Here in the United Kingdom almost every week we hear stories of racist comments; sadly all too often on the sports field and not always by the spectators, whilst I fully agree that they have no place at all, I wonder if such people know the story of Walter Tull.
Walter, the son of a joiner, was born in April 1888 at Folkstone in Kent, England, Walter’s father, the son of a slave, arrived from Barbados in 1876 and married a local girl from Kent before the couple had six children. In 1895, when Walter was seven, his mother died and Walter’s father remarried, but died two years later, his stepmother could no longer cope so Walter was brought up in London at a children’s orphanage in Bethnal Green, along with his brother.
Walter is best known for being the second English Professional Football Player from an Afro-Caribbean mixed heritage to reach the top division, he played for both Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town, after his talent was spotted whilst playing for his local amateur club in Clapham South London. Walter Tull joined Tottenham in 1909 before moving to Northampton where he made over one hundred first-team appearances.
During World War One he joined ‘The Footballers Battalion’ the Middlesex Regiment where he served on The Somme and reached the rank of sergeant. Clearly, Walter Tull had leadership qualities, for on 30 May 1917, following an officer training course in Scotland, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Middlesex Regiment and became the first black/mixed race combat officer in the British Army. This happened despite the Manual of Military Law specifically excluding ‘any negro or person of colour’ from exercising command; regardless of this, it was his own senior officers who campaigned and ensured he was commissioned into the Regiment.
Walter Tull went on to command his soldiers in Italy in late 1917 and was noted for his gallantry and coolness by the Commander of the 41st Division, as he led a platoon of men on a nighttime raiding party and returned with all his men unharmed. It was during his time in Italy that Walter Tull was recommended for the Military Cross, but it was not awarded.
Walter returned to The Western Front in Northern France in the early Spring of 1918, as the German Spring offensive was gaining momentum. Walter Tull, aged just twenty-nine, was serving near the village of Favreuil; close to the Somme battlefield he fought on almost two years earlier, when he was killed leading an attack, his body was never recovered, despite the efforts of Private Billingham who tried to get to him while under fire from a strong German force.
In his short service, Walter Tull served with great distinction in many of the Western Front battles including the first Battle of the Somme; Battle of Messines and Passchendaele, Second Battle of the Somme, St.Quentin and Battle of Bapaume. Like so many Walter Tull has no known resting place and is remembered on one of the great memorials dedicated to such soldiers and officers. In Walter’s case, this is the nearby Arras Memorial.
But Walter Tull is not forgotten; In 2004, Tottenham Hotspur and Rangers contested the ‘Walter Tull Memorial Cup’ Rangers won the Cup after defeating Spurs 2–0; a road near the Northampton Town North Stand is called ‘Walter Tull Way’ and is currently a plan to make a film about the life of Walter Tull.