
By Dr Edward Harris
We are three years into the new millennium, the third after the birth of Christ, for our calendar for some centuries has had its start date at that event which occurred the Bethlehem in what is now the West Bank of the Palestinian Authority in the year AD1.
As yet, in this new era, no Bermudians have been lost in overseas wars, although some of our folk have been on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thus as Armistice Day 2013 approaches, our total losses on military services in the two World Wars and the Korean War and those since stands at one woman and 125 men.
Now Remembrance Day, the day of the Armistice that ended the worst war the world had ever seen took place on the ‘eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month' of 1918, but the ninety-nine years of sorrow for some families here and many thousands overseas started in the middle of the summer of 1914, next year being the centenary of beginning of the conflict known as the ‘Great War'.
That had to be later revised to the ‘First World War', when twenty years later global battles commenced again, to be named the ‘Second World War'.
Bermuda sent volunteers to both world wars, including women, and Bermudians enlisted with the US Army served in Korea and Vietnam (we recently lost one of my childhood schoolmates who served in the latter arena).
Remembrance Day is exactly that, a day to remember those lost their lives in service for the greater good, and well as all those who gave up years of their normal lives to contribute to the engagement in the many ways in which help was needed, from caring for the wounded to supplying sustenance to those still standing.
Barely two months into the First World War, the first Bermudian was lost in one of the more tragic episodes on the high seas, when HMS Aboukir was attacked in an incident that ‘established the U-boat as a major weapon in the conduct of naval warfare', a distinction of no meaning to William Edmund Smith of Somerset, who went down with his ship, two other vessels (HMS Hogue and HMS Cressy) and 62 officers and 1,396 ratings.
As the war worn on, over 200 men of the Bermuda Militia Artillery, allied with the Royal Garrison Artillery (the ‘Gunners', as opposed to infantry foot soldiers) volunteered for service in France, as did a similar number from the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps and others who enlisted independently in services like the Royal Flying Corps (later the Royal Air Force).
Of those, some 80 men did not return home and are buried in foreign ‘fields', including the depths of the sea.
In remembrance of three of our Second World War veterans who began the endless march of eternity recently, a few biographical notes may be of interest.
When he was seventeen, Philip Lamb joined the Bermuda Militia Artillery early in the war, but then volunteered for the Royal Air Force.
After training in Canada in 1944, he left for combat out of Britain.
Philip survived two crashes in planes on which he served as a gunner, but a German air raid very late in the war put him into hospital with serious injuries, but he flew on for a long life back home in Bermuda.
John Burland was also in the flying forces and from 1943—46, he served in the Fleet Air Arm, being trained as a pilot and also a ‘combat dispatch motorcycle rider' (perhaps that was when his love of speed developed, so exemplified by his renowned speedboat out of Ely's Harbour for Hamilton most work days).
John's passion for flying continued beyond the years when the Government gives one that ‘Special Person' card, which he may have considered, as many do, the best licence ever received without a test, except that of surviving the war and other possibly fatal tribulations that the battle of life presents.
The late Colin Plant joined the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy, but preferred ground operations as an aircraft mechanic.
That did not stop him from being attacked from the air and the blast from a landing “doodlebug” the V1 flying bomb, sent to Britain with Herr Hitler's compliments, almost put a stop to his career, not quite in mid-air.
In Bermuda, Colin finally obtained a pilot's licence and was well known for several decades for the passage of his Luscombe floatplane, out of the waters near Mangrove Bay.
To these flyers, Godspeed and fair winds on the greatest flight of them all, and thanks for your part in the defence of some of the foundations that form the fabric of our free society today.
During their time at war in Europe of the Second World War, the Bermudians of the 1st Battalion Caribbean Regiment lost one of their numbers, Winston Baxter, but remembered him at a banquet given in their honour upon return to the Island in January 1946.
Of that remembrance and commemoration, his mother, Elvira Baxter, said: “After tonight, I am able to take the bitter with the sweet.”
Many need to be reminded that the opulent sweetness that generally obtains in this place today was purchased with the bitter that was the lot for many local families in the last 99 years.
Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Director of the National Museum of Bermuda. Comments may be made to firstname.lastname@example.org or +1 441 704 5480.