Perhaps the most celebrated black soldier of the First World War was Walter Tull.
Walter Daniel John Tull was born on 28 April 1888. He was brought up, along with his brother, in a National Children’s Home orphanage in Bethnal Green, following the death of their parents.
Tull was the second person of Afro-Caribbean heritage to play in the top division of the Football League, the first Afro-Caribbean outfield player in the top division of English football, and the first to be commissioned as an infantry officer in the British Army.
Before the war, Tull played football for his local amateur team, Clapton FC. His talent was spotted and he went on to play as an inside forward for Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town. In March 1909 the Football Star called him “the catch of the season”. He joined Tottenham in 1909, and transferred to Northampton Town in 1911, where he made 111 first-team appearances.
During the First World War, Tull served in the Footballers’ Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, and fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant on 30 May 1917, despite the 1914 Manual of Military Law specifically excluding “Negroes“/”Mulattos” from exercising command as officers.
Walter Tull returned to France in 1918, and was killed in action on 25 March during the Spring Offensive. His body was never recovered.
On Sunday 11 July 1999, Northampton Town F.C. unveiled a memorial to Walter in a dedicated Garden of Remembrance at Sixfields Stadium. The epitaph, written by Phil Vasili, the author of Walter Tull, 1888–1918, Officer, Footballer. All the guns in France couldn’t wake me, reads:
Through his actions, Tull ridiculed the barriers of ignorance that tried to deny people of colour equality with their contemporaries. His life stands testament to a determination to confront those people and those obstacles that sought to diminish him and the world in which he lived. It reveals a man, though rendered breathless in his prime, whose strong heart still beats loudly.
The road which runs behind the North Stand at Sixfields Stadium is named Walter Tull Way.
In 2004, Tottenham Hotspur and Rangers contested the Walter Tull Memorial Cup. There is an ongoing campaign for Tull to be posthumously awarded the Military Cross, and his life story inspired Michael Morpurgo’s novel A Medal for Leroy. He is to be remembered on one of 6 commemorative five pound coins which will be issued as part of the First World War Centenary.