| Bermuda Militia Artillery
Courtesy of Jennifer Hind, author of
Pride of The Somers Isles "Defence, Not Defiance : A History of the BVRC". Page: Two-Three
“Wanted, young men of good physique” was the announcement in early 1894 as the recruitment campaign for the newly established Bermuda Militia Artillery got underway. According to the regulations published in The Royal Gazette (30.07.1895), men enlisted for a period of six years to serve in Bermuda and were liable to be called out for “active service” in case of emergency. When called out they would form part of the Regular Forces and be attached to the Royal Artillery. All recruits were obliged to undergo 27 days of preliminary drill in addition to the annual training, but thereafter were obliged to attend the annual training only. While in training, the men were subject to the Army Act and received the same pay as the Home Militia. The pay was considered generous at the time: for each day of preliminary drill or training a sergeant earned 2/7, a corporal 1/5, a bombardier 1/3, a trumpeter 1/2, and a gunner 1/2. “Quite a large bounty” (The Royal Gazette 16.06.1896) in addition to their daily pay was paid on completion of their training. Recruits were eligible for 30 shillings, and trained militiamen 20 shillings. This, it was assumed, would “keep the corp (sic) a popular one among our farmers, courses of instruction being held when the farming season is through and making a pleasant change for them” (The Royal Gazette 16.06.1896). The men were issued with the regulation Artillery uniform: one suit of blue serge and one suit of khaki with white helmets.
Recruitment was slow, due in part to a change in command half way though, and it wasn’t until June 1896 that the first camp was held at Fort Victoria. A full complement of 98 rank and file, 3 militia officers and 2 trumpeters was in camp, 30 men billeted in the fort and the remainder under canvas on the sea front of the glacis of the fort. A canteen and recreation room were housed in the lower casemates and a dining room in the upper casemates. During camp the men completed manual and firing exercises and heavy gun practice. Training in later years included field training at various parts of the island including Tucker’s Town and Whale Bay and a route march through the western end of the Island. In a letter of 15 June, 1903, the War Office in London approved the sending to England of two NCOs or men each year for a course of instruction in gunnery. In December of that year the first men to benefit from this arrangement, Corporal Place and Bombardier Washington, left for a course of gunnery in Shoeburyness, England, and were back in time for the annual training in July 1904. In 1906 Capt. J.I. Smith was attached to the 95 Company RGA for one month of instruction. By 1904 training had become more extensive, and men underwent specialised training to become gun layers and range finders. The annual training at Whale Bay that year included drill for the newly acquired 6” 13 pound field gun and 4.7” QF drill. In 1905, the training went even further and included the 15 pounder from a position near Fort St. Catherine and the 6” BL (breech loading) Mk VII at Ireland Island. By 1910 the BMA were also being trained in the use of the 1” aiming rifle, 5” howitzer and auto-sights. As the skill of the men increased, so did the complexity of the tasks set, so that by 1913 the Corps was carrying out combined shoots. This involved the simultaneous firing on two standing targets by the howitzers from near Fort St. Catherine while two 15 pounder sections engaged a moving target from positions on North Shore and Cemetery Hill. In 1914 eight men joined for signalling instruction.
Training was not all work, however, and there were sports days and cricket matches against the Royal Artillery, in which the BMA men did extremely well. In addition to the more familiar track and field events like 100-yard dash and hurdles, there was a three-legged race, egg and spoon race, sack race, wheelbarrow race and mop tournament. In the 21 August, 1909 edition of The Royal Gazette the reporter comments on the annual ball, stating, “It was quite interesting to stand by and observe the Caucasian, the Etheopian (sic), Mulatto and the Brown, the Blonde and the Black, the "High Yellow” and the “Tantalising Brown” all stepping to a lively two-step or gliding in and out in “pepper and salt” fashion to a graceful waltz.”
