Walter Tull was one of Britain’s first black footballers and a First World War hero.
Walter Tull was born in Folkestone, Kent on 28 April 1888. His father Daniel Tull, the son of a slave had arrived in Britain from Barbados in 1876 and found work as a carpenter.
Daniel Tull married Alice Elizabeth Palmer. Over the next few years the couple had six children. In 1895, when Walter Tull was seven, his mother died of cancer. A year later his father married Alice’s cousin, Clara Palmer. She gave birth to a daughter Miriam, on 11th September 1897. Three months later Daniel died from heart disease.
Walter’s stepmother, Clara was unable to cope with so many children. The resident minister of Grace Hill Wesleyan Chapel, recommended that the two boys of school-age, Walter and Edward, should be sent to the Children’s Home and Orphanage in Bethnal Green. It was hoped that by placing the two school-age boys in the home, it would prevent the family becoming destitute. The eldest son William was working, and could therefore make his weekly contribution to the family pot, while Alice’s two girls – Cecilia, 13 and Elsie, 6 – could help Clara with baby Miriam and the domestic chores. In this set-up, Edward and Walter were liabilities: extra mouths to feed and bodies to clothe.
Edward left the orphanage two years later, was adopted by a Scottish family and became a dentist.
Tull’s football years
Meanwhile, Walter played for the orphanage football team, and in 1908, began playing for Clapton FC. Within a few months he had won winners’ medals in the FA Amateur Cup, London County Amateur Cup and London Senior Cup. In March 1909 the Football Star called him ‘the catch of the season’.
In 1909 he signed as a professional for Tottenham Hotspur, and experienced for the first time spectator racism when Spurs travelled to play Bristol City. According to one observer, ‘a section of the spectators made a cowardly attack on him in language lower than Billingsgate.’ The correspondent continued:
“Let me tell those Bristol hooligans that Tull is so clean in mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football whether they be amateur or professional. In point of ability, if not actual achievement, Tull was the best forward on the field”
Walter Tull was only the second black man to play professional football in Britain. The first was Arthur Wharton, who signed for Preston North End in 1886. At the time Wharton held the world record for the 100 yards and was the first black athlete to win an AAA championship. However, he suffered considerable prejudice from the football community.
In October 1911 Tull moved to Northampton Town where he played half-back and scored nine goals in 110 senior appearances.
Tull’s army years
When the First World War broke out in 1914, he became the first Northampton player to sign up to join the 17th (1st Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, and in November 1915 his battalion arrived in France.
The Army soon recognised Tull’s leadership qualities and he was quickly promoted to the rank of sergeant. He was initially billeted at Les Ciseaux, 16 miles from the front line. He had still not seen action when he wrote a letter to Edward Tull-Warnock in January 1916:
“For the last three weeks my Battalion has been resting some miles distant from the firing line but we are now going up to the trenches for a month or so. Afterwards we shall begin to think about coming home on leave. It is a very monotonous life out here when one is supposed to be resting and most of the boys prefer the excitement of the trenches.”
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 who 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.
This was a really big deal because according to The Manual of Military Law, Black soldiers of any rank were not desirable. During the First World War, military chiefs of staff, with government approval, argued that White soldiers would not accept orders issued by men of colour and on no account should Black soldiers serve on the front line.
Lieutenant Walter Tull was sent to the Italian front. This was an 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 25 March 1918, 2nd Lieutenant Tull was ordered to lead his men on an attack on the German trenches at Favreuil. 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.
One of the soldiers who tried to rescue him later told his commanding officer that Tull was “killed instantaneously with a bullet through his head.” Tull’s body was never found.
On 17 April 1918, Lieutenant Pickard wrote to Walter’s brother and said:
“Being at present in command (the captain was wounded) – allow me to say how popular he was throughout the Battalion. He was brave and conscientious; he had been recommended for the Military Cross, and had certainly earned it, the Commanding Officer had every confidence in him, and he was liked by the men. Now he has paid the supreme sacrifice; the Battalion and Company have lost a faithful officer; personally, I have lost a friend. Can I say more, except that I hope that those who remain may be true and faithful as he.”
Walter Tull was awarded the British War and Victory Medal and recommended for a Military Cross. His family never received the Military Cross however, as the Ministry of Defence has claimed that there is no record of the Military Cross recommendation in Tull’s service files at the National Archives.
Walter’s brother Edward Tull-Warnock campaigned for the Military Cross up until his death on 3 December 1950. In 2014 former Tottenham Hotspur footballer Garth Crooks joined the campaign to see Walter Tull recognised for service to his country.