‘Whether of pure European descent’

I did some researching at the National Archive in Kew yesterday, finding out a little more about the military career of P. G. Wodehouse’s brother, Armine, an officer in the Scots Guards. One of the documents I saw was his ‘Application for Appointment to the Special Reserve of Officers’. (Click the picture if you’d like to see a larger version.)


I’d never seen one of these documents before; maybe I was naive to be surprised by the fifth question on the application form, just after name, date of birth and marital status:

pure european

Of course, I realised that there would be assumptions in the Army about what shade of man was properly officer material, but I had expected these to be unspoken assumptions, a matter of a nod and a wink and a murmured  ‘He’s not quite one of us,’  about someone of possibly dubious heritage. I had not expected the racial question to be there on an official form.

A few years ago, I saw, and posted here, a copy of T. S. Eliot’s  American draft card:

eliot draft card

When I saw this, with its explicit racial question, and tear-off corner to make sure that recruits of different races would be kept apart, I remember that I allowed myself a moment of British superiority,  and a feeling that at least our racialism wouldn’t have been quite so blatant.

I guess I was wrong.

I’ve now started to wonder when this form originated.  When it was thought a priority to keep white and native officers separate, especially in India?

I’m also wondering how long that question stayed on the form. Was it still there in the Second World War? I trust that it’s still not there today. Does anyone know?


  1. Posted August 8, 2014 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    Was there any effort made to weed out the Jews?

    I remember reading an article in the early 1960’s in “Holiday” magazine about the author’s efforts to have his son accepted into one of the elite New England prep schools — one of the questions on the school’s application was “Is your son in any part Hebraic?”

    • Posted August 8, 2014 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

      The British Army in the Great War absolutely did not “weed out the Jews.” Entire battalions were made up of British Jews, and many individual Jews served in British Army regiments without any particular rejection or restriction. After all, one of the strongest voices among wartime poets was Lt. Siegfried Sassoon, MC, Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

      • J. Grant Repshire
        Posted August 14, 2014 at 9:05 am | Permalink

        Yet Sassoon was raised by his christian mother in the Church of England, and converted to Roman Catholicism later in life. He tried through most of his life to distance himself from his Jewish ancestry, in order to be accepted in the upper-middle-class circles he associated with – to include members of the officer corps.

        Issac Rosenberg, a poet serving as a private, wrote of experiencing significant anti-semitism from other soldiers in the ranks, even reflected in his poetry. Though not official, anti-semitism was a problem.

      • Posted August 14, 2014 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

        If Isaac Rosenberg suffered any anti-Semitism while in the army, it was likely only by a few individuals, no worse than the usual regional/personal jibes experienced often by soldiers regardless of origins.
        I came across the issue of Rosenberg and anti-semitism while interviewing elderly Great War veterans as research for my book, “THE BANTAMS:The Untold Story Of World War One.”
        Few surviving veterans of the 1lth Bttn. King’s Own Regiment, were aware of Rosenberg’s reputation as a war poet, yet they still remembered him as a comrade. They spoke of him as an untidy, polite, but painfully reserved man.
        “I vividly remember one morning sitting on a step in the support trench trying to talk with Private Rosenberg,” said the late Corporal Harry Stansfield. He [Rosenberg] always was a shy sort of fella, very quiet and seemed to keep to himself. He was writing and paid little attention to me. I wanted to show friendship because I think he thought he was often shunned because he was Jewish. Believe me, we didn’t think much about a person’s back¬ground one way or the other. When you were in the trenches, all we wanted to know was if you were a reliable comrade, or if you weren’t. Religion or race had nothing to do with it.”
        “I also well remember the other Jewish member of our platoon, Lt. Sternberg. He was from Manchester, where his parents had a large business. He was a very good and herioc officer, well-liked by us all. Unfortunately, he was killed while meeting a raiding party. That night we were out on the raid cutting wire, and things were going well, when suddenly a Very light gave an enemy sniper the chance to shoot. Lt. Sternberg was shot in the spine, and we abandoned the raid right then but we dragged his body back to our trenches.”
        “That same night, it was my duty to take rations up the line, and collect Mr. Stemberg’s body to take it back on the same limber cart for burial at Marizincourte Cemetery. I found it a difficult task,” said ex-Corporal Stansfield.
        “It was hard to hold the body on the limber, because of the rocky roads and of course, his rubber ground-sheet got in the way.
        Each man was issued with a rubber cape. This was first a raincoat, second a ground-sheet, and finally your coffin, should it be needed for such. The ground-sheet had lace holes all round, and laces to tie up the corpse for burial. Somehow, I managed to shove the limber back through the darkness, and felt very sad the whole time, as Mr. Steinberg was such a good officer.”
        * Isaac Rosenberg was killed by a German raiding party on April 1st, 1918, near St. Quentin.


  2. Alan Allport
    Posted August 8, 2014 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Unlike the US Army, which had very clearly defined racial demarcations, the British Army at the beginning of the Twentieth Century observed no definite rules on the question one way or the other (I am speaking here specifically of the British Army, not of Britain’s many colonial militias).

    Part of the problem was that there was little definite legal sense to draw on of how being a ‘white’ or ‘European’ British subject differentiated you from being one of the King’s many other subjects. What rules there were seem to have been interpreted flexibly.

    For instance, while the 1914 Manual of Military Law apparently excluded ‘negroes’ and ‘mulattos’ from exercising commissioned rank, Walter Tull the celebrated footballer was promoted to second lieutenant in 1917 (and died the following year during the German spring offensive).

    Apparently, between the wars, the War Office exercised an official policy that no non-whites could join the regular Army either as ORs or as officers, but it was a rule that was often overlooked in cases in which men of mixed or indeterminate race applied (the Army was so short of men that it could scarcely choose to be that picky).

    At the beginning of WWII, partly due to pressure from the Colonial Office, the racial bar was abandoned and so Joe Moody (son of Harold Moody) was allowed to apply for a commission in the Queens Own Royal West Kents. A few West Indian-born doctors were also allowed into the RAMC. These were rare cases, however. The Army never opened its ranks to the Empire in the same way as the RAF.

  3. Posted August 8, 2014 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    My guess would be in part to identify Anglo-Indians, a concern with very strong 19c. roots in Britain.

    • Roger
      Posted August 15, 2014 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      Quite a few army officers in the nineteenth century and after had Anglo-Indian ancestors- most notably Field Marshall Lord Roberts of Kandahar.

      Brigadier-General Horace Sewell who commanded the 1st Cavalry Brigade in WWI is said to have had black ancestors on his mother’s side and was nicknamed “Sambo”.

  4. Posted August 8, 2014 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    The application for officer’s commission asked the question, “British born ?” which was a matter of *nationality* not racism.

    • J. Grant Repshire
      Posted August 14, 2014 at 9:11 am | Permalink

      The question above that, number 5, asks if the applicant is “of pure European descent”: in other words, “are you white, with no other race in your ancestry?”

  5. Posted August 8, 2014 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    Tull was perhaps the first to answer no and still be commissioned, but others “passed” before (well, one at least). A chap named Bemand commissioned in the RFA. But then he was from a wealthy background and went to Dulwich College

    By the the 20s the first Indian King’s Commissioned Officers appeared (to distinguish them from the the previous Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers who were of lower status

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