The British Army, the First World War, enlistment, conscription and ‘race’.

‘Not of Pure European Descent’

The policy of restricting entry of men of colour into the British Army in the First World War, as outlined in the 1914 Manual of Military Law, was a legacy of debates within the Establishment during the latter half of the 19th century over the desired ethnic composition of the armed forces.

General Wolseley, who was to receive honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge for overseeing ‘the most horrible war I ever took part in’ (Britain’s imperial conquest of the Gold Coast, now Ghana, 1873-4), argued that Africans were intended to be White men’s slaves.

The Negroes are like so many monkeys; they are a lazy good-for-nothing race.

At the War Office, he pleaded in 1886:

let us keep our British Regiments strictly British…If ever we begin to fill our ranks with alien races our downfall will most surely follow.

Such opinion, informed as it was by the development of ideas about ‘race’ and a universal pigmentocracy – a wild distortion of Darwin’s thesis on evolution – denied the British Army’s historical experience. An African trumpeter was part of the court of Henry VII in 1507. Peter Fryer argues that Black drummers were recruited, enslaved and press-ganged into British Army regiments serving in the Caribbean in the 17th Century. Musicians were officially embedded into British regiments in 1757 when central funds were allocated for six enlisted bandsmen in each regiment, speeding the recruitment of Black musicians. J.D. Ellis also reminds us that Black soldiers had fought at Waterloo and before.

During the eighteenth century the 29th’s [Worcestershire Regiment of Foot] black soldiers were present as drummers at every major action the Regiment fought, from the infamous ‘Boston Massacre’ of 1770 to Saratoga in 1777, and as marines at ‘The Glorious First of June’ in 1794.

We can see, therefore, a mismatch between the history of practice in the military – what went on in reality – as narrated by Ellis, Peter Fryer, David Killingray and others – and the history of practice as spun by powerful opinion formers such as Wolseley.
While the recruitment of soldiers of colour continued and grew during the latter half of the 18th and first quarter of the 19th centuries, a revision of this policy and practice began, ironically, as the campaigns against slavery were gaining success.
The attraction of the army for free Blacks was equality of pay with White peers. This would have been unobtainable in most other sectors of the economy, where any kind of living would have been hard to come by. However, it should also be remembered that the West India Regiment of the 18th century was manned by slaves and press-ganged Africans. It was not until 1807 when, with the passing of a law abolishing slave trading by British ships (to come into force on 1st January 1808), a revised Mutiny Act forbade enslaved soldiers within the forces.

After the Napoleonic Wars, with the gradual enlargement of the overseas interests of the British ruling class and the accompanying racialisation of British culture and politics, there was growing opposition by the military elite to men of colour in the British Army. Henry Martin of Santa Cruz, for example, was discharged from the 77th Foot in 1822 simply for being a man of colour. (There are exceptions to this increasing imposition of the colour bar, such as Reverend George Rose, a sergeant with the Black Watch; Africans Private Lenox Simpson of the 41st Foot and James Durham, of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) but these are, literally, exceptions to the rule).

The development of the armed forces to a whiter shade of pale can be first identified in Imperial India where, in the 1790s, Anglo-Indians – commonly known as Eurasians – were collectively discharged. By 1808 they had virtually disappeared from the British Army stationed on the sub-continent.

This was, in large part, a response by the military elites to the success of the slave revolt led by Toussaint L’ouverture in San Domingo and the massacre of White slave owners that followed. Having brown-skinned, Eurasian officers in charge of darker skinned Indians did not now sit easily in the minds of India’s British rulers after the potential social ramifications of events in newly declared republic were absorbed.

Unsurprisingly, it was the ideas of men like Wolseley that influenced the attitudes of the military elite in the 20th century and the subsequent rules they implemented, such as clause 28, of chapter 10 in the Manual of Military Law (1914) which limited the number of ‘aliens’ – this included ‘Negros’ – in any battalion to 2% as contained.

