122: African-descent soldiers in British regiments in 1916-1918

First World War British Army regulations prohibited any one not of pure European descent to became a officer. A small number of black officers have been identified however, notably sportsman Walter Tull who became a Lieutenant in the infantry, and doctor James Risien Russell who was a Captain in the Medical Corps. It is also known that, faced with enthusiastic volunteers in the West Indies, the British authorities created the British West Indies Regiment which served in France, Belgium, Egypt and East Africa. The 1919 mutiny at Taranto, in Italy where three battalions of the BWIR worked, is known. The presence of black soldiers can be seen in the excellent website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is responsible for over 150 BWIR graves in Taranto (the oldest is from December 1917, and the last was in July 1919). See also page 007 of this site for BWIR graves in Sussex.

It seems to have been assumed that it was difficult if not impossible for men of African descent to serve in regular army units — and those who did and have been identified were known because they or their children had public roles in post-1918 Britain, in entertainment and in boxing. The Turpin family (whose veteran father came from British Guiana) of Leamington Spa is one example. Wendell Bruce-James, born Antigua and raised in British Guiana, left his studies at Oxford to serve in the University and Public School Corps of the Royal Fusiliers and was in France in 1916. His musical career attracted the attention of historian Howard Rye, who also traced Bert Marshall (born London 1899 as Albert Duke-Essien) who served in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps 1916-1919. Another entertainer, Gordon Stretton, born William Masters in Liverpool, said he served in France and was five times wounded but his army file has not survived. His older brother James Masters born March 1886 was a private in the South Lancashire Regiment (no 15146) and died at Mons in Flanders on 2 November 1917, aged 32. He is buried with 2,100 others in the Bedford House Cemetery south of Ypres/Ieper, Belgium. The youngest brother Henry (October 1898-1950) served in the Lancashire Fusiliers and was invalided out. Their father was a sailor from Jamaica.

Lieutenant Reginald Collins, a Jamaican who served in the 19th battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, became an officer in the BWIR (see page 066 of this site). Norman Manley, Oxford-educated lawyer and future premier of Jamaica, was awarded a Military Medal for his bravery in the Royal Field Artillery: his brother was killed serving in that regiment, in Belgium (and is buried in Poperinghe New Military Cemetery where there lies Herbert Morris, a 17 year old of the BWIR who was executed on 20 September 1917).

The records of the CWG Commission make no note of ‘race’ (indeed, their cemeteries do not distinguish by rank either) but two soldiers, possibly three, have been identified through scholarly attention to a town’s war memorial and the newspaper reports of the era. The cenotaph in Port of Spain, Trinidad has names of men who died whilst serving in regular units as well as 83 men of the BWIR. The men served in English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish regiments, in the forces of Canada and France, the U.S.A., New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

Richard Henry Bascombe made his own way to England and became private 12528 in the 3rd battalion of the King’s (Liverpool Regiment). He was recommended for the D.C.M. but met death in a most mundane way, in a road accident on his bicycle in London on 5 August 1916. He is one of 40 men buried in Pembroke Dock Military Cemetery in south-west Wales (another 33 were added in 1939-1945). His photograph, family in Trinidad, and other details are on caribbeanrollofhonour-ww1.

So too is that of James Thomas Fitz-Evan Eversley, 5130 of the 4th battalion of the London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers). He died, aged 26, on 1 June 1916 at Brompton Hospital in London and was buried in the Catholic section of Kensal Green Cemetery in west London on 6 June 1916. His name is on the screen wall, one of 208 World War I British soldiers commemorated there.

The photograph of Valleton Sydney Algernon Redman is less distinct, but a historian of Trinidad families might clarify if the Redmans were of part African descent. He was in the same battalion of the London Regiment as Eversley, and his number was 5148 — so close to Eversley’s 5130 that they may have enlisted on the same day. He died on 22 February 1916, aged 19, from pneumonia. He had been stationed on Salisbury Plain, and is one of 34 soldiers who are buried at Compton Chamberlayne Cemetery.

Since the sources for these details are memorials — to the dead — we still have the problem of identifying black soldiers in regular army units who survived the war years. Two individuals whose names have surfaced are the Liverpool-born Herbert Gladstone McDavid (1898-1966) a ship-owner later knighted, whose entry by Charles Kay in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes he served in the Liverpool Scottish from 1917, was a prisoner of war in Germany, and took such a leading role there that he was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal (rarely awarded, it was for non-combatant gallantry). A ‘West Indian’ named James McDonald Robertson served three years as a driver in the Army Service Corps (1915-6, 1917-9) and was the subject of debate in the House of Commons on 23 March 1922 over his application to be a taxi driver in London (see page 067 of this site). His service record is available at the National Archives in Kew ref WO372/17/38832.

George E. K. Bemand, born in Jamaica in 1892, lived in England from 1908, and went to Dulwich College in south London then UCL in 1913. He was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery and was killed on 26 December 1916. He was buried at Le Touret cemetery in France. His brother Harold served in the ranks of the RFA, and was killed aged 19 in June 1917 and is buried in Bedford House Cemetery in Belgium. (Information including photographs on ‘Great War London’.)

In news footage of British soldiers marching in ruined streets of central Dublin after the Easter Rising of 1916 a young soldier nearest to the camera appears to be black. His cap badge is that of the Staffordshire Regiment. A private collector has a photograph of a handful of Durham Light Infantry soldiers in an informal pose, and one is black. No names have been located.

