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Tag Archives: Black History Month

West Indians in Britain’s Great War army

Across the British Empire, men joined up to fight in the Great War in large numbers. Many West Indian men joined the British Army, leading to the creation of a (non-combatant) British West Indies Regiment. Not all West Indians ended up in that Regiment, though, and official acceptance of their place in other units evolved over time. This blog post, in Black History Month, looks at some elements of that story.

The British Empire in 1914 covered almost 12 million square miles and included 421 million people. Of the 59 million who were not in India (including modern Pakistan and Bangladesh) and the UK, 1.7 million were in the British West Indies. This consisted of the colonies of: the Bahamas, Barbados, British Guiana, British Honduras, Jamaica (including the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Cayman Islands), Trinidad and Tobago, the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands. The vast majority of these British subjects in the West Indies were black, with only 35,000 white people among them.

There was already a West India Regiment, which was based in Sierra Leone at the start of the war and fought in East Africa and Palestine.  However, many West Indian men travelled to Britain to join the regular British Army rather than this unit. The authorities in Britain decided to group these men together into a new unit rather than having them dispersed across the army and serving alongside white men.  So the British West Indies Regiment was created in 1915. In total, 15,600 men served in the Regiment, two thirds from Jamaica; CWGC records the deaths of 1390 men of the regiment in the Great War period. Just over sixty are buried in the UK, with another 58 commemorated on the Hollybrook memorial in Southampton after dying at sea. Although they did not serve in the front line on the Western Front, the BWIR did fight in Egypt and Palestine; 49 men of the regiment were mentioned in despatches and 81 earned medals for bravery (there is a good photo on flickr of one BWIR soldier being awarded the DCM).

Recruits for the British West Indies Regiment from Trinidad and Barbados being sworn in by the Lord Mayor of London (from Illustrated War News, 26 Jan 1916)

Recruits for the British West Indies Regiment from Trinidad and Barbados being sworn in by the Lord Mayor of London (from Illustrated War News, 26 Jan 1916)

We have already seen that not all West Indian men – or Britons of West Indian descent – enlisting in the UK were put into the new West Indies Regiment. The (Jamaican-born) Bemand brothers both served in the Royal Artillery, while footballer Walter Tull served in the Middlesex Regiment; all three of these men had a white British parent as well as a black West Indian parent, two of them earned commissions in the British Army but sadly all three were killed in action. Anorther notable West Indian soldier who joined up in the UK was William Robinson Clarke, who joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1915 as a driver and later became a pilot. A blog post on blackpresence.co.uk quotes a number of sources describing other black soldiers in the British Army.

Sgt W.R. Clarke, an RE8 pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, he was wounded in action in 1917.

Sgt W.R. Clarke, an RE8 pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, he was wounded in action in 1917.

Two other West Indians based in London demonstrate different experiences of West Indians who joined up to fight in the British Army. Ralph Ernest Vignalë and his brother Otto Rudolf Vignalë were born in Trinidad but moved to the UK before the war. In 1911, they were living together on Amberley Grove, Croydon, along with Ralph’s wife, the Deptford-born Henrietta, and the first of the couple’s three daughters. Ralph was an electrical engineer and Otto was a dental surgeon. By 1915 they were living on London Road, Croydon: Ralph at number 217 and Otto at 161. (Note: Their surname is sometimes recorded as Vignali)

In July 1915, Ralph joined the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment. By early 1916, he was a corporal in their 4th/4th battalion (a reserve unit), based in Cambridge. He was never transferred to an active-service battalion of the West Surreys. Meanwhile, in February 1916, Otto attested under the Derby Scheme (the odd voluntary conscription system that preceded full compulsion); he was then called up in May and joined the Royal Artillery.

After nearly two years in the army, Ralph eventually did go out to France, but only after being transferred to the 3rd Battalion of the British West Indies Regiment, whom he joined in France in late April 1917. The unit did not serve as combat troops on the Western front, so Ralph Vignalë would not have seen action directly.  After a period of sickness in late June, he returned to the unit but became severely ill in late September 1917. In October he was sent back to a hospital in the UK suffering from acute nephritis – a serious kidney problem, caused by exposure while serving in the BWIR. The illness was so severe that he was discharged and given a 100% army disability pension (meaning that he was deemed unable to earn money through work) until he had recovered; he was declared fully fit in 1920. Now a civilian again, Ralph studied to become a barrister, passing his final exams in 1922 and becoming a member of the Middle Temple. He later became mayor of his home town of Arima in Trinidad.

A black soldier (possibly an artilleryman by his cap badge) with two comrades. Could this be O.R. Vignale? Sadly, we may never know

A black soldier (possibly an artilleryman by his cap badge) with two comrades.