The colour bar on officers in the armed forces is explicit in the Short Guide to Obtaining a Commission in the Special Reserve of Officers, 1912. It confirms that, to qualify for a commission, a candidate must be of pure European descent, and a British born or naturalised British subject. This unambiguous regulation, that stated ethnicity was more important than natality, was not officially lifted until the Second World War when Charles Arundel Moody was allowed a commission in the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment. This was reaffirmed in the Manual of Military Law (1914) Section 95 (2) which allowed people of colour – ‘aliens’ – to enlist but not to be commissioned. They could, however, hold honorary rank but they must not exercise any actual command or power.

This seemingly nonsensical rule created a contradiction because the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914 affirmed the status of all those born within the British Empire as natural born British subjects. The act gave all peoples of Empire equivalent legal status to those born within the UK. However, if there was ambiguity as to the ethnic criteria needed to become an officer, this was addressed on page 198 of the 1914 Manual of Military Law (confirming the regulation contained in the Short Guide of 1912):

Commissions in the Special Reserve of Officers are given to qualified candidates who are natural born or naturalised British subjects of pure European descent.

Quite simply, it didn’t matter where you were born within the Empire but it did matter what colour you were.

Colour coded entry was also practiced in the Royal Air Force and Navy. The Air Force (Constitution) Act, 1917, while allowing, in exceptional circumstances such as war, brown-skin volunteers these would not be allowed commissions. The Navy, similarly, did permit Maltese and Men of Colour who are the sons of British-born subjects as ratings but not as officers.

However, a 2008 exhibition at The National Army Museum We Were There, states that there were, from 1917, five pilots of colour serving in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC, later the Royal Air Force) in the First World War. These included William Robinson Clarke, Sardar Hardit Singh Malik and Flight Lieutenant Indra Lal – Laddie – Roy.

The We Were There exhibition also records the First World War service of Albert Marshall from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). A fireman, with African and Maltese convoys, he sailed the Artic route. Dick Lawless, in his research of the Arab community of Tyneside, found during the First World War Arab seamen were in demand in the Merchant Marine because large numbers of British seamen had joined the Royal Navy.

Despite the rules demand during the First World War for healthy, fit, young men caused men of colour in the UK and in the colonies to offer themselves in large numbers for enlistment in the army, air force and navy. Historian Richard Smith discusses their commitment to the cause of the Empire and the reward some of them received for their loyalty.

In May 1915, nine men from Barbados stowed away on the SS Danube in order to come to Britain and volunteer. When they were discovered on board ship, they were arrested and appeared at West Ham Police Court and were subjected to taunts from the magistrate.

The brother of Walter Tull, William, was sapper in the Royal Engineers, the same regiment as Charles Augustus Williams, the Bajan father of comedian Charlie Williams who played centre half for Doncaster Rovers in the 1950s. In January 1916, when Lance Sergeant Walter Tull was sent to the Front around Givenchy, Jamaican leatherworker Egbert Watson, living in Camden Town, enlisted as a gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery. His tour of duty in France lasted just two months before he was shipped home unwell in 1917 suffering from myalgia – muscle pain, often caused by chronic fatigue – and epilepsy. Eugene and John Brown, the Nigerian father and uncle of Roy Brown, a club colleague of Stanley Matthews at Stoke City in the late 1930’s, served in the 5th North Staffordshire Regiment while attending college in Britain. Eugene was killed in action, while John ended his war days in hospital. Boxer Charlie Cooper, a local celebrity in the north west of England, joined the Manchester Regiment, his enlistment recorded with a photograph by the Daily Dispatch, 30 May, 1917.

David Killingray, one of the leading historians in this field, lists a number of men of colour who served between 1914-18, including Norman Manley – who later became pm of Jamaica – and his brother Roy, both in the Field Artillery and Brighton-born son of a Ghanaian lawyer, Frank S Dove, who enlisted in 1915 in the Royal Tank Corps as Private 91658. For bravery in the field during the Battle of Cambrai Dove was awarded the Military Medal.

