February 28, 2010

The Extraordinary Walter Tull

I saw a part of a docu-drama on TVOntario about Walter Tull  as part of Black History Month.  Walter Tull was quite an amazing guy. I’ll tell you a little bit about what I was able to find about him.

Born in Folkestone, Kent, England in 1888, Walter Tull was the first British-born black army officer and the first black officer to lead white troops into battle and the second person of mixed heritage to play in the first division of England's Football League.

Walter Tull was the son of Barbadian carpenter Daniel Tull and the grandson of a slave. Daniel Tull  arrived in England in 1876 and married the Kent-born Alice Elizabeth Palmer. They went on to have six children. They must have been a courageous couple. The English Census, unlike the U.S, makes no reference to their race.

Walter’s mother died in 1895, when he was just seven. Walter's father remarried but he himself died in 1897. Unable to cope with all six children, their stepmother sent Walter and his brother Edward to an orphanage in Bethnal Green, London.

Brother Edward was adopted by the Warnock family of Glasgow, and qualified as a dentist, probably the first black/mixed race person to practice this profession in the UK.


After finishing his schooling Walter Tull served as an apprentice to a printer. Walter was a keen footballer and tried out for Clapton, an amateur club in East London. In 1908-09 Walter was playing for their first-team. Walter Tull was then signed by Tottenham Hotspur. Tull was only the second black man to play football (soccer) in England.

In May 1909 Walter went on a tour of South America with Tottenham Hotspur and played games in Argentina and Uruguay.

Walter got considerable praise for these early performances. The Daily Chronicle claimed that "Tull's display on Saturday (against Manchester United) must have astounded everyone who saw it. Such perfect coolness, such judicious waiting for a fraction of a second in order to get a pass in not before a defender has worked to a false position, and such accuracy of strength in passing I have not seen for a long time. During the first half, Tull just compelled Curtis to play a good game, for the outside-right was plied with a series of passes that made it almost impossible for him to do anything other than well.”

However, after playing just seven first-team games he was dropped and played the rest of the season in the reserves, probably due to the verbal abuse suffered from the opposing team’s fans. He then transferred to Northampton Town FC.



When war was declared in 1914 Walter Tull enlisted in the army,  the first Northampton player to sign up. Walter had signed to play for the Glasgow Rangers Football Club in Scotland on his return.

During the First World War, Walter served in the Footballers' Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. The Army soon recognized Walter's leadership qualities and he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. He fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.Walter survived the Somme but in December of the year he developed trench fever and was sent back to England to recover. Walter 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, off he went to  the officer training school at Gailes in Scotland. Despite the 1914 Manual of Military Law specifically excluding "Negroes/Mulattos from exercising command as officers", Walter received his commission as a Second Lieutenant in May, 1917.

Walter Tull  fought in Italy in 1917–18, and was mentioned in despatches for "gallantry and coolness" while leading his company of 26 men on a raiding party into enemy territory. For bringing his men back unharmed Walter Tull was recommended for a Military Cross. He returned to France in 1918, and was killed in action on March 25th during the Spring Offensive. Hit by a German bullet,Walter was such a popular officer that several of his men made valiant efforts under heavy fire from to bring him back to the British trenches but his body was never recovered.

Walter Tull is remembered at The Arras Memorial, Bay 7, for those who have no known grave. He fought in six major battles; Battle of Ancre, November 1916 (first Battle of the Somme); Battle of Messines, June 1917; 3rd Battle of Ypres, July- August 1917, (Passchendaele, Menin Road Bridge); September 1917; Second Battle of the Somme, St.Quentin March 1918; Battle of Bapaume March 1918 (2nd Somme).

Pictures taken from the Ministry of Defence website. and http://www.rawpress.co.uk/About.html
and the BBC.

7 comments:

Laura in Paris said...

Very interesting! Great man.

Brian Miller said...

intriguing...thanks for finding and sharing his story...

Alistair said...

I've seen that dramatised documentary too. Quite an inspirational guy.

Worthy of a film I think.......

regards.....Al.

lettuce said...

really extraordinary, thanks for sharing this with us.

Diane said...

Interesting that two written records refer to his air of 'cool' before it became part of the vernacular. Tull was certainly exceptional. Thanks for sharing.

Lorenzo said...

A fascinating story and I like how you have dovetailed Sepia Saturday and Black History Month.

willow said...

You're right. He was an amazing guy! (handsome, too) Thanks, Hazel. Great post.