100 Years Ago: First Bermudian Dies In WWI

September 22, 2014

[Written by Larry Burchall] William Edmund Smith, a black Bermudian, joined the Royal Navy, left Bermuda, and sailed into Bermuda history. He was the first Bermudian to die in World War One. He died exactly one hundred years ago today, 22nd September 1914.

William was the son of Mr. and Mrs. William Felix Smith and Emma Jane Smith of Sandy’s Parish. The Smith homestead is on Herman’s Hill, Somerset. In 2014, a granddaughter of Emma Smith still lived in that house.

In 1912, as a 20 year-old, William first joined the Royal Navy warship HMS Sirius as a cooks-mate.

At the time, HMS Sirius was part of the Royal Navy’s North America and West Indies Squadron which was based in Bermuda. This Squadron consisted of a number of warships whose duty was to patrol the Caribbean and western Atlantic looking after the many bits of the British Empire scattered around the Atlantic triangle that stretched from what was then British Guiana [now Guyana], to British Honduras [now Belize] to Newfoundland [at the time not a part of Canada].

The Squadron was based in Bermuda, and was commanded by an Admiral who lived in lordly splendour in Admiralty House, just above Clarence Cove in Pembroke [Admiralty House itself was deliberately burnt down in the 1970’s]

When HMS Sirius finished her two year West Indies Squadron commission, she returned to the UK and was paid off. That meant that her entire crew were sent on home leave and men due for discharge were discharged. Men continuing their naval service would come back at leave’s end and join a different Royal Navy ship.

But this young Bermudian, now 22, had not actually joined the Roya Navy as a regular naval enlisted man. He had joined as an auxiliary. So when HMS ‘Sirius’ paid off, he actually lost his job. Though he was thousands of miles away from his Somerset home, and without the possibility of a trip back home, this adventurous young man was not fazed.

Mr. Smith signed on again in HMS Aboukir — this time as an Officer’s Cook, 1st Class. This was a step-up from cooks-mate.

In 1914, HMS Aboukir was a 14-year-old four-funnel coal-fired ship-of-the-line designated as a cruiser. Since the Royal Navy was, at that time, shifting from coal to oil-fired vessels, HMS Aboukir was already obsolete.

On August 3, 1914, when Great Britain declared war on Germany, obsolete or not, every ship in the Fleet was pressed into service.

That’s how and why this now 22-year-old Bermudian found himself at sea in the North Sea, at about 6:25am on 22nd September 1914. HMS Aboukir, along with HMS Cressy and HMS Hogue, were part of the 7th Cruiser Squadron of the 3rd Fleet. The three cruisers had been assigned a patrolling task that kept them at sea.

All three cruisers, Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue were torpedoed and sunk by a lone German submarine, the U-9.

HMS Aboukir was hit first. Commander Austin Tyrer, a survivor and serving on board HMS Hogue, recounted the incident to another RN Officer, Captain Barry O/Brien.

Commander Tyrer describes what happened: “Someone told me that the Aboukir had hit, or had been hit, by something…..the lame vessel slowly lost way… and began to heel over to port and settle by the head. The Aboukir heeled over even more. Her crew were frantically trying to launch their boats.”

“Finally abandoning the attempt, they tore off their clothes … and crawled on to the ships sides. Scores of other naked men had begun to claw their way down it. The rising sun glistened on their bodies and on the wet smooth steel plates of the vessel’s rounded bilge. Down they came slowly, inch by inch, some sitting, others standing, several lying flat.”

“And then, suddenly, it was all over. The vessel had completely turned turtle and on all sides of her…the sea was literally black with a mass of struggling humanity.”

One man in that “mass of struggling humanity” might have been Mr Smith.

Commander Tyrer describes the time while the hundreds of men from the three ships were waiting for their eventual rescue. “I shall never forget that dreadful spectacle in the water… Approximately two thousand swimming or drowning men were all herded together, hardly with elbow room. Strong swimmers were dragged under in the frenzied clutches of weak swimmers or men who could not swim at all. The cries for help were loud and deep-throated at first, but they gradually subsided into a sort of low, wailing chant, which rose and fell like the mutter of surf on a distant shore. The tragic part about it all was the fact that, by some stupendous oversight, these things had not been served out to the ships.”

When the survivors of HMS Aboukir were finally brought to safety, that young Bermudian was not amongst them. Fewer than 280 of the Aboukir’s 700 man crew were saved.

William Edmund Smith was the first Bermudian to die in World War One [1914 – 1918]. It took another nine months, June 1915, before a contingent of Bermudian soldiers from the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps [BVRC] arrived in France to ‘take up the fight’.

The men from HMS Aboukir had come from all over England. One had come from Bermuda. To commemorate them, their names are inscribed on the Chatham Naval Memorial set on a hill overlooking the town of Chatham, Kent.

This young Bermudian’s name is there. It is listed along with the names of his hundreds of English shipmates. So there, on this monument in a tiny corner of England, is a little piece of Bermuda that most Bermudians don’t know about.

In 2007, a small group of Bermuda Regiment soldiers, some of whom believed or knew that they were related to W E Smith, visited the Chatham Naval Memorial and paid respects to that lone Bermudian.

William Edmund Smith’s name is also engraved on a plaque, high up on the wall, inside the Methodist Church on Long Bay Lane in Somerset.

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  1. Scooby says:

    Thank you Larry