Others mentioned by Killingray are J Egerton Shyngle, Patrick Freeman, Bob Collier, Henry Solomon, George Williams and Frederick Njilima. The latter signed his attestation as Frederick Graham and joined the the 150th Battalion, Machine Gun Corps. Wounded on the first day of the German Aisne Offensive, 27 May 1918, he was hospitalised to Cambridge, had the Military Medal pinned on his breast before being repatriated to Nyasaland with a one-fifth disability pension.

Joseph Howard, born in Baltimore in 1887, enlisted at the British Army recruiting office in New York as a West Africa Jew. (We’ll return to the subject of British Army recruiting in the USA later.) He was more widely known in the UK as music hall entertainer Lobagola. Posted to the 38th Royal Fusiliers, a large proportion of whom were Jewish, Lobagola saw action in Palestine. He complained of not being accepted by fellow Jewish soldiers.

[They] taunted me. I was the only Black amongst them. They were not willing to accept me as a Jew, because of their prejudice against my colour.

West African, Kande Kamara, fought on the Western Front, hating it.

You couldn’t hold your teeth because of all your trembling, because during those days everything was going boom! It was disgusting…[a] white man’s war…we were black and we were nothing…the Germans called us boots. This hurt every black man, because they actually underestimated us, and disgraced and dishonoured us.

This enthusiasm of men of colour attempting to enlist led not to satisfaction at the patriotic response but to alarm and increased discussions and secret memos within the the Army Council, the War and Colonial Offices. Colonial secretary Lewis Harcourt ‘was well aware that it is not possible to enlist black or coloured men in British regiments’. Secretary of State for War and recruiting sergeant for the BEF, Lord Kitchener, believed

‘Blacks’ colour makes them too conspicuous in the field … Black soldiers [are] a greater source of danger to friends than enemy.’

Getting accepted as a man of colour was a feat in itself. The success of the applicant depended upon the whim of the recruiting officer and the degree of colour. In December 1914, on the very day Walter Tull enlisted, Principle Clerk at the Colonial Office, Gilbert Grindle, commented

I hear privately that some recruiting officers will pass coloureds. Others, however, will not, and we must discourage coloured volunteers.

Both the War Office – in particular the Army Council – and Colonial Office consistently acted to dissuade and reject men of colour from joining including a number of cases where men travelled to Britain to enlist . Jamaica-born Cardiff resident Alonzo Nathan was a case in point. A sailor from before the war, he enlisted in the first instance in the Army Service Corps before, in May 1916, being transferred to the BWIR. Fellow Jamaican James Slim joined the Coldstream Guards. After less than two months he was discharged, despite the excellence of his physical condition and behaviour. Mr W.A. Moore, who also sailed over from the Caribbean at his own expense in 1914, was rejected at a recruiting office because of, he felt, his colour. This led to a debate involving Jamaican landowner Lord Dundonald and colonial secretary, Lewis Harcourt. Dundonald advocated the creation of a West Indian contingent, as he called them, that could be used in places like Egypt, Turkey and West Africa. Lewis Harcourt pointed out that Caribbean soldiers would be just as susceptible to tropical deseases as White troops. Therefore the difficulties [of deployment] are so great as to be practically insuperable.

A mixed-heritage East Ender who did serve was Ikey Bogard. A gang leader from the working-class Commercial Road area of Shoreditch, he won a Military Medal in 1918 as Private 263049 of the Monmouth Regiment. He has been labelled Jewish and a man of colour. It’s quite possible he was both.

Richard Smith has uncovered the application of GO Rushdie-Gray for a commission in the Army Veterinary Corps as a medical officer. Rushdie-Gray, a veterinary officer for the Jamaican government, was recommended for his commission by the Governor of Jamaica, Manning, yet the army could not accept him because he was too Black: In August 1915 the War Office told Dr S.J. Allwood of Jamaica to enlist in his native island.

