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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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