Otto Vignalë passed through artillery training and joined the 2/1st Northumbrian (North Riding) Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, before moving on to ‘A’ Battery, Heavy Artillery, where he qualified as a signaller.  Like his brother, he was not sent abroad while serving in original unit, but he was also retained in the UK when the army (belatedly) transferred him to the Royal Army Medical Corps. He too survived illness (in his case influenza) and returned to civilian life after the war (when he lived at 8 Sydenham Road, Croydon); he qualified as a dentist and lived into the 1950s. Both Vignalë brothers enlisted in the British Army in active service units, but neither had the chance to fight at the front.

In 1917, the War Office had a different issue to resove relating to West Indian recruits. Under the Military Service (Conventions with Allied States) Act 1917, military citizens of one Allied Power living in another had the choice to join one or other of their armed forces – these men were to volunteer with their home country or be conscripted in their new homelands. This was controversial in relation to Russian Jews being forced to fight in the Russian Army or for their British allies (see this post-war book). Less well known is the situation of black British subjects living in the USA – the vast majority of whom were migrants from the British West Indies.

In the National Archives, there is correspondence between the Military Mission in Washington and the War Office in London about what to do with these men. It was reported that hundreds had expressed their preference to join the British Army rather than the American. However, they wanted to join combatant units in the regular British Army, rather than the British West Indies Regiment. The fact that they were not enlisting was reportedly causing indignation among citizens in Britain’s important new ally.  Existing rules (although clearly not always enforced) barred non-white soldiers from serving in the regular British Army.

While the issue was being resolved, these men were asked to sign an attestation that they wanted to serve. This would prevent the US authorities from conscripting them.

Sworn declaration by Allan Hoyt (or Hoyte), a seaman from Barbados living in Brooklyn, New York, in 1917.

Sworn declaration by Allan Hoyt (or Hoyte), a seaman from Barbados living in Brooklyn, New York, in 1917.

Eventually, the War Office allowed these West Indian men to enlist in the British Army and hundreds were signed up. Judging by the surviving service records a large number were assigned to the Royal Engineers, but others were put into reserve battalions of other units including the Scots Rifles, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, the Middlesex Regiment, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and the Dorset Regiment. Most of those whose records have survived were resident in New York or New Jersey in the North East of the USA.

It is not clear how many were sent to Britain, but those who were appear to have arrived in autumn 1918 just as the fighting was ending on the Western Front. They were still in the UK when the Peace was finally signed in the summer of 1919 and then had to fill out more forms to get themselves sent back to the USA after ending up in Sunderland in the case of Allan Hoyt (who joined the York and Lancs Regt), Winchester in the case of James Desant (from Nevis and serving in the Scottish Rifles), Hounslow in the case of Joseph Edwards (a Jamaican in the KOSB who had only married in August 1918), and other military camps.

The way that men joining the Army of the British Empire were treated was unlikely to be completely consistent in a force of six million men, but these stories demonstrate the  different experiences of West Indian men and the vagaries of Government and military policy towards them. The policy seems largely to have been to avoid black British subjects who were not from the UK itself from serving in combat roles on the Western Front, which took the form of creating a new Regiment (which fought elsewhere but not in France and Flanders) as well as keeping West Indian men in reserve roles in other units, even when the rules had been changed to officially allow them to serve in other units in the British army.

Update 18/6/2015: in the caption for the last photo I originally wondered whether the man depicted was Otto Vignalë. Thanks to Joan Leggett for contacting me to let me know that it is not him.

Sources:

Empire figures from Australian newspapers in 1914

War Memorial Gates page on Caribbean participants in the war

National Archives

Army service and other records on ancestry

Long, Long Trail on the British West Indies Regiment

Black Presence blog post on Black British Soldiers

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Posted by on 24 October 2013 in Ordinary Londoners, People, Recruitment

 

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Race riots

So far, the black history month posts have been fairly positive stories – two young officers of mixed race, and a  successful propaganda speaker. Sadly (if unsurprisingly) it was not all plain sailing where race relations in Great War London were concerned. There were several incidents of race riots.

It was not quite all quiet on the home front. At least two race riots took place in London during the Great War.

In July 1917, the Times reported a ‘disturbance’ on Victoria Dock Road in West Ham. A police sergeant told magistrates that “in consequence of the infatuation of the white girls for the black men in the district, some of the inhabitants are greatly incensed against the coloured men.”

The previous Saturday night, a gang of white youths attacked houses inhabited by black men in Victoria Road causing considerable damage. In response, several black men came out into the street ‘armed with knives and other weapons’. The newspaper reported that the clashes continued the following day, when ‘according to the police, a crowd of about a thousand people assmbled, and stones, sticks, bottles, pokers and tongs were freely used by both sides. One black man was fined £1 for brandishing a revolver during the melee.