The debate and discussion over the enlistment of men of men of colour that took place in the first year of the war led to the creation of the BWIR in 1915 to receive men of colour from Britain and the colonies. The regiment, from its inception, had differentials in pay, working conditions and employment rights that were determined by skin complexion. A CO 1915 file has a memo stating that the Army Council were averse from the appointment of officers not of unmixed European blood in the regiment. However, the writer did add the caveat that I trust the Governors don’t interpret the decision so strictly as to exclude sixteenths and thirty seconds. It wasn’t until late 1917 that the pure European descent principle was relaxed and brown skinned officers were officially commissioned. Additionally, pension rights, according to Army Orders 1916 were determined by skin colour. No guesses as to who got the best!

Some Black and mixed heritage men who were British or resident in Britain and enlisted in the UK were posted to the British West Indies Regiment. Colonial Office files record details of a number of rank and file soldiers who’d either joined British regiments and were then posted to the BWIR or were posted directly to the BWIR. In CO 318/339/28543 there are seventeen men listed, including Private Thomas Jack from Hull who was transferred from 2/4th East Yorks Regiment. Two soldiers, Jamaicans Charles Leveridge and Alonzo Nathan were transferred to the BWIR from the Army Service Corps. Another Colonial Office file 318/340/46561 lists 13 BWIR soldiers that joined in Britain. In another file I counted at least four BWIR soldiers recruited in the UK. Kurt Barling and his students at Middlesex University in their Hidden Heroes project discovered the case of Trinidadian Sam Manning who enlisted in London into the Middlesex Regiment but was eventually posted to the BWIR as well as numerous other soldiers of colour who remained with the Middlesex .

The introduction of conscription early in 1916 allowed greater bureaucratic control over the colour of men walking through the doors of the Recruiting Offices. Yet, for many in the military and political Establishment, the prospect of polychrome regiments in the British Army was still causing sleepless nights. Many British subjects were – like Logabola/Joseph Howard – offering themselves at Recruiting Offices in the United States. In September 1917 sixteen Black men were accepted in Chicago owing to a misunderstanding. The case caused friction within the War Office. Though Parliament had recently passed the Military Services Convention Act which allowed the United States military to accept British subjects prohibited entry to the British Army, if the Chicagoans’ enlistments were cancelled it would quite probably, if publicised, have a negative effect on colonial recruitment into the war effort generally. Rather than allow a propaganda victory for the US military – we accept Blacks you reject – the War Office delayed the deployment of Black British subjects recruited in the USA until it is found possible to enlist them in the British Army. Until then it would be argued publicly that they would be exempt from service because ‘every ton of shipping is required to bring over regular troops of the United States military forces’.

This sensitive political issue led to a lot of secret cipher telegrams between General WA White, head of British and Canadian Army recruiting in the US and the War Office in London. One secret telegram sent by White, dated 19th February 1918, had a section at the bottom of the message entitled: wooly headed niggers. Underneath the points listed were we now refuse to post coloured me to “white units”. These “niggers” must therefore go to native units if accepted. Can we take them for W. Indian or other bns. In February 1918 it was still the War Office position that men of colour are not posted to “White units” .

While the WO was trench digging against men of colour they were also prosecuting those men of colour not heeding their conscription notices. Robert Reubens, a South Asian from Singapore, was tried at Brighton Magistrates Court in 1917 for failing to report for military service. His defence was that he was in the UK to study, thus exempted. Even though the Ministry of National Service argued he should not have been served with a conscription notice he was convicted: a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

On 26 March 1918, one day after 2nd Lieutenant Tull had been killed in action at the Second Battle of the Somme – having been recently recommended for a Military Cross – the WO rejected the application of Kenneth Oehlers to enlist stating it is not considered desirable to post coloured men to Regular British Units.


In June 1918, nearly four years into the war and desperate for fighting men, the Army Council officially sanctioned British subjects of colour in the British Army as long as they blended in culturally in terms of diet and language. The official prohibition against commissioning men of colour remained.

