Bermuda Volunteer/Territorial Army Units 1895–1965

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The Volunteer (later, Territorial) Army units raised in Bermuda were created as part of an Imperial military garrison that existed primarily to protect the Royal Naval base, centred about the HM Dockyard on Ireland Island.

The British Army Following The Crimea[edit]

Following the Crimean War, it was painfully clear to the War Office that, with half of the British Army distributed between garrisons around the globe it had insufficient forces available to quickly assemble and deploy an effective expeditionary force to a new area of conflict reducing unacceptably the British Isles' own defences.

What was painfully clear to the citizenry of those Isles, when (following an assassination attempt on Emperor Napoleon III)there was a threat of invasion by the much larger French Army in 1858, was that Britain's military defences had already been stretched invitingly thin, even without sending a third of the Army to another Crimea. This vulnerability to a potential European invasion continued to be underlined by subsequent events on the continent: on April 29, 1859, war broke out between France and the Austrian Empire (an outgrowth of the Second Italian War of Independence), and there were fears that Britain might be caught up in a wider European conflict. The Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71), and by the development of steamships, railroads, and of breech-loading and repeating rifles.

Creation of The Volunteer Force[edit]

In response to the perils Britain faced following the Crimea the Volunteer Force was formed as a ready reserve to the British Army. On May 12, 1859, the Secretary of State for War, Jonathan Peel issued a circular letter to lieutenants of counties in England, Wales and Scotland, authorising the formation of volunteer rifle corps (VRC, a.k.a. corps of rifle volunteers and rifle volunteer corps), and of artillery corps in defended coastal towns.[1] Volunteer corps were to be raised under the provisions of the Volunteer Act 1804 (44 Geo.3 c.54), which had been used to form local defence forces during the Napoleonic Wars. Their part-time soldiers would serve voluntarily, unlike those of the militia, gathering in their spare time to practice drill and marksmanship. Volunteers were unpaid, and, indeed, were expected to pay for their own uniforms and equipment. Although the militia had become largely moribund, and the yeomanry were unable to mount a useful military force, the Volunteer Force quickly became very popular, and, despite the initial reservations of professional officers, the War Office took an increasing interest in its organisation, equipment and training. With the British Army traditionally underfunded, to the benefit of the Royal Navy, the advantages of this large, but economical reserve of trained soldiery were inescapable to the generals. The Volunteer Force provided the pattern subsequently used in creating volunteer units in Bermuda.

  • Corps were only to be formed on the recommendation of the county’s lord-lieutenant.
  • Officers were to hold their commissions from the lord-lieutenant
  • Members of the corps were to swear an oath of allegiance before a justice of the peace, deputy lieutenant or commissioned officer of the corps.
  • The force was liable to be called out “in case of actual invasion, or of appearance of an enemy in force on the coast, or in case of rebellion arising in either of these emergencies.”
  • While under arms volunteers were subject to military law and were entitled to be billeted and to receive regular army pay.
  • Members were not permitted to quit the force during actual military service, and at other times had to give fourteen days notice before being permitted to leave the corps.
  • Members were to be returned as “effective” if they had attended eight days drill and exercise in four months, or 24 days within a year.
  • The members of the corps were to provide their own arms and equipment, and were to defray all costs except when assembled for actual service.
  • Volunteers were also permitted to choose the design of their uniforms, subject to the lord-lieutenant’s approval.
  • Although volunteers were to pay for their own firearms, they were to be provided under the superintendence of the War Office, so as to ensure uniformity of gauge.
  • The number of officers and private men in each county and corps was to be settled by the war office, based on the lieutenant’s recommendation.

Originally corps were to consist of approximately 100 all ranks under the command of a captain, with some localities having subdivisions of thirty men under a lieutenant. The purpose of the rifle corps was to harass the invading enemy’s flanks, while artillery corps were to man coastal guns and forts. Although not mentioned in the circular letter, engineer corps were also formed, principally to place underwater mines for port defence.

The Territorial Army[edit]

By 1907, when its civilian administration teetered on the brink of insolvency, the Volunteer Army had become indispensable to British defence planning, as well as an enabler of the Regular Army's drawing its own troops away from home defence stations. Consequently, the Government took over the Volunteer Army completely, re-organising it as the Territorial Army in 1908. In addition to the introduction of terms of service for volunteers, this meant that most of the units, themselves, lost their unique identities, becoming Territorial battalions of the local Regular Army regiment. At the same time, the remaining Militia and Yeomanry units were folded into the Territorial Army.