After the war had ended, a wave of race riots swept the country in the summer of 1919. A website about the riots describes the events in London:

The troubles in London were more sporadic. On Saturday 14th June there was an incident at a coffee shop in Cable Street, East London, where two Negroes were “roughly handled.”[Daily Express 16/6/19]. The Daily Mail [16/6/19] reported that “a coffee shop kept by an Arab was stormed and the furniture wrecked; two revolver shots were fired at the crowd by Negroes who were found in the house… The riot arose on a report being spread that some white girls had been seen to enter the house. Soon a crowd of about 3,000 people assembled, and the place was attacked.”

Two days later there were also attacks on Chinese-owned properties in Poplar.

Clearly all was not well in relations between the races in London – and in the other places in England and Wales where disturbances occurred in 1919. Thousands of people clashed in the street on these occasions. It is notable that both these examples in London were linked to white girls being seen with black men. The 1919 riot was happening at the same time that German inhabitants of the occupied Rhineland were fed racist propaganda (such as this infamous medallion) against the stationing of black colonial troops there by France after some of them got together with German women in what was called the ‘black horror’.

 
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Posted by on 28 October 2012 in Events, Ordinary Londoners

 

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Thomas Harper: propaganda speaker

For black history month, I am highlighting a few different aspects of black history in London in the Great War. Black and ‘coloured’ men could find themselves in different roles: soldiers, sailors, workers, and even propagandists, like Thomas Harper.

In 1917 semi-official National War Aims Committee was set it. The NWAC published propaganda material and, through its branches in the nation’s parliamentary constituencies (often organised by local political party agents), set up meetings and speeches to promote the nation’s war aims.  These are generally targeted at areas where low morale was suspected, particularly in urban areas.

One location that was used for several meetings in West Ham was outside the Boleyn pub (meetings were generally held out of doors). A pair of speakers set up their stage there in July 1918 to tell the crowd about the nation’s cause and the need for continued effort to win the war: Mr E. Smith and Mr. Thomas G. Harper. Two of the meetings were abandoned because of rain, but two went ahead on Monday 22 and Tuesday 23 July.

Mr Smith’s report of the 22 July 1918 meeting at the Boleyn (National Archive T 102/25)

After a successful session on the still-rainy evening of 22 July, Smith and Harper wrote out their reports to send to NWAC headquarters. Smith noted the size of the crowd, around 250-275; on the reverse, he commented on how the meeting went and the performance of his colleague (before having a change of heart and crossing part of it out):

A very good meeting. A few Pacifists present, but only one interrupted, who demanded questions. It had been raining heavily, but audience stood, and rather a good meeting ended about 9.25 with some applause. Strength and fortitude is required just here by speakers, as audience is at times very rough, and the least sign of weakness is immediately detected by the audience. It was rather funny for my colleague to apologise for the colour of his skin (he being a coloured man)

Smith’s report of the meeting

The report is fairly standard for the period: we were well received, but people are not automatically supportive. His comment about Harper is intriguing though.

I haven’t been able to find out more about Harper.  He gave his address as Statheim (an interesting house-name during a war against Germany), Graham Road, Mitcham. But at this point the trail goes cold.  He was presumably an effective speaker to have been invited to speak in West Ham, which had been a tough place to speak at times in 1917.

Who was Thomas G Harper? How had a ‘coloured man’ come to be an NWAC speaker in East London/South Essex in 1918?

 
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Posted by on 20 October 2012 in Ordinary Londoners, Places

 

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

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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Posted by on 7 October 2012 in Ordinary Londoners, People

 

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Walter Tull and the black Great War heroes of the British Army

October is black history month in the UK. I will be including a few posts relating to black history and Great War London. First up is the most prominent black Londoner of the war, Walter Tull, and some of his fellow black British Army heroes of 1914-18.

Water Tull’s story is fairly well-known know, and is related in depth on websites including ‘Crossing the White Line’ (link). In short, he was born in Folkestone in 1888, the son of a Barbadian carpenter and his English wife. After both parents died while their children were young, Walter and his brother Edward were sent to the Children’s Home and Orphanage on Bonner Road, Bethnal Green. A keen footballer, the young Walter began playing for local Clapton FC in 1908-09 and was signed up as a professional footballer for Tottenham Hotspur the following season. Although he played well, racists incidents occurred at matches, and he was dropped from the first team. He found a new home, though, at Northampton Town FC, for whom he played 110 matches and scored 9 goals.

After the Great War began in summer 1914, there was much criticism of professional football for keeping men out of the army. In response a ‘Footballers’ Battalion’ was formed in the Middlesex Regiment (the 17th Bn) on 12 December. Tull was one of its earliest recruits, joining in London on 21 December and given the number 55. His rapid promotion over the next few months (lance corporal in February, corporal in June and lance serjeant in July 1915) is evidence of his leadership quality. The battalion – and L/Sgt Tull – arrived in France in November 1915, just in time for a freezing winter in the trenches. He served with them until April 1916 when he was admitted to a field hospital suffering from ‘acute mania’ and eventually sent back to the UK.

