Walter Tull: Footballer turned Military Officer

As this week marked Remembrance Day, I wanted to share the amazing story of Walter Tull, one of the first black professional footballers and the first black army officer who served, and died, during the First World War. Whilst researching his story in more depth, I must admit I got quite emotional, even more so knowing he hasn’t received recognition since his death in 1918. Thankfully in recent years, there have been attempts to share his story, led by his grandnephews and nieces. I hope this blog post goes some way to adding to that recognition.

Walter Daniel Tull was born to Daniel and Anne Tull on the 28th of April 1888. Daniel was from Barbados and had moved to England at the age of 20. He settled in Folkestone on the Kent Coast, where despite facing initial prejudice due to his skin colour, had a successful career as a carpenter. Whilst attending the Grace Hill Wesleyan Chapel, he met Alice Palmer, and they married in 1880, with the consent of her family.[1] They went on to have six children, one of them being Walter, but sadly their oldest child died within a few weeks.

Walter had a happy beginning to life and the family were known to be close knit. Sadly this wasn’t to last as Alice died of cancer at the age of 42 in May 1895, leaving Daniel as a single parent struggling to look after them and work at the same time.[2] To show how much Daniel was accepted into Alice’s family, a niece of Alice’s called Clara moved in to help look after the children so the family wouldn’t be split up.[3] Daniel and Clara went on to marry and they had a daughter. Again heartbreak reached the family as Daniel died of heart disease in December 1897, leaving Clara to look after six children alone.[4] The situation was dire and Clara had to make the awful decision to place Walter and his brother, Edward, into care. They were placed into a home in East London run by Methodists on Clara’s insistence, hoping that there would be some familiarity in that, no matter how big the difference was in moving from the coast to the dirty and polluted capital.[5]

Walter Tull with Comrades (1914), Wikimedia Commons

Before any application could be sent to the home, the Reverend Stephenson, who ran the home, was made aware of the skin colour of the boys. He responded that it made no difference, they were very welcome, so long as poor relief board could contribute towards their costs, just as they did with the other boys in their care.[6] Care homes at that time made it hard for families to ever take their children back, as it was expected the families would financially compensate the home, the costs of which increased the longer children had been in the home for.[7] The home that Walter and Edward lived in also did this, but was well known for the kindness it was run with. The children well fed and taught trades for the future, as well as encouraging hobbies and sport, including access to their own swimming pool.[8] It was here that Walter found his love of football. He was often a player for the home in local amateur games, with which he competed in more after Edward was adopted by a Glaswegian family.[9