Way back in 1912, a young twenty-year old Bermudian joined the Royal Navy, left Bermuda, and went into Bermuda’s history.
He started by joining the RN warship HMS Sirius, as a cooks-mate. HMS Sirius was then a part of the RN’s North America and West Indies Squadron. This Squadron consisted of a large number of warships. The Squadron’s duty was to patrol the Caribbean and western Atlantic looking after the many bits of the British Empire scattered around and in 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.
When HMS Sirius finished her two year West Indies Squadron commission, she returned to the UK and paid off. That means that her entire crew were sent on home leave. Men due for discharge were discharged. Men continuing their naval service would come back at leave’s end and join a different RN ship.
However, this young Bermudian had not actually joined the RN as a naval enlisted man. Instead, he had joined as an auxiliary. So when HMS Sirius paid off, he actually lost his job. Even though he was thousands of miles away from his Somerset home, and even though there was no possibility of a quick trip back home by a British Airways flight [ocean crossing passenger planes were still twenty years in the future], he was not fazed.
He 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 fourteen year-old four-funnel coal-fired ship-of-the-line designated as a cruiser. Since the RN was shifting from coal to oil, HMS Aboukir was already obsolete. However, on 3rd August 1914, when Great Britain went to war with Germany, every ship of the RN’s Home Fleet was pressed into service.
That’s how this now twenty-two 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, all three part of the 7th Cruiser Squadron of the 3rd Fleet, had been assigned a patrolling task that kept them at sea.
All three, Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue were torpedoed by one German submarine – U-9. Aboukir was hit first, and Commander Austin Tyrer RD, RNR on board HMS Hogue tells part of the tale:
“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 sum 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 this twenty-two year old Bermudian. When the survivors of HMS Aboukir were finally brought ashore, that young Bermudian was not amongst them. Fewer than 280 of the 700 man crew were saved.
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’s listed with the names of his English shipmates. So there, on this monument in a corner of England, is a little piece of Bermuda that most Bermudians don’t know about. Sometimes, though, you’ll find his name published in a Roll of Honour in Bermuda.
His name? Edmund William Smith, son of Mr and Mrs William F and Emma J Smith of Sandy’s Parish.
He was the first Bermudian to die in the Great War of 1914-1918. He was black, but that isn’t so important.
[*] From: “I Was There!” (Vol 1) – Sir John Hammerton – Waverley Book Co – 1936