Development of British Army 1860-1908[edit]

The British Army's response to the situation it found itself in, following The Crimea, was a series of reforms, redeployments, and re-structuring that stretched over the next fifty years. It was realised that a standing body of soldiers was required in Britain, composed of all of the combat and support elements required for either countering an invasion of Britain or for dispatch to another campaign like The Crimea. As the Government was unwilling to fund an actual increase of its manpower, the Army could only accomplish this by withdrawing units from Imperial garrisons, and by placing much of the obligation for home defence onto the Volunteer Army. Withdrawing units from much of the Empire would have resulted in native insurrections and border insurgencies, or invited attacks by powerful neighbours (this was especially true in India, with its internal intrigues, Russian and Turkish neighbours, and Afghanistan as a buffer state). The Army's solution was to withdraw or reduce garrisons in sleepy locations such as Bermuda. Bermuda was far too prominent a naval base for the Army to abandon entirely but as the range and effectiveness of artillery increased, the number of Garrison Artillery batteries was steadily reduced. This process was accelerated at the end of the 19th century as the Dockyard's own ships assumed the responsibility for its defence. The infantry posted to the Island was also steadily reduced. By the 1870s the military garrison, at 2,200, amounted to nearly twenty percent of Bermuda's population, but in the 1880s it was reduced by 1,600. Although its size was briefly restored above 2,000 regular soldiers, the trend would remain the steady reduction from then on.

The Army also went through a major restructuring, the Cardwell reforms that saw individual battalions grouped to form county regiments, and, in 1908, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was formed.

Extension of Volunteers to Overseas Territories[edit]

The War Office was eager to extend the Volunteer movement to Bermuda (and other territories) to allow the Regular Army garrison to be reduced. However, although volunteer units sprang up in other territories, in Bermuda there was considerable resistance from the Colonial Government.

The Bermudian government had two concerns: Firstly, it feared being saddled with the total cost of maintaining the entire garrison (since allowing its Militia, once the only military force protecting the Colony, to lapse after the American War of 1812, the Bermuda Government had contributed nothing, materially or financially, to the defences. Other than during a brief period of profiting from the American Civil War, Bermuda's economy had been ailing since its shipbuilding and maritime trade had begun to recede under the assault of steam and steel. Defence infrastructure had, in fact, been the primary crutch upon which Bermuda had limped through the middle of the Century); Secondly, the social discontent that would be stoked by raising either racially integrated or segregated units.

The Bermuda Government dealt with its concerns by ignoring the pleas of the War Office until the 1890s, when the Secretary of State for Defence held ransom their plans to develop the emerging tourism industry with American investment into a new hotel (The Princess). Foreign ownership of land had been banned lest an enemy state (by inference, the USA) use a threat to its nationals' interests as a pretext for invasion. There were also plans to improve the shipping channel into St. George's Harbour, intended to prevent St. George's being left behind by the Age of Steam, but which also would have eased the task of a naval force landing troops. The Secretary insisted that he could not approve of either project while Bermuda contributed nothing towards its own defence. The result was that the Secretary got his Bermudian volunteer units, and Bermuda got its hotel and its shipping channel.

Raising of Voluntary Units in Bermuda[edit]

BVRC contingent to the coronation of King Edward VII.

Three Acts were passed in 1892 by the Bermudian parliament, authorising the creation of three separate military units.

The Bermuda Militia Act 1892, No. 3, authorised the creation of a battery of garrison artillery. Called the Bermuda Militia Artillery (BMA), this unit recruited part-time volunteers, and was not a Militia in the sense of the compulsory Militias of old. This unit assisted the regular Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA) gunners, at first, but, as its numbers and experience grew, it began providing its own firing parties, and ultimately took over completely from the regular gunners after the Great War. The bulk of the BMA volunteers were Black, although the Officer Corps was originally restricted to Whites.

The Bermuda Militia Act 1892, No. 4. This authorised the creation of a Company of infantry, intended to be titled the Bermuda Volunteer Infantry Force, but which was actually named the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps (BVRC). This numbered 300 all ranks. BVRC recruitment was effectively restricted to Whites, from the outset.

The third act of 1892, The Bermuda Coast Defense Act, 1892, No. 5, called for the creation of the Coast Volunteers. This would have followed in the pattern of the Submarine Mining Militia formed in Britain in 1878 and tasked with defending major ports. They received a minimum of fifty-five days training per year, and were recruited from experienced boatmen. In Bermuda, the unit was intended to operate boats from the Royal Army Service Corps docks in Hamilton and St. George's, tending to the underwater mine defences, but the unit was never raised.

Instead, the 27th (Submarine Mining) Company of the Royal Engineers, which had been permanently reassigned from Halifax to Bermuda in 1888, continued to maintain the mine defences unaided. [2][3][4][5] In 1900 the Royal Engineers Submarine Mining Companies also assumed responsibility for operating electric searchlights defending harbours.