The BMA participated in more spectacular events as well. In 1897 they marched with the Royal Artillery in the local celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. A contingent was sent with the BVRC to participate in the celebrations in London, and actually made the London papers with a representation of a militiaman appearing in the Daily Graphic. They were billeted in the garrison at Woolwich, and, with other colonial troops, were reviewed by the Duke of Connaught at Aldershot. On 20 May, 1902 eight NCOs and men sailed on the S.S. Ornro to Halifax and thence to England to participate in the coronation celebrations of Edward VII.
The corps proved so popular that in 1900 the establishment was raised to two companies, and in 1903, a further 21 men were enlisted for band purposes. The BMA band “proved quite an acquisition not only to the Corps, but to the public in general. They [played] every Friday evening on the Market Square, St. George’s and at the League Matches” (The Royal Gazette 22.08.1903). Though “this popular branch of the Army affords a good opportunity for the working classes to put in some work and pleasure combined during the slack part of the year” (The Royal Gazette 25.05.1091), not all members of the black community could participate due to work commitments despite their interest in the volunteer movement. As a policy of segregation prevented blacks from joining the BVRC, there was a call, through a letter to the editor of The Royal Gazette, for the formation of a “coloured volunteer corps” (20.05.1906). A second letter appearing on 22 November, 1906 and signed “ex-Corporal TLIV” stated, “I am not a native of Bermuda but proud to be its well-wisher; and I hope that all those who desire the welfare and advancement of the coloured race will endeavour, as far as they can, to move those in authority to form a corps of coloured volunteers." Nothing came of the suggestion. In the years directly preceding the First World War, there was a decline in enthusiasm, and over four years (1910 – 1913), the number of men attending annual training dropped from 6 officers and 214 men to 2 officers and 98 men. The reason for this is unclear, but in a letter to Governor Sir George Bullock dated 1 April, 1917, Major T. M. Dill, officer commanding the Bermuda Contingent RGA in France, expressed his opinion on the influence of the AME church in discouraging men from joining up for active service.
During the annual training of 1914, war was declared, and the BMA was mobilised for war service. The corps manhandled all ammunition from Forts Albert and Alexandra, both its own and that of the RGA. They worked day and night and completed the task by 7 August. Guns were deployed throughout the Island: two 4.7 field guns at Ferry Point, two 5” howitzers at Scaur Hill, and a further two 5” howitzers were sent to Prospect to join a flying column. Later the guns were redeployed as the howitzers were withdrawn and shipped to England. In October two 15 pounders were moved by the BMA from Scaur Hill to Prospect, and the Ferry Point guns withdrawn to St. George’s. A detachment of BMA were sent to Ireland Island where they did good work assisting in coaling war ships during the first six months of mobilisation. On 17 February, 1915 four militiamen were killed at Daniel’s Head whilst working on the wireless station when an iron pole they were erecting fell on them. By March 1916 the first of the Bermuda Contingents of the Royal Garrison Artillery (BCRGA) was formed and on 31 May 4 officers and 197 other ranks sailed from Bermuda under the command of Major T. M. Dill. Not everyone was happy to see them go, as Major Dill noted to Governor Sir George Bullock in a letter written in France on 1 April, 1917 in which he advocates conscription. “The women put every possible objection to their menkind joining last year, and I don’t think that with the exception of men like Cann, Wilson and others of that type any of the negroes were too keen, particularly the persons (parsons?) of that A.M.E. church, who, working quietly, prevented us, I think, from getting many recruits” (mss letter in Bermuda Archives). Nevertheless, a second contingent was raised, and on 6 May, 1917 two officers and sixty (forty?) other ranks set sail from Bermuda under the command of Lt. Wrigg RGA.
From the time they arrived in France, in June 1916, until December of that year, the BMA were stationed on the Somme. Major Dill wrote in a letter to Governor Bullock, “our men, who were the first African troops to serve in the British Army in France soon got a good name for ammunition work” (mss letter in Bermuda Archives 1.04.1917). There followed three months in Marseilles to recuperate from the effect of climate and hard work. The men suffered a good deal during the winter of 1916 from not being
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