Our small island is renowned to have produced excellent seamen, soldiers and gunners. Even before Napoleon ousted the Order of St John from Malta, the Royal Navy employed numerous Maltese in its service. Like countless others, many paid the ultimate sacrifice; some even a hero’s death.
Twenty-five Maltese are recorded as having been present during the Battle of Trafalgar while serving in the navy; four of them were Royal Marines and five were actually on HMS Victory. Vincenzo Abela of Senglea was one of 60 Maltese from a complement of 215 men on HMS Juno during the early 1790s.
Juan Battista Azopardo was born in Senglea in 1772 and had mastered the tartana San Antonio e l’anime dell porgatorio in Malta, and later served the French, Dutch, Spanish and British, the latter under Admiral John Jervis. His naval career was full of action, especially in Argentina’s war of independence against Spain, so much so that in 1810, the Argentinian government granted Azopardo the rank of lieutenant colonel and commander of the first national navy.
Those who could, like the eldest son of affluent politician Camillo Sceberras, sought a commission in the British Army. Captain Rinaldo Sceberras, 80th Regiment of Foot, is commemorated by a monument at the Upper Barracca. While serving with the regiment in India in 1845, he was killed in the taking of the Sikh’s standard and being instrumental in its capture – a feat that demoralised the enemy and helped win the battle.
This year, Malta is commemorating a number of special anniversaries connected to episodes in the island’s history. An event that greatly involved Malta and which changed the world is undoubtedly the start of hostilities in what was then referred to as ‘The Great War’ or ‘The war to end all wars’. Nowadays, it is referred to as World War I, as the one that followed was even greater, and did not serve to end all wars, but was just a prelude to many others in various regions.
The Maltese-Australian soldiers were not included on the ANZAC memorial
Although Malta was not directly involved in the fighting, it played a major role in many aspects. The hostilities never came to our shores although there was one occasion where Zeppelin LZ 104, designated L 59 by the German Imperial Navy and nicknamed Das Afrika-Schiff, took off from its base at Jamboli, Bulgaria, to attack the British naval base at Malta. It was lost on April 7, 1918, during its voyage.
The role of the islands during this war was more related to troop movement to the fronts, naval repairs, supplies, and in particular as hospital and convalescent camp for thousands of British and troops of the Empire in1915, that earned it the name of ‘Nurse of the Mediterranean’.
The war effort required manpower and as a result, Maltese workers and the economy enjoyed the boost that wars usually bring. The Admiralty’s dockyard was at full capacity, shops were doing good business, as were the bars, while many Maltese worked as auxiliaries with the British Services to meet the demand and vacuum left by the troops since they were required at various theatres of the war. But no doubt a larger contribution was given by the Maltese who wore the ‘King’s uniform’ and were either already enlisted in the British Army and the Royal Navy, or even in the armies of the dominions and colonies.
The aim of this article is neither to list all the Maltese who served during World War I, nor as a roll of honour. An edition of The Malta Government Gazette of November 19, 1938, lists all the Maltese in British service who had died during this conflict.
Originally, the article was intended to highlight a selection of Maltese men in the service of Great Britain and the Empire, at the time when soldiering was proudly considered as a profession, not an alternative to unemployment. But the interesting case of Emanuele Pace, previously residing at Strada Ponente (West Street), Valletta, who served in the US Army, and the cases of other Maltese emigrants, kindled further interest.
The role of the Maltese in the Royal Navy up to the outbreak of World War I was limited to either as a seamen, domestics (later changed to stewards), cooks, stokers, as a mate to one of the ship’s tradesman or as bandsmen.
The service given by Maltese bandsmen in the Royal Navy is not as widely known as of ratings in other branches. During the 19th century, naval musicians were primarily Royal Marines but there were also bands formed and paid for by naval officers for mess duties.
At first, these bands included enlisted and unenlisted personnel, although the Royal Navy had established this rating in 1847, for which the Mediterranean Fleet had recruited a large number of Maltese, Italians and Spaniards. Bandsmen were signed for ‘continuous service’, while musicians for ‘non- continuous engagement’ were signed for each commission only. Their uniform was officially introduced in 1874.
During ‘battle stations’, bandsmen usually acted as stretcher bearers and sick bay attendants. Some 26 Maltese and Italian bandsmen were killed on HMS Defence and HMS Black Prince alone, both sank between May 31 and June 1, 1916 during the Battle of Jutland. A particular bandsman and a distant relative of the author was Enrico Portelli of Vittoriosa, who served and died on the Black Prince.
Countless Maltese were serving in the Royal Navy throughout those turbulent years, of whom many suffered terrible deaths and have no known graves. A photo acquired some years ago of a certain F54389 Francesco Attard of Rabat, is one of the few Maltese who had served in the Royal Naval Air Service. It is probable that when the RNAS amalgamated with the Royal Flying Corps, Attard was one of the first Maltese to transfer to the Royal Air Force on its formation a few months before the end of World War I.
Caruana was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration presented by the US government to a member of its armed forces
The Royal Malta Artillery (RMA) and the King’s Own Malta Regiment of Militia (KOMRM) were the two local army regiments in which many Maltese men had enlisted during the outbreak of hostilities. Several officers from the RMA volunteered for overseas service with the British Expeditionary Force on the western front or represented in several theatres of the war and on whom much has been written.
In 1917, ‘Y’ Battery Royal Malta Artillery had embarked to man coast defences in Alexandria, Egypt. Assigned to local garrison duties, the KOMRM supplied armed guards at the prisoner of war camps and as auxiliaries in several of the military hospitals.
