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George Edward Kingsley Bemand – the first black officer in the British Army?

07 Oct

Since writing about Walter Tull, I have been informed that there was another black or mixed-race officer in the British Army: George Edward Kingsley Bemand. Was he the British Army’s first non-white officer?

2Lt G.E.K. Bemand, RFA

The life of George Edward Kingsley Bemand was starkly different to that of Walter Tull. Bemand’s story has been investigated by the members of the excellent Great War Forum (in an interesting thread begun by Simon Jervis, who posts as High Wood) and I have done a bit of extra research myself. He was born in Jamaica in 1892 and moved to Britain in 1908 on the Lusitania at the age of 16. Passenger lists for their journey (via the USA) record that Minnie Bemand and her children were going to join George Bemand (senior) at Upper House Farm, near Leominster. Mrs Bemand, George junior and his siblings are recorded as ‘African’ in the ‘race or people’ column.

George Bemand senior (if my research is correct) was born in 1865, the son of Robert Bemand, the owner of the 300-acre Upper House Farm in Risbury (in Humber parish) and his wife Sarah. His younger brother James Thomas Bemand later ran a draper’s shop in Southwark and wrote to the War Office about his nephew, George junior. The family still owned the farm in 1913 (although Robert died in 1899); I think it is reasonable to expect that this was a white British family. George senior must have moved to Jamaica at some point in the 1880s or ’90s.

Where Walter Tull grew up in an orphanage, G.E.K. Bemand went to Dulwich College in South London. Tull became a professional footballer, while Bemand went to University College, London, to study Engineering in 1913.  In the first year of the Great War, though, both joined the army.

Bemand joined the University of London OTC in October 1914 and (in May 1915) applied for a commission in the 30th (County Palatine) Divisional Artillery. His form is countersigned by the  commanding officer Brig-Gen A.J. Abdy:

Brig-Gen Abdy’s confirmation that he wanted Bemand as one of his officers.

The address Bemand gave was 56 Sinclair Road, South Kensington, close to Kensington Olympia station.

Interestingly, Bemand stated that he was of pure European descent on the front of his application form:

G. E. K. Bemand’s application form for an army commission

Did George Bemand consider himself to be of ‘pure European descent’? Clearly the officials of the shipping lines that brought him to the UK did not – they considered him to be black or African – but perhaps he simply considered himself as English as any other officer cadet. Perhaps he was light-skinned enough to pass as European when not seen alongside his family. Perhaps Bemand was told that he should write ‘yes’ because otherwise he would not be accepted. If so, was it Anthony Abdy who told him to do this?  He clearly wanted this young man as one of his officers.  We will never know what happened and why Bemand filled the form in as he did.

In May 1915 Bemand became a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery. He went to the Front in August 1916 (according to his medal card, or November 1915 according to his school’s roll of honour), joining 148 Brigade’s Ammunition Column. In October 1916, he transferred to “Y” 5 Trench Mortar Battery, attached to 5th Division. On Boxing Day 1916, he was killed by a shell.

His brother also served in the artillery: Harold Leslie Bemand (who had also been at Dulwich) joined in the ranks and also served on the Western Front. He died of his wounds in Belgium in 1917

Gnr H.L. Bemand, RFA

In essence, this is simply an all-too-familiar story of a family that lost two sons in the Great War. In this case it was a West Indian mother living in Denmark Hill. It is intriguing that Bemand appears to have been the first mixed-race officer in the British Army (as far as I know, anyway). He seems to have got away with saying that he was of pure European descent, when officials apparently felt that he was not.

What does the Bemand story mean for story of Walter Tull and the early black officers in the British Army. Tull remains the earliest (known) example of an officer who said ‘no’ to the European descent question. He (Tull) was also a good example of the broader social change going on in the British Army – whereas Bemand, as an ex-public-schoolboy and university undergraduate, was of the social type the army wanted in 1915, Tull was the son of a carpenter and became a footballer – playing a working-class sport. Both men were clearly considered officer material, though, and both became officers despite the racial bar. Bemand had the education and (it seems) connections to get in in 1915, Tull had to prove himself in the ranks and in the field.

George Edward Kingsley Bemand and Walter Tull are both interesting characters in the history of Britain’s Great War army. They both deserve to be remembered for their wartime sacrifice and for their part in the history of Britain’s ethnic minority population. Tull has achieved acclaim in recent years. Bemand has not and his story remains intriguing and deserving of further research beyond that of the Great War Forum and this blog.

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18 Comments

Posted by on 7 October 2012 in Ordinary Londoners, People

 

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18 responses to “George Edward Kingsley Bemand – the first black officer in the British Army?

  1. Brian Curragh

    7 October 2012 at 6:15 pm

    Brigadier-General Horace Sewell of the 4th Dragoon Guards is another possible contender – it all depends on your definition. Sewell was (according to the blog entry http://tartan-tory.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/the-black-general.html) the grandson of a Jamaican slave.

     
  2. Joel

    14 October 2012 at 12:43 pm

    Not to mention Lieutenant-Colonels Africanus Horton and William Broughton Davies, Sierra Leonean physicians who served exclusively in West Africa (though I’m not entirely certain if they were on the “strength” of the British Army). Great article.

     
  3. genealogyfinders

    16 October 2012 at 4:53 pm

    Very interesting story. Have not heard of him before. He must of had connections for no questions to not being asked about his colour or perhaps this was what he considered himself.

     
  4. jacqueline mccalla

    9 November 2012 at 7:19 pm

    fantastic article its sad that these men joined the british army to fight the enemy along with their comrades and yet they have only recently been mentioned it seems both history and the education dept was determined to wipe their memory from the face of the earth along with mary secole a jamaican who nursed injured british soldiers during the napolean campaign oh well cest la vie i remember you brave men and women of colour

     
    • Simon Jervis

      15 December 2012 at 10:50 pm

      Jacqueline, there has never been any deliberate effort by either “history” or the “education department” to wipe their memory from the face of the earth. George Bemand’s name and photograph were printed in the Dulwich College War Record 1914-1919 and he gets a mention in the University College London Roll of Honour.

      Mary Seacole was given an award by Queen Victoria. It is ordinary people that forget their history it doesn’t take a deliberate campaign. Can anyone remember the names of the men who fought at Agincourt apart from scholars of that battle? Paradoxically it is ordinary people with a passion for history who ensure that these names are not forgotten.

       
  5. Simon Jervis

    15 December 2012 at 11:11 pm

    Stuart,

    Thank you for posting a link to my thread on the Great War Forum, however, I am slightly miffed that you didn’t credit me with the original research having used agreat part of it in your blog.

    Simon (high wood)

     
  6. Simon Jervis

    16 December 2012 at 4:42 pm

    Interesting that my comments about “your” research didn’t pass the moderation test.

     
    • Stuart

      16 December 2012 at 5:22 pm

      Simon. I’m afraid the ‘moderation test’ relies on my having access to my computer, which isn’t a 24/7 situation (not sure if I can set up any auto-acceptance). You’ll notice that I have now accepted all three of your comments.
      I’m sorry that I neglected to mention you specifically in my post – I will amend to do so now. I had thought of the GW Forum thread as a collective effort, but really should have noted your work in bringing the subject to light and kicking off the research. I would like to this that my research has added something to the subject: e.g. the fact Bemand claimed to be ‘of pure European descent’ and that he had a personal sign-off from the Artillery commander. You have also reminded me that I meant to post in your thread about these things, which seem like interesting points in the Bemand story.
      Stuart

       
  7. Simon Jervis

    16 December 2012 at 10:20 pm

    Stuart,

    thank you for your considered response. I was a little miffed as I could see my first two comments when I wrote them but when I checked your blog this afternoon I couldn’t see them. I was not aware that they were not posted for everyone to see until they had been “moderated”.

    You are correct in saying that the Great War Forum is a collective effort; which is one of its great strengths but each thread is started by an individual either asking for information or bringing a piece of their research to the forum.

    I am happy that a professional historian has taken up the challenge of bringing George Edward Kingsley Bemand’s story to a wider audience. I don’t own the story but I did feel that some small acknowledgment was due. Thank you for clarifying your source and acknowledging the information provided by other forum members.

    I have a couple of photographs of other “black” soldiers in my photographic archive and if you would care to email me I would be willing to let you use them in your blog; assuming that you could use them and that the source is credited. One was a Royal Fusilier and the other was in the Rifle Brigade. Alas, I have no names for either man.

    Best wishes

    Simon

     
    • Stuart

      19 December 2012 at 8:45 pm

      Hi Simon. I understand your concern when the messages didn’t show up. People’s first posts always require the blog owner to log on and approve them.
      As you can clearly see, I found the Bemand thread very interesting and useful. I think his story is interesting both because he pre-dates Tull as an officer and because of the very different circumstances of their lives and routes to Commissions.
      I would be interested to see the other photos you mention. I’m always on the look out for possible things to write about in the blog. It’s a shame that there are so few names emerge linked to these men, it would be interesting to know about their experiences.
      Thanks,
      Stuart

       
  8. writeuntilzion

    25 March 2013 at 12:13 pm

    This is really interesting. I’m in the early stages of writing a play and a dissertation about black british soldiers. Thanks for the info!

     
  9. 123afed@aol.com

    27 May 2015 at 1:37 am

    What needs to be done “1st” is for Writeuntilzion to REread the article, look at the photo, empathize with the family, and address the soldier’s identity as TRUTH; regardless of their KNOWN racist views from that time period. You are addressing a European,French, Indian soldier who was NOT and does NOT appear to have 1 African bone in his body. This is the 21st century get your heads out of where they had it back then, and NO 1% is NOT black, do the math.

     
  10. Michael Webb

    29 June 2015 at 3:13 pm

    Alan Noel Minns was commissioned in the RAMC in September 1914. He received the DSO and the MC and twice mentioned in despatc hes. Although born in Thetford he was a Bahamain by descent. he was killed in a motor accident in 1921, after surviving Gallipoli and Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq).

     

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