Bermuda was one of the smallest colonies in the British Empire, with an area of just over 19 square miles and a population of 20,000. It is situated in the central Atlantic Ocean, 600 miles off the east coast of the United States.

In 1914 Bermuda was an important Imperial fortress, with a major naval dockyard. Bermuda’s location meant that it was isolated from the worst effects of the conflict. Instead, a large number of Bermudans volunteered for service within His Majesty’s forces, whilst on the islands a prisoner of war camp was set up for Germans captured at sea.

Home Front

WO 78/5410

Bermuda: Admiralty Charts showing defences, 1917. WO 78/5410

The declaration of war was announced on 5 August 1914 and on 15 August the Governor, Lieutenant-General G M Bullock, told the population that the islands would be placed under martial law (CO 647/2).

The outbreak of the conflict had an immediate effect on the Bermudan economy. The colony relied on income from tourism and the sale of agricultural produce to the United States. Concerns over safety and the increased cost of shipping had a negative impact on both industries, which continued throughout the war (CO 37/255/54, CO 37/260/37). The reduction in income from taxation, combined with the need to pay additional troops raised on the outbreak of war, led to a liquidity crisis in Bermuda. The solution was for the local government to print its own banknotes for the first time and the Bermudan one pound note came into circulation in 1915 (CO 37/255/55, CO 37/257/20).      

Prisoners of war

CO 37/262

German Prisoners of War, Bermuda,1918. CO 37/262

During the Boer War (1899-1902), camps were set up in Bermuda to hold Boer prisoners of war and this practice was readopted in the First World War. The majority of the German prisoners held on Bermuda were men taken off ships from America, who were attempting to return to Germany to enlist. The numbers were comparatively small, with 55 Germans held together with two Austrians in 1916.

Conditions in the camps appear to have been relatively good and the prisoners were even allowed to manufacture souvenirs which were sold to tourists. The American Consul who monitored conditions in the camp recorded a rather unusual complaint from the prisoners, which was that ‘there was not enough discipline exercised over the camp by the officer-in-charge’. The prisoners went on to say that they felt that ‘a considerable portion of the discontent was due to a lack of sterner discipline’. Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell if this complaint had the desired effect (CO 37/259).

During the Boer War, American tourists had made a number of attempts to release the prisoners of war held on the islands, and this was still considered a threat in the First World War. Steps were taken to ensure that tourists were not able to come near the camp. This led to an unfortunate diplomatic incident when a boat containing American tourists sailed unwittingly into the prohibited area. The vessel was fired upon and one tourist, George Montgomery, was shot in the foot. The British Government quickly tried to smooth relations and Mr Montgomery was paid compensation (CO 37/257/23, FO 371/2499).

Bermudan forces overseas

Bermuda was a mercantile community and had a number of men serving on British ships. The first Bermudan to be killed in the First World War was William Edmund Smith. Smith had been born in Somerset, Bermuda in 1872 and enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1910. He was serving as an officers’ cook aboard HMS Aboukir in 1914 and was killed when the ship was torpedoed and sunk on 22 September (ADM 188/991/1874).

At the outbreak of war the locally raised forces on the islands were made up of the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corp and the Bermuda Militia Artillery. In December 1914 the War Office decided to allow a contingent of the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corp to serve overseas. They were trained locally and 88 men left for England in May 1915 under the command of Captain Richard J Tucker (WO 372/20/89123).

The troops were attached to the 1st battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment. They served on the Western Front throughout 1915 and the first half of 1916. On 25 September 1916 the unit took part in an attack on Gueudecourt as part of the on-going offensive on the Somme. The assault was largely unsuccessful and 50% of the Bermudan troops were wounded or killed.  

As a result, the second contingent of the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corp, which arrived in France in October 1916 under the command of Lieutenant H G L Trimingham, was merged into the first. The troops were trained as Lewis gunners and served through to the end of the war. They fought at Passchendaele and in the final offensives in 1918 (WO 95/2154/1).

The Bermuda Militia Artillery was called up on the outbreak of war and served locally, manning the guns defending the islands. In 1915 the Governor asked the War Office for permission to train a contingent for service overseas (CO 37/258/22). This unit, made up of four officers and 206 rank and file, was transferred to France in June 1916. In contrast to the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corp, the Militia Artillery was largely recruited from the black communities of the islands. The troops were not involved directly in combat, and instead provided the logistics, particularly relating to the supply of ammunition to the guns. Soldiers from this unit were involved in many of the major battles of the war from the time of their arrival, including the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Messines Ridge and Passchendaele (WO 95/397).

In December 1917 Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the commander of British forces in France, wrote to the Colonial Office commending the service of the Bermudan troops. Haig’s report was published in the Gazette of 19 January 1918. He wrote of the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corp that: ‘Physically and intellectually they are as fine men as any to be found in their Brigade and their conduct has always been exemplary. It is hoped that many more soldiers of this stamp can be sent from the Island of Bermuda’. He went on to state that the behaviour of the Bermuda Militia Artillery was ‘excellent’ and their work was ‘strikingly good’ (CO 647/2).

Key figures

William Edmund Smith

Officers’ cook

Lieut Gen George M Bullock

Governor (1912-1917)

General Sir James Willcocks

Governor (1917-1922)

Captain Richard J Tucker

Officer commanding Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps (1915-1918)

Key documents

CAOG 10/87

Bermuda cenotaph, Customs House, 1922-1925. CAOG 10/87

  • Despatches April-September 1914 CO 37/255
  • Despatches January-July 1915 CO 37/257
  • Bermuda Government Gazettes 1914-1919 CO 647/2
  • War Diary 1 Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment 01 November 1915-31 March 1919 WO 95/2154/1