Early in 1915, a contingent of 560 officers and men left Malta for service in Cyprus. Only one casualty to the regiment is known while stationed there – Lance Corporal Emmanuel Abela, who died on July 7, 1915, and rests in the Limassol Roman Catholic Cemetery.
Officers from the KOMRM also commanded detachments of Maltese who served in the Maltese Labour Corps in Gallipoli and Salonika, with whom were other Maltese serving in the Army Ordnance Corps. Like their countrymen from the RMA, a number of officers of the regiment volunteered to transfer to various British infantry regiments, and a number of these soldiers and officers never returned, having paid the ultimate sacrifice. The stories of these brave Maltese are featured in many publications.
The need for work and a better life resulted in many Maltese emigrating either to countries on the shores of the Mediterranean and those further away in the British Empire. But what about the ordinary soldier, in particular the Maltese who had served in the ranks of the colonial and dominion armies?
Trooper No. 181 Charles Mizzi is known to have served in the Australian 2nd New South Wales Mounted Rifles during the Anglo-Boer War (1898-1902) and Trooper S. Camilleri in Royston’s Horse during the Natal Rebellion (1906) and later as a stretcher bearer with the South African contingent during World War I, just to name a couple.
Searching for records of Maltese in armies such as those of Canada and Australia, whose numbers were enormous, isn’t easy. A painstakingly search for them by known Maltese surnames may help, many times misspelt, but there are certainly others who would have had Anglo-Saxon or Italian surnames.
As already mentioned, thousands of wounded British and Allied troops were brought to Malta, the majority between 1915 and 1917, and many of whom were members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). Countless succumbed to their wounds and lie buried in Maltese soil. From among the Maltese who had emigrated to Australia, many had answered to the call of ‘King and country’ and enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF), of whom a good number were killed in action or from the consequences of the war.
In May 1995, Joanne Croft had interviewed Emmanuel Attard. At the age of 16, Attard, who hailed from Qala, joined the Maltese Labour Corps which supported the Allied campaign at Gallipoli. In late 1917, he was one of 214 Maltese migrants on board the Messageries Maritimes’ S.S. Gange who initially were refused entry to Australia, despite their status as British subjects. Nevertheless, when 19, he enlisted on September 27, 1917, and served as 4991 Private Attard, 32nd Battalion – 14 Reinforcements AIF, embarking for France on HMAT Ulysses (A38).
Although Malta was not directly involved in the fighting, it played a major role in many aspects
In his book on the Gallipoli campaign and Malta, John Mizzi recalls a number of such casualties while serving with the AIF; Private Francesco (Francis) Bellia, Gunner Francis Alfred Brown, Private Francesco Bartolo, Private Waldemar Beck and Private Charles Emanuel Bonavia, the latter being one of the first to fall from the 11th Battalion, Australian Imperial Forces on April 25, 1915. Sapper Charles Leonard Borg, Private Andrew Camilleri and Corporal Edward Melia (Mallia) are others. There are undoubtedly more.
Private Charles Mallia of Paola served in the Wellington Infantry Battalion, Charlie Camilleri of Mosta in the 32nd Reinforcements Otago Infantry and Juliano (Giuliano) Xuereb (a.k.a. Sherab) in the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force. They are just three Maltese who had served in the ranks of the New Zealand Army during the war.
It is ironic that the ANZAC memorial inaugurated in 2005 at Argotti Gardens lists Australian and New Zealand soldiers buried in Malta, yet the Maltese-Australian soldiers who lost their lives while serving in the same army were not included on the memorial.
Canadian Army records show that the number of Maltese serving in the dominion’s army at the time was just as numerous, especially in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). At first glance, the records I was able to access showed that there were six whose surname was Attard, over a dozen Borg and just as many other common Maltese surnames.
Giuseppe Attard from Casal Caccia (Xagħra), started the war by enlisting in the 57th Battalion (Peterborough Rangers) CEF in 1915 but was transferred to the 41st Battalion later that year and was wounded in action.
Emanuele Pace, born in 1877, is reputed to have served in the US Army and saw action during the Spanish-American War of 1898, in particular in the Philippines. He is later recorded as living in Ontario, Canada, and served for some months in the the 38th Dufferin Regiment of Canada. When war broke out, Pace re-enlisted in his old regiment and was assigned to the 125th Overseas Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, which was composed of men from Brantford and the neighbouring towns in Ontario.
When under fire, the gallantry of the Maltese is well known. In his book Għeruq Beltin, Victor Scerri refers to Emanuel Orlando Caruana, who fought in the American Civil War of 1861-1865. Private, later Sergeant Caruana, Company K, 51st New York Volunteers, or ‘Shephard Rifles’, was a ‘Belti’ who served in the Union Army during the American Civil War.
Due to two heroic actions, Caruana was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration presented by the US government to a member of its armed forces.
Although the US entered World War I quite late, the Maltese who had settled there and had volunteered to join the American Expeditionary Forces can be the subject of a separate study. Giuseppe Attard, who is cited to have joined the 106th Infantry US Army in late 1917, was shipped to France and wounded in action a few months later.
The soul is just as important as the body, and the role of the Maltese clergy in uniform who served overseas is not to be overlooked. Towards the end of 1917, Fr Edgar Salomone of Mġarr, Malta, offered himself as a volunteer working as a military chaplain to the British troops in the Balkans, in particular to the Maltese. Another was Rev. J. Verzin, ACE, who had accompanied the KOMRM contingent to Cyprus and had possibly spent some time in Crete.
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