Walter Tull

1888 – 1918 football genius and war hero

Walter Tull, the son of a joiner, was born in Folkestone in April 1888. Walter’s father, the son of a slave, had arrived from Barbados in 1876 and had married a girl from Folkestone. Over the next few years the couple had six children. In 1895, when Walter was seven, his mother died; Walter’s father re-married but died two years later. The stepmother was unable to cope with all six children and Walter and his brother Edward were sent to a Methodist run orphanage in Bethnal Green, London.

After finishing his schooling Tull served an apprenticeship as a printer. Walter was a keen footballer and played for a local team in Clapton. In 1908 Walter’s talents were discovered by a scout from Tottenham Hotspur and the club decided to sign this promising young footballer. Walter was only the second black man to play professional football in Britain. The first was Arthur Wharton, the Preston North End goalkeeper.

Blue Plaque to commemorate Walter Tull installed in 2018 in Rushden where he lived 100 years earlier

Walter played for Tottenham until 1910 when he was transferred for a large fee to Northampton Town. Walter Tull played 110 times for Northampton Town’s first-team. Playing at wing-half, Walter became the club’s most popular player. Other clubs wanted to sign Walter and in 1914 Glasgow Rangers began negotiations with Northampton Town. However, before he could play for them war was declared.

Phil Vasili on Walter Tull the footballer

On the outbreak of the First World War Tull immediately abandoned his career and offered his services to the British Army. Walter, like many professional players, joined the 1st Football Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. The Army soon recognised Tull’s leadership qualities and he was quickly promoted to the rank of sergeant. In July 1916, Tull took part in the major Somme offensive.

Tull survived this experience but in December 1916 he developed trench fever and was sent home to England to recover. Tull had impressed his senior officers and it was recommended that he should be considered for further promotion. When he recovered from his illness, instead of being sent back to France, he went to the officer training school at Gailes in Scotland. Despite military regulations forbidding “any negro or person of colour” being an officer, Tull received his commission in May, 1917.

Lieutenant Walter Tull was sent to the Italian front. This was a historic occasion because Tull was the *first ever black officer in the British Army. He led his men at the Battle of Piave and was mentioned in dispatches for his “gallantry and coolness” under fire.

Tull stayed in Italy until 1918 when he was transferred to France to take part in the attempt to break through the German lines on the Western Front. On 25th March, 1918, 2nd Lieutenant Tull was ordered to lead his men on an attack on the German trenches at Favreuil.

Phil Vasili on Walter Tull the war hero

Soon after entering No Mans Land, Tull was hit by a German bullet. Tull was such a popular officer that several of his men made valiant efforts under heavy fire from German machine-guns to bring him back to the British trenches. These efforts were in vain as Tull had died soon after being hit. Tull’s body was never found.

*As late as 2007, most publications will state that Walter Tull was the first Black officer in the British army; this was before military research uncovered James Horton Africanus.

Walter Tull’s first match for Spurs was at their first division debut in 1909. The London team had crowds that numbered thirty thousand, and they thrilled to Tull’s skills. He was an inside forward, with the role of supplying the winger with good passes. The Daily Chronicle observed that Tull was a class above many of his team mates. It was felt that had Spurs obtained a decent winger then the combination would have been the best in England. Newspaper reports of Spurs matches refer to Tull as “West Indian” and “darkie”.

Jeffrey Green, Black Edwardians (1998)

Playing at inside left, Tull’s future looked bright. Then, in a game at Bristol City in 1909, he was racially abused by fans in what the Football Star called “language lower than Billingsgate”. The incident was deeply traumatic for Tull and the club. The following season, he played only three first-team games; the season after, he was sold for “a heavy transfer fee” to Northampton Town. There, Tull flourished again, playing 110 first-team games for the club, mostly at wing-half. He was probably their biggest star.

 The Guardian (25th March, 1998)

In 1914, he was on the point of signing for Glasgow Rangers, and then came the war. It was perhaps inevitable, given the spirit of muscular Christianity in which he was raised, that Tull should make a swift transition from sport to war. What was less inevitable was that he should conduct himself with even more distinction on the battlefield than on the playing field. Yet he did. He enlisted in the 17th (1st. Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, alongside many other professional footballers. By 1916, he had been made a sergeant. Among other actions, he was involved in the murderous first battle of the Somme. We can only guess the horrors he endured, but they did not break him.

“He was popular throughout the battalion. He was brave and conscientious. The battalion and company had lost a faithful officer, and personally I have lost a friend.

Walter Tull’s commanding officer in the 23rd Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, sent a letter to Edward Tull after the death of his brother (March, 1918)

In the last few years there has been growing interest in Walters’ life. In 1998 the Walter Tull Memorial Garden was opened next to the Northampton Town’s Sixfields Community Stadium. A film has now been made on Walters’s life, and there is also some indication that Dover Council intends to erect a commemorative monument to him.

Read more about Walter Tull

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