Bermuda Militia Artillery braved gas and shellfire to supply frontline big guns

History | November 9, 2020

Reading time: 6 minutes

*From the archives. This article first appeared in MARITimes 2018 Vol 31

Military histories often focus on strategy and battles, overlooking men and women who made incredible sacrifices to serve their countries. The men of the Bermuda Militia Artillery (BMA) undertook some of the most back-breaking work of the First World War, while under heavy fire and imminent threat of death or disease. They were integral to the success of major victories during the war and yet their contributions are noticeably missing in the global retelling of the conflict.

Formed in 1894, the Bermuda Militia Artillery recruited predominantly working-class black men in the hope of bolstering local defences. For many farmers, this was seen as a supplementary income during the off-season. Recruits were asked to serve part-time for a period of six years and were trained in heavy-gun operation, learning how to handle and fire weapons including the 6-inch and 9.2-inch breech-loading guns at St. David’s Battery. The first man to enlist was James Wellman, a labourer, who signed up on August 15, 1895. Five years after the BMA was formed, the Royal Garrison Artillery, a branch of the British Army, was established and tasked with manning the guns of British fortifications. The BMA was reorganised as a reserve for the Royal Garrison Artillery and those who enlisted could be called out for active service in case of war.

Bermuda Militia Artillery, c. 1902. From left (rear row): Bombadier Corbin, Gunner G. Smith, Gunner Zuill, Gunner Packwood, Gunner C. Smith, Gunner Jackling, Gunner Lightbordan; (front row) C.S-Maj. Williams, Ps. Sergeant Lamb, Captain Nicholson, Sergeant Thompson, C.-S.-Maj. Weston

At the outbreak of hostilities between Britain and Germany in 1914, the BMA was mobilised and saw active service in Bermuda and overseas. Locally, the BMA manned the fortifications in Bermuda and freed up British forces for the war effort. For the first six months of the war, the men were also employed coaling Royal Navy ships at Dockyard and built a telegraph station near Daniel’s Head. As the war continued, it became increasingly evident that more men were needed and in 1916 the Bermuda Contingent, Royal Garrison Artillery (BCRGA) was formed of volunteers and sent overseas—where they came face to face with the brutal reality of war.

Men enlisting for the Bermuda Militia Artillery during the war, before they received uniforms

Led by Major Thomas Dill, the first contingent of the BCRGA left for France in May 1916 and, according to Dill, were “the first African troops to serve in the British Army in France.” During this period, racism defined the jobs Bermudian soldiers were tasked with: white Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps soldiers fought in the frontline trenches, but the BCRGA was given menial jobs—digging ditches around gun emplacements, painting, preparing battery positions, and transporting ammunition—despite being trained in the loading and firing of artillery. However, this was still incredibly dangerous work. The men laboured under near-constant shellfire and a dozen Bermudians were killed in action.

Bermuda Contingent, Royal Garrison Artillery 1916–19

Charles Curtis (top row, from right) in Europe with other members of the Bermuda Contingent Royal Garrison Artillery (BCRGA)

The BCRGA’s work was vital to the war effort. In one battle, the British used 3.5 million shells. British guns were capable of firing up to 48 rounds in 75 seconds. At that rate it would take 13 minutes for a battery to exhaust its ammunition and resupply by the BCRGA was essential.

Ammunition supply trucks loading to take ammunition to forward dump. © IWM (Q 10451)

A dump of empty 4.5-inch and 18-pdr shell cases, Fricourt, September 1916 © IWM (Q 1471)

The men of the BMA were awarded accolades for exemplary service. British commander on the Western Front Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig said of the BCRGA:

“On more than one occasion the [ammunition] 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 Somme

The Somme was one of the costliest battles of the First World War, with one million men wounded or killed over five months. Arriving in June 1916, this is where the BCRGA got its first experience of war. The landscape of the Somme had been transformed by artillery and rain into a scarred, muddy, and deadly bog in which the men had to live and work.

Some suffered “trench foot,” a debilitating condition caused by prolonged exposure to cold, damp and unsanitary conditions, and were invalided out of service. Many also came down with pneumonia and some, like Hayford Douglas Simmons, succumbed to it. Some, like Gunner Charles Wentworth Place, were killed by enemy fire.

The Somme saw the largest artillery barrage to date, with more than 1.6 million shells being fired the week before the opening assault, a number impossible to maintain without the work of ammunition haulers.

Vimy Ridge and the Canadian Corps

In April 1917 the BCRGA was attached to the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge in northern France, where they “acquitted themselves heroically during the attack on 9 April.” The Canadians had been tasked with capturing the position, which overlooked Allied lines; a previous French attempt had failed with more than 100,000 casualties.

The key to victory would be a “rolling” artillery barrage, from more than 1,000 guns, which would isolate German trenches and pin the enemy behind their lines. The BCRGA was employed at the heavy ammunition dumps, resupplying the front. Supported by artillery, the Canadians successfully captured the ridge, but at a terrible cost, with more than 10,000 killed or wounded.

After serving at the Somme, Marseille, and Vimy, the BCRGA was moved to, Ploegsteert, Belgium to support the Battle of Messines.

Gas Attacks

The Great War also saw the first large-scale use of chemical weapons, the three most dangerous substances being chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas. On arrival in France, the BCRGA was issued gas masks and trained how to use them. By 1917 combatants had largely shifted from gassing trenches to gassing artillery batteries to disable them. At Ploegsteert the BCRGA suffered several casualties from wounds and gas at their ammunition dump.

The unit was eventually moved to Ypres Salient, Belgium where some of the war’s largest battles took place. At Ypres, the BCRGA lost yet more men, with three killed and several wounded. However, two of the contingent, Gunners Arthur Manders and Horatio Knight, were awarded the Military Medal for distinguished bravery.

In this clip, sound designers used a graphic record from the Imperial War Museum’s collection to recreate the sound of the artillery firing and then falling silent signalling the end of the First World War

In his report on the BCRGA, Field Marshall Haig added:

“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.”

In July 1919, the BMA contingents landed at Bermuda and were welcomed home by an enthusiastic crowd and honour guard of regulars serving at St. George’s. The Royal Gazette reported on the festivities and remarked: “From the Commanding Officer down to the humblest in rank, nothing but high praise is due.”

Bermuda’s local defences remained segregated until 1965 when the BMA and BVRC were amalgamated as the Bermuda Regiment, now the Royal Bermuda Regiment.

To find out more about Bermuda’s First World War and Second World War history, visit our Bermuda’s Defence Heritage exhibit, located in the Commissioner’s House.

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