After a break in the reserve 27th and 6th battalions, Tull was clearly well enough to serve again and he arrived in the 23rd (2nd Football) Battalion on 20 September 1916, mid-way through the battle of Flers-Courcelette – part of the Battle of the Somme. He served with the unit through the battle of Le Transloy in October. In late November he filled out an application to be commissioned as an officer. A month later, his application was approved and he went to Scotland for officer training – despite a specific rule in Army Orders restricting officer status to men of ‘pure European descent’. He was the first black or mixed-race officer in the British Army.

Walter Tull’s application to become an officer

Rejoining the 23rd Middlesex as an officer, Tull was popular and effective. The unit fought through the 3rd Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) before being sent to Italy in November. In clashes on the river Piave, he was praised for his “gallantry and coolness” by Sir Sidney Lawford (commander of the 41st Division), who wrote described his heroism: “You were one of the first to cross the river prior to the raid, and during the raid you took the covering party of the main body across and brought them back without a casualty inspite of heavy fire.” He was recommended for the Military Cross, but was not awarded it.

Walter Tull and two fellow-officers

The 41st Division returned to France in February-March 1918, just in time for the German Spring Offensive, which was launched on 21 March. A few days in, during the First Battle of Bapaume, Tull was killed in action by a machine-gun bullet that hit him in the head. His body was buried by comrades, but as the Germans advanced the 23rd Middlesex retreated and the grave was lost. Tull is now commemorated on the Arras memorial to the missing. (A brother of his also died in the war: William, who is buried in Folkestone)

Walter Tull was an impressive man – coming from an orphanage to become a well-regarded officer is impressive enough, let alone doing so against a military law-book that denied non-white men the right to be officers. There is a campaign to award Tull the Military Cross posthumously, based on the assumption that it was denied purely because he was not white. While this may be the case, I find it unlikely that it was that simple – his commission was approved not only by officers who knew him but those (in administrative and training posts) who had never seen him in action, overlooking both his West Indian origins and his treatment for ‘mania’. The fact is that medals recommended were not always awarded: for example, Siegfried Sassoon was reportedly recommended for the Victoria Cross but did not receive it.

More pertinent to the Tull case is the intriguing example of Private John Williams, whose picture appeared in the African Telegraph in March 1919 with the title ‘The Man whom White Soldiers Call “The Black V.C.”.’ The caption then describes Williams as having been awarded the DCM, MM, Russian Cross of St George, French Médaille militaire and Légion d’honneur. He doesn’t appear to be wearing quite that many medals in the photo, but is certainly decorated and carrying four wound stripes. His ‘many brave deeds’ would supposedly have been enough to “earn any European the V.C.”

“The Black VC” Pte John Williams DCM MM (c)British Library

It is not clear whether Williams was British, West Indian or African, although having been honoured by the French he must have served in a British unit (rather than the British West Indies Regiment, which fought in the Middle East but only did support work in France and Flanders). It seems odd that his story has been forgotten while Tull has become a cause célèbre.

Another intriguing African Telegraph photo is this one – also from the African Telegraph – of ‘A West African Soldier “Walking Out” in London’. The story tells of the number of African soldiers in the British Army, who became known as “Coloured Army Knuts” (knut being a slang term for showy young men).

A West African soldier in London (c)British Library

“Some of these young men left their studies to join the British Army upon the outbreak of hostilities and rendered a very good account of themselves in the trenches and fields of Flanders, many of them wear coveted distinctions, and one form Oxford University won the M.C. for a particularly daring deed with the Tank Corps.”

If this report is accurate (I have no reason to think it false, but have not been able to corroborate it with other sources), then there was a Military Cross awarded to a black man during the Great War. This man’s background – as an African at Oxford University – was very different to Tull’s, but he must have been an officer or at least a Warrant Officer to be awarded the MC. Who was this man?

Telling the stories of these decorated black soldiers in Britain’s Great War army is not an attempt to do down Tull’s story. He was very impressive and brave; we should remember him and his sacrifice. But we should not assume that his lack of reward for his bravery was necessarily due to racism. Nor should we forget the other black soldiers who fought with great bravery in the same army.

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Update: since writing this, I have become aware of at least one black/mixed-race officer who was commissioned before Tull (and was also killed in action). Read more about G.E.K. Bemand on this blog post, where I tell his story and consider his and Tull’s parallel stories.

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Sources:
On Tull – resources on the website Crossing the White Line; Tull’s service record online at Movinghere.org.uk.
The Long, Long Trail.
BL photos tagged ‘black history month’

 
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Posted by on 1 October 2012 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners

 

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