A footnote in Robin Winks, The Blacks in Canada (Yale UP, 1971) sources the New York Crisis Vol 15 (1918), p 248 and Vol 16 (1918) p 134 when stating that “in 1918 James Grant, a Negro from St. Catharines, received the Military Cross for taking a field gun through a critical salient while under heavy shelling” (p 314). The Military Cross was awarded to officers (the Military Medal was for those in the ranks). So, is this another black military officer? Calvin Ruck’s The Black Battalion (1987) which celebrates the Canadian No 2 Construction Battalion which served in France, suggests that the unit’s chaplain (William A White) was said to be the only black officer in British forces in World War One. The list of officers and men in this book had Captain James Stewart Grant from Ottawa as a battalion member and on page 14 says he was Captain James Stuart [sic] Grant. The Times noted on 23 March 1918 that Captain J S Grant of the Nova Scotia Rifles had been transferred to the Canadian Forestry Corps.

In August 2014 two other soldiers have been “found”. The England-born son of American James Cooney served in the First World War according to his father’s obituary (see web page 139) as did the England-born grandson of escaped slave Nelson Countee (see this website’s page 129) according to the family’s historian who said the National Archives army files were destroyed by fire.

Said to have been enslaved on a Florida plantation Henry Parker escaped and eventually came to Bristol in the 1850s but all British census reports have his place of birth as Bristol: a photograph shows a clear African descent. He married a Bristol woman and their grandson Private Bertie Head was killed in action, 23 March 1918 according to a Bristol website using family papers. This soldier seems to have been 20 year old rifleman Edwin Thomas Charles Head, 318108 of the London Rifle Brigade who died on 23 March 1918 and is buried in Roclincourt military cemetery in France. Note June 2020: Albert ‘Bertie’ Head did die on 23 March 1918 but he served in the Gloucester Regiment and was buried in Chauny military cemetery – his name is on a memorial at his old school in Bristol.

John Eversley revealed details on a Captain in the RAMC. The Bahamas-born Dr Allan Glaisyer Minns was mayor of Thetford in 1904-1905 and with his brother took part in the town’s affairs. His son Allan Noel Minns was born there in 1891, went to the grammar school and then Guy’s Hospital, and qualified as a doctor in 1914. He volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Corps and was commissioned a lieutenant in September 1914. He was a Captain in March 1918, and served in the Gallipoli and Mesopotamia campaigns. He was awarded two of the top three British medals for bravery – the DSO for bravery at Sulva Bay in 1915, and the Military Cross in 1915. He was also mentioned in despatches. He died near Thetford in 1921 following a motoring accident. [Information from John Eversley and the Norfolk Record Office, the British Medical Journal 7 May 1921 and The Times (London) 8 April 1921.]

I advised those who see the BASA on-line news forum that photographs on westhampals.blogspot.co.uk/2012 show a black soldier. And that Thomas G Harper was a black speaker supporting British war aims who was noted in London’s East Ham on 22 July 1918. See greatwarlondon.wordpress.com. Or put Thomas G Harper into your search engine.

Kathy Chater in October 2014 alerted me to the  wartime silent newsreel in West Ham, London which shows a soldier of African descent (as well as Parson Chunchie, who established a home for Coloured Men in that area). It is on:


In March 2017 research into the Wilmington Singers of the 1880s (see page 085) led to the British family of Isaac Cisco (page 177) whose son George Washington Cisco served as private 37631 in the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment from April 1917 to February 1919. He died in 1935 in Bolton where he had been born in 1887.

Historians working in this area include (alphabetical order) Stephen Bourne, Ray Costello, David Killingray, Paul Reed and Howard Rye.

Bemand brothers added 26 February 2014 and the Masters brothers in April 2014, Grant in June 2014, Head in December 2014: Head correction: 22 June 2020.

Bourne’s Black Poppies (History Press, 2014) has many of these, and others, and photographs. This press also issued Sadler, Miller etc As Good as Any Man: Scotland’s Black Tommy (2014) an autobiographical account by Bristol-born Arthur Roberts of his service 1917-1919 in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and the Royal Scots Fusiliers. At the very end of 2015 Ray Costello’s Black Tommies: British Soldiers of African Descent in the First World War was published by Liverpool University Press. On page 53 are details of Private Harold Brown, M.M., of the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regt – http://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk. has details on line in 2020.

An unexpected source – glass plate negatives found in France in 2009 – has led to the 390 pp The Lost Tommies by Ross Coulthart (London: William Collins, 2016). There are nearly five hundred images, often nameless soldiers, including one young black fellow on page 56 and six images (some groups) from page 296 in a section ‘Black Volunteers’. Most of these men were in the Royal Engineers, others in the West Yorkshire Regiment. The local photographer was based in a French small town.          [added June 2017]

In August 1918 during the battle for Amiens in France 2nd Lt William Tobey of the 16th battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers recalled asking for three volunteers to collect the wounded Corporal Cave – ‘Three men stepped forward, one of which was the only black man in the battalion’ (Imperial War Museum recording, as noted in Peter Hart, 1918: a Very British Victory (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2008), p 356.   [added April 2019]

31 July 2020: Two black men who were slow in registering to join the British army in 1916 can be seen in a report in the Aberdeen Press of 6 March – the Stockton tribunal agreed to three months exemption for an animal trainer who was in sole charge of five lions and two wolves in a travelling menagerie – and in the Yorkshire Evening Post of 20 June 1916 which noted that 38 year old Harry Spencer (who had lived in England for eleven years) was charged with failing to register: he undertook to join the army immediately.

7 October 2010: Brigadier-General Horace Sewell, DSO and bar etc, is detailed on en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horace_Sewell. I was alerted to this Jamaican soldier by Roger Allen. He was known as ‘Sambo’ and during military associations with Americans was regarded as ‘coloured’. He died in 1953.

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