Despite this, as we have seen with Tull, there were men of colour who were officers in the British Army. David Killingray has alerted us to 2nd Lieutenant George Edward Kingsley Bemand, born in Jamaica of mixed heritage obtained a temporary commission in the Royal Field Artillery in May 1915. In October 1916, he transferred to “Y 5” Trench Mortar Battery, 5th Division and was killed by a shell on 26th December, 1916. John Albert Gordon Smyth joined the Royal Fusiliers and was commissioned as a temporary 2nd Lt. in the 5th Bn Machine Gun Corps on 19 December 1916. He died was killed in France on 29 June 1918. Jamaican David Clemetson enlisted in 1914 and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the Pembroke Yeomanry, October 1915. Perhaps the most well known, Walter Tull, graduated from number 10 Officer Cadet Battalion as a 2nd Lieutenant in May 1917 and was posted to the 23rd Battalion, Middlesex Regiment.

A neighbour of Tull’s from Bethnal Green, Dr James Jackson Brown, a GP from Lauriston Road, had also applied for a commission in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was offered instead the post of Warrant Officer, which he declined.

In a letter to his brother Edward written from France, 10th August 1917, Tull ends with: ps am applying for a transfer to the B.W.I. when the Batt. Come out tomorrow. Its place as a footnoted afterthought belies its significance: why would the recently commissioned 2nd Lieutenant want to switch regiments after serving two and half years with soldier comrades where each had relied on the other for their lives? It suggests that he was acutely conscious of his ‘otherness’ as a Black officer in a White Battalion; that he did indeed face a residue of hostility even among his brother footballers; and that he would have felt more at ease in a force that had as its uniting element the common experience of racism. It speaks to Tull’s political awakening that he felt his presence would be of more use and better received among those with whom he shared an ethnic and political affinity rather than a cultural and professional commonality. Marx would have termed being determining consciousness: the war effort needing men and these, through their actions, proving up to the task.

Had Tull’s request for a transfer been granted the development of his political conscience may have quickened if the actions of soldiers of the BWIR during 1918 and 1919 are a guide. After a signing of the Armistice, 11 November 1918, in preparation for their demobilisation, battalions of the BWIR were encamped at Taranto, Italy. They included Clifford Powell, Gershom Brown and Eugent Clarke who featured in the 1999 C4 documentary, Mutiny. The mutineers of the BWIR were not the only men of colour to refuse orders. On 5 September, 1917, two companies of South East Asian soldiers went on strike at Bolougne. A resulting Colonial Office memo of 1919 stated: nothing we can do will alter the fact that the black man has begun to think and feel himself as good as the white.
The achievements of Walter Tull and his fellow men of colour in arms profoundly contradicted the prevailing view of the military and political elites, embodied by the Army Council and the War Office that people of colour were genetically and biologically inferior; that White soldiers would not willingly serve alongside or accept orders from soldiers and officers of colour; and that having soldiers of colour in regular British regiments would be bad for morale and discipline. Tull and his band of brothers undermined all these notions. He was promoted four times; led missions into enemy territory; was commended by his divisional commander for his bravery and leadership; was recommended for a Military Cross; inspired those around him to break military law and subject themselves to court martial; and, most incredibly of all, motivated – while dead! – his men to put their lives at risk in order to try and retrieve his body for burial. Many other men of colour were given medals and mentioned in dispatches for their bravery.

The sad truth, however, is that these achievements had very little effect on changing the thinking of the military and political elites and consequently the rules and regulations which governed the armed forces. After the war, as if to counter the suspicions raised in that 1919 CO memo, the colour bar came crashing down once more! The Aliens Order, 1920 and the Special Restriction (Coloured Alien Seamen) Order, 1925, resulted in many ex-service personnel of colour being re-classified as coloured aliens, reducing their liberties in Britain, making employment harder and deportation easier. And, as we have already seen there wasn’t another black officer in the army for over twenty years.

However, I don’t want to end on a down note. The experience of men of colour tells us that they had to fight twice as hard for recognition as equals but it did happen and they did change the attitudes for the better of many of those they served with. More importantly, many also became in involved in politics and the trade unions, pushing forward the causes of independence and equality in the communities, countries and continents they returned to.