Black British Officers of WWI

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When immersed in historical research, I often come across interesting facts that illuminate people, places, and events that seem otherwise lost to history. My interest in Walter Tull, a British black officer of WWI, introduced me to a whole group of brave men who sacrificed everything to serve their country and their Commonwealth. I’ve listed them in the order they were promoted to officer, but this article is not to rank these men, it is to make their existence more public and give them the recognition they each deserve.

The heroic actions of Jamaican-born Euan Lucie-Smith would have been lost to time if someone had not discovered a plaque in his honor with the words “He died for freedom and honor” and decided to trace his history. Born in Jamaica in 1889, his mother was the daughter of an influential black lawyer and his father was a colonial civil servant, the Postmaster of Jamaica. Lucie-Smith was educated in England. When he returned to Jamaica, he was commissioned into the Jamaica Artillery Military in 1911. Six weeks after the beginning of the Great War, he was commissioned into the regular force of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in 1914. He died during the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium in 1915. He was 25 years old.

George Bemand was the child of a white British father and black Jamaican mother. He was born in Jamaica but grew up in England. He attended Duwich College and the Officer Training Corps at University College, London where he studied engineering. In his military interview, he said he was of “pure European descent.” He was promoted to second lieutenant in May 1915. He was killed in action on Boxing Day in 1916. He was only 24.

David Louis Clemetson came from a very wealthy family in Jamaica. Although light enough to pass for white, he refused to lie and say he was “of pure European descent,” a requirement for being commissioned. His grandfather had been a slave in Jamaica. He was a law student at Trinity College Cambridge and an accomplished rower when the war broke out. He left school and enlisted. He was recommended for promotion and received on to second lieutenant in October, 1915 in the Territorial Army not the regular British Army and was later promoted to full lieutenant. He died fighting in France in September, 1918 at the age of 25.

Walter Tull may not be the first British black officer in WWI. He should be celebrated nonetheless. Tull, born in England to a Barbadian father and English mother, grew up to be a professional footballer in England, breaking color barriers and proving he belonged despite open racism by opposing teams. When the war came, he was the first of his team to enlist. His talent and bravery brought him the respect and admiration of the soldiers around him. The only thing preventing his promotion was the color of his skin. After attending officer training school in Scotland, he was promoted to second lieutenant in May 1917 and he died in battle in 1918 at the age of 29. “The extraordinary life of Walter Tull.” “The officer who refused to lie about being black.” “Lieutenant Euan Lucie-Smith.”