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Relatives commemorate brave Somme heroes

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The Bermuda Militia Artillery contingent that travelled to France to serve in the First World War.

Thousands will gather in a quiet corner of northern France today to remember the brave soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the bloodiest battle of the First World War.

Among the crowd who will mark 100 years since the start of the Battle of the Somme will be two Bermudians representing relatives who endured the mud, artillery shells and gunfire. Captain Paolo Odoli, Aide-de-Camp to the Governor, and Alex Conyers have also travelled to Ulster Tower in Thiepval to honour the Bermudian soldiers who fought and died on the battlefield.

Hundreds of soldiers from the Bermuda Militia Artillery and the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps clashed with German troops at the Somme, while many more served in other regiments. The first 89-strong BVRC contingent, known as “Bullock’s Boys” after then Governor Lieutenant General Sir George Bullock, arrived in Europe in June 1915.

They went on to fight at the Somme but numbered less than 20 after they suffered heavy losses during the capture of Gueudecourt three months into the Somme.

By the war’s end, the first and second BVRC contingents had lost over 75 per cent of their combined strength. Forty soldiers had died on active service, many at the Somme. The 260-strong BMA contingents, which served primarily in ammunition supply, at dumps, and in delivering ammunition to batteries in the field, also saw action at the Somme.

Bermudian military historian Seán Pòl Ó Creachmhaoil told The Royal Gazette that he had been able to trace at least 21 Bermudians who died during the infamous battle.

“The most important date for Bermudians was September 25, 1916 and the capture of Gueudecourt,” he said.

“The BVRC First Contingent had been whittled down to about forty by the start of this, and they lost more than half, either killed or wounded at Gueudecourt.

“The survivors could not form a company any longer and were merged with the newly arrived Second Contingent and retrained as Lewis gunners.

“The First Bermuda Contingent of the Royal Garrison Artillery arrived in France at the Somme on June 24, 1916, and the Somme was their baptism of fire.”

The Battle of the Somme ran from July 1 to November 18, 1916, with neither the Allies or the Germans gaining any significant advantage.

It was the largest battle of the First World War on the Western Front. More than one million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

One of the Bermudian casualties was Second Lieutenant Walter Neville Conyers. He enlisted directly into the Royal Berkshire Regiment on March 9 1915 and went to the Western Front on January 13, 1916.

Second Lieutenant Conyers was killed in action at the Battle of the Somme near Bazentin-Le-Petit on August 18, 1916 at the age of 26.

His great nephew, Alex Conyers, will be attending the centenary memorial of the battle in France today.

“It has been a strange experience researching my great uncle, retracing his steps 100 years later and learning more about the First World War and Bermuda’s part in it.

“After the research I’ve done and people I’ve met with, this was, above all, a sad moment in history, a time when warfare took on a scary and nasty reality due to the scale on which it was waged. Yet it is not only the horrific acts that make me sad but also the reasons for it being fought.

“Things like intense nationalism, belligerent patriotic agendas, xenophobia, and the incitement of revolutions — all things that today don’t seem too far off.

“If there is anything that I hope this centenary provides it is that we use this time to remember where these things can lead when taken to the extreme.”

Mr Odoli told The Royal Gazette he was attending the Somme commemorations as a descendant of Corporal John Walter Drew who fought in the battle with the Bermuda Contingent — Royal Garrison Artillery in 1916. “I first learnt of my familial links to the Battle of the Somme almost by accident.

“The Governor was trying to locate descendants from the BMA and BVRC for months and on the final day for entry of names to London I spotted the last name Drew on the list.

“My grandmother passed away in February and an aunt had kindly provided a family tree soon after her funeral. John Walter Drew, uncle to Grace Beatrice Drew, my grandmother, fought at the battle of the Somme and returned home in the summer of 1919.

“I feel extremely honoured as a currently serving officer of the Royal Bermuda Regiment to be able to attend such a momentous occasion.”

Governor George Fergusson added: “Both Bermuda’s regiments of the time were involved and suffered casualties, and other Bermudians served with British and Canadian units.

“I am delighted that Bermuda has been invited to send two family representatives of Bermudians who fought in the battle and that great-great-nephews of two brave Bermudians, one of whom was killed, will be present with others from across the Commonwealth, as well as France and Germany, at the commemoration of the start of the battle.”

Bermudian soldier Walter Neville Conyers of the Royal Berkshire Regiment who was killed in action during the Battle of the Somme on August 19, 1916