Lt. David Louis Clemetson was the first Black officer commissioned by the British Army.
While a few Black officers joined the army before him, Lt. Clemetson was the first to become a Lieutenant despite discriminatory barriers such as the 1914 Manual of Military Law, which prohibited officers of color from rising beyond the rank of sergeant. Apart from his pioneering military career, Lt. Clemetson is also remembered for acknowledging his racial identity at a time when Black officers often had to lie about their ancestry to secure their positions in the British military hierarchy.
Clemetson was born on October 1, 1893, to a wealthy family in Port Maria, Jamaica. His father, David Robert Clemetson, owned a sugar plantation, and his grandfather, Robert Clemetson, was a former enslaved person freed by his owner and eventually elected as a Member of Parliament. Ultimately, Clemetson’s family belonged to the Jamaican elite, and this heritage enabled him to access the most exclusive educational opportunities in Jamaica and Britain. Clemetson attended Potsdam School, a residential school for boys in Jamaica, and later went to Clifton College in Bristol, where he completed his military training and served five years in the Officers’ Training Corps. Afterward, Clemetson came to Cambridge University to study law, matriculating in 1912 at Trinity College. Clemetson participated in various extracurricular activities at Cambridge, including rugby, cricket, and rowing. He also competed in the Lent Bumps, an annual rowing race held on the River Cam in Cambridge.
After the First World War broke out in 1914, the then 20-year-old Clemetson was among the first men to volunteer to join the British Army. Had he chosen to complete his education in Cambridge, he would be able to return to a comfortable life in Jamaica as one of the wealthiest men in the country. Instead, he was adamant about defending Britain and enlisted in the Sportsmen’s Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, a unit seeking volunteers who were at least 6 feet tall with strong athletic ability. Many soldiers from former British colonies, including 16,000 West Indians, over 20,000 Nigerians, and one million Indians, joined the Allied forces as well, but Clemetson became among the very few Black officers in the British Army.
Clemetson was wounded while serving with the Royal Fusiliers, sent back to England, then transferred to the 24th Welsh Regiment of the Pembroke Yeomanry in 1915, where he became Second Lieutenant. During his appointment process, Clemetson was asked whether he was of pure European descent, which he denied despite being light-skinned enough to “pass” as white. A year before Clemetson, Jamaican-born George Bemand hid his racial identity during a similar interview to ensure his commission. Still, having received stellar recommendations about Clemetson, including one from FC Meyrick, a lieutenant colonel in the Pembroke Yeomanry, the recruiting officers were obligated to approve Clemetson’s appointment.
Lt. Clemetson’s first combat came in 1916 on the Macedonian Front in Salonika, where he survived artillery bombardments and was eventually sent back to Britain to receive treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. During his return, his hospital ship was torpedoed by a German submarine and sank off North Africa. Lt. Clemetson was destined to survive and was subsequently rescued and sent to a psychiatric hospital called Craiglockhart in Scotland, where he was possibly the first and only Black officer to receive treatment. In July 1917, a letter arrived from the War Office to Craigockhart informing Lt. Clemetson that he had been promoted to full lieutenant, the only Black person, to hold this rank in the British Army during the war. Lt. Clemetson returned to the frontline in northern France in 1918 but was killed six months later, just 52 days before the war ended. He was 25.
Lt. Clemetson is buried at France’s Unicorn Cemetery, and his name is listed on the war memorial in his hometown in Port Maria. He received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal posthumously. A friend of Lt. Clemetson’s wrote a poem called In Memoriam, which was printed in the Jamaican Gleaner a few days after his passing: