Memorial: Hayford Simmons’ grave in England. *Photo supplied
Memorial: Hayford Simmons’ grave in England. *Photo supplied
Hayford Douglas Simmons left Bermuda on May 29, 1916. Three years later, on May 22, 1919, when his fellow Bermudians left war-ravaged Europe to return to their warm, sunny home, Hayford Simmons stayed behind.

On May 29, 1916, along with 195 other black Bermudians, he boarded the old Royal Navy warship HMS Isis and headed for the Great War in Europe.

For most of these men, this long ocean trip to war-torn Europe would mark the first time they had left their homeland.  

By May 1916, the Great War had been raging for 21 months.

Casualties were high and more men were needed. 

The call went out to what was then the British Empire. It was answered.

In 1916, with even Marcus Garvey in full support, Jamaica was already well on the way to sending almost 15,000 black men overseas to join the European war effort.

In Bermuda, the call for volunteers for the ‘Western Front’ had also gone out and, like black Jamaicans, black Bermudians also answered the call.

In May 1915, the Government of the day, operating the segregated military units of the day, sent a contingent of 89 white soldiers from the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps.

Volunteers

A year later, in May 1916, they sent another 196 volunteers — black men.

This band of volunteers was known as the Bermuda Contingent Royal Garrison Artillery, sometimes referred to as 95 Coy RGA.

The contingent was commanded by Major ‘Tom’ Dill, a white Bermudian from the Dills of Devonshire.

Years before, Hayford had joined the Bermuda Militia Artillery so he was already serving as a Gunner in that outfit. 

So he, like many others, had simply transferred into a new ‘war service unit’.

Hayford was not married. On attestation, he reported that he had no children.

When he volunteered for the BCRGA he was said to be 27 years old.

His mother was Mrs. Estelle Simmons, who, in March 1916, was reported as living in Warwick East.

Hayford served close to the front lines, sometimes well back.

His job, along with all the other black men of the BCRGA, was to fulfill the duties of labour troops.  

This BCRGA group seems to have spent most of its time serving as labour troops in ammunition dumps.

Their primary task was to receive artillery ammunition, store and guard it and then re-distribute it as demanded to the forward gunlines, where British Royal Artillery gunners fired at the Germans.

Sometimes men of the BCRGA had to work well forward and thus came under direct fire from German guns.

At one time, the BCRGA were working in support to the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the Canadian battle for Vimy Ridge.

Drifting in and out of imminent danger of death by enemy action, Hayford and his Bermudian comrades lived and worked separately from other British and West Indian units and took what leave they could in local areas.

The Great War ended at 11am on November 11, 1918. But Hayford and his fellow Bermudians did not immediately return to Bermuda.

They were kept in France for another six months.

Finally, their repatriation was arranged and the BCRGA embarked on the SS Prince Arthur, leaving the U.K. on May 22, 1919. But Hayford never made trip.

He took ill, was diagnosed with pneumonia and stayed behind in a British Military hospital near Magdalen Hill, Winchester.

Hayford Simmons died there on June 6, 1919.

No. 1168 Gunner Hayford Douglas Simmons is the only black Bermudian soldier buried in England.  He lies in Magdalen Hill Cemetery, Winchester, Hampshire. His mother had a special inscription carved on his headstone: “In Loving Memory From His Dear Mother”.

If you pass that way...