Unit codes were assigned to all three legislated reserve units for marking the stock disks of the Martini-Henry rifle: M./BER. A. for the Bermuda Militia Artillery; V./BER. for the Bermuda Volunteers Rifle Corps; M./BER. S.M. for the Bermuda Submarine Miners. The part-time units were funded by the UK Government.

The BMA and BVRC began recruiting in 1895 and 1894, respectively. In the years leading to World War I, the two units concentrated on increasing their sizes and efficiencies. Their roles within the garrison were increased as their experience and capabilities grew, and as the regular garrison was slowly reduced.

The Great War[edit]

Both units were embodied, and fulfilled their obligations to the Garrison during the Great War (the First World War). Additionally, each sent two contingents of volunteers for service on the Western Front- the BVRC contingents being attached to the Lincolnshire Regiment, and the BMA serving as part of the larger RGA detachment to the field. Although both units prepared to send detachments to Europe soon after the start of hostilities, the BMA was stymied in its first attempt.

The First Contingent of the BVRC to the Lincolns, training in Bermuda for the Western Front, Winter 1914-15.

The BVRC raised its First Contingent in December 1914, both from existing soldiers and from new recruits. The contingent was embodied, and trained at Warwick Camp over the winter of 1914-1915, and was then despatched to the Canadian Maritimes, where they joined a larger Canadian detachment for the trans-Atlantic crossing. Becoming an extra company of 1 Lincolns, they reached the Western Front in France in July 1914 - the first colonial volunteer unit to reach the Front. By the following summer, the First Contingent's strength had been too reduced by casualties to compose a full company, having lost 50% of what had then remained of its strength at Gueudecourt on 25 September 1916. The survivors were merged with the newly arrived Second Contingent and re-trained as Light-machinegunners, providing twelve Lewis gun teams to 1 Lincolns headquarters. By the War's end, the two contingents had lost over 75% of their combined strength. Forty had died on active service, one received the O.B.E, and six the Military Medal. Sixteen members of the two contingents were commissioned, including the Sergeant Major of the First Contingent, Colour-Sergeant R.C. Earl, who would become Commanding Officer of the BVRC after the War. Some of those commissioned moved to other units in the process, including to the Royal Flying Corps. In 1918, 1 Lincolns was withdrawn from France and sent to Ireland to combat the army of the Irish Republic, declared in 1916.

Officers and senior enlisted men of the Bermuda Contingent, Royal Garrison Artillery, in Europe.

The two BMA contingents served as part of the larger Royal Garrison Artillery detachment to the Western Front. The first, 201 officers and men, under the command of Major Thomas Melville Dill, left for France on 31 May 1916. A second, smaller, contingent left Bermuda on 6 May 1917, and was merged with the first contingent in France. Titled the Bermuda Contingent, Royal Garrison Artillery, it served primarily in ammunition supply, at dumps, and in delivering ammunition to batteries in the field. The Contingent served at the Somme from June to December 1916. They were then moved away from the Front, serving on docks until April 1917, when they were attached to the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge, serving in the battle for Vimy Ridge. They were at Ypres from 24 June, until 22 October, where three men were killed, and several wounded. Two men received the Military Medal. In 1917, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, the Commander-in-Chief in France, wrote his own commendation of the Contingents', praising their gallantry and devotion to duty. In Bermuda, the BMA was demobilised on 31 December 1918, and when the overseas contingent returned in July 1919, it was to no unit. Thirty men who chose to remain on, temporarily re-enlisted in the RGA, and the rest were demobilised.

The Bermuda Volunteer Engineers[edit]

The cost of the voluntary units at Bermuda was originally covered by annual stipends to the Bermuda government, from the War Office. Affected by the popular patriotic fervour, the Bermuda government began its own voluntary contributions during the Great War. From January 1928, the Bermuda Government began paying a percentage of the pay of all members of the military garrison. From January 1930, it also agreed to pay contributions, based on the size of the local population, to the cost of Imperial defence.

The Military garrison began to be reduced considerably, following the Great War, with most of its duties falling on the part-time units, which were re-organised in line with the Territorial Army. The submarine miners were proposed to be withdrawn in 1928, and a territorial unit formed to take over the operation of the electric search lights at the remaining artillery batteries. This unit, the Bermuda Volunteer Engineers (BVE), also absorbed the signals section of the BVRC, and provided wireless teams to the other units.

Bermuda Militia Infantry[edit]

By 1939, the active coastal artillery was reduced to two guns, the manpower requirements of which could hardly make maximum use of the available supply. As it was not desired to integrate the BVRC, a second infantry unit was raised, titled the Bermuda Militia Infantry, and grouped administratively with the BMA.

Second World War[edit]

BMA Warrant Officer and NCOs at the Examination Battery, St. David's Island, Bermuda, ca. 1944.

Local territorials were embodied on 3 September 1939, with the declaration of War on Germany by Britain and France. Whereas volunteers had continued to perform their civilian jobs, during the Great War, they were embodied to serve full-time for the duration of the Second World War. The strengths of the units were quickly increased as Bermuda, again, assumed a position of great importance as the point of formation of trans-Atlantic convoys. As in the Great War, the BVRC soon detached a contingent for service overseas, with the Lincolnshire Regiment. A small number of soldiers from the BMA and BVE joined with that contingent, travelling with it to England in June 1940, before separating to join other units. Concerned of stripping the garrison, however, the War Office placed a moratorium on any further drafts being sent overseas. Some members of the local units still managed to find their ways to the sharper ends of the War, primarily by volunteering to train as pilots at the Bermuda Flying School, on Darrell's Island. Those who gained their 'wings' were sent on to the Air Ministry to be assigned to the Royal Air Force, or the Fleet Air Arm. The moratorium against drafts was not lifted 'til 1943, when the likelihood of a German attack on the Island had diminished. The Bermuda Militia (the BMA and BMI, together) and the BVRC each detached contingents for overseas service, which trained together at Prospect Camp before being sent their separate ways. The BVRC Contingent was sent to the Lincolns, as with its Great War predecessors. The Bermuda Militia Contingent was sent to North Carolina, where it formed the training cadre of a new regiment, the Caribbean Regiment, which served briefly in Italy before escorting POWs to Egypt, where it remained 'til the end of hostilities.

Post war[edit]

After the War, the BMI and the BVE, along with the Home Guard formed during the conflict, were disbanded. The BVRC and the BMA were both reduced to skeleton operations in 1946, but were brought up to strength in 1948. Conscription was re-introduced to both units, although they remained part-time. The BVRC was retitled the Bermuda Rifles. The BMA converted to the infantry role in 1953, when the last coastal artillery batteries were taken out of use. 1953 was also the year that the closure of the HM Dockyard, the defence of which was the justification of the military garrison, was announced, and the last year in which an Imperial Defence Plan, under which the local units were tasked, was released. The last Regular Army detachment was withdrawn by 1955, and the Dockyard closed in 1958. For reasons of its own, the Bermuda Government chose to maintain the two Territorial units entirely at its own expense.

Amalgamation[edit]

Many Bermudians have felt, since, that maintaining a TA infantry unit which has no military role under the (British) Ministry of Defence, or NATO, is an unnecessary expense. Maintaining two such units was clearly an unnecessary duplication of effort. The racial disharmony which these two units exemplified was rapidly becoming politically incorrect, as the Island was affected by the equal rights movement in America. Consequently, in September 1965, the two units were amalgamated to form the Bermuda Regiment.

Originally, the part-time reserve units in Bermuda, the Channel Islands and Malta had numbered collectively as 28th in the British Army order of precedence, but were ordered within that according to the placement of their parent corps in the regular army. This meant, that the Bermuda Militia Artillery (BMA), as part of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, preceded the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps (BVRC) despite being the second of the two to be raised. Today, the Bermuda Regiment, as an amalgam of the BMA and BVRC, is 28th. [6]

Main Unit Articles[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

  • "Defence, Not Defiance: A History Of The Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps", Jennifer M. Ingham (now Jennifer M. Hind), ISBN 0-9696517-1-6. Printed by The Island Press Ltd., Pembroke, Bermuda. Itself using as a source the unique, typescript "History of The Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps, 1891 - 1933", held at the Bermuda Library, in Hamilton.
  • "The Andrew And The Onions: The Story Of The Royal Navy In Bermuda, 1795–1975", Lt. Commander Ian Strannack, The Bermuda Maritime Museum Press, The Bermuda Maritime Museum, P.O. Box MA 133, Mangrove Bay, Bermuda MA BX.
  • "Bermuda Forts 1612–1957", Dr. Edward C. Harris, The Bermuda Maritime Museum Press, The Bermuda Maritime Museum, P.O. Box MA 133, Mangrove Bay, Bermuda MA BX.
  • "Bulwark Of Empire: Bermuda's Fortified Naval Base 1860-1920", Lt.-Col. Roger Willock, USMC, The Bermuda Maritime Museum Press, The Bermuda Maritime Museum, P.O. Box MA 133, Mangrove Bay, Bermuda MA BX.
  • "Bermuda From Sail To Steam: The History Of The Island From 1784 to 1901", Dr. Henry Wilkinson, Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford, UK OX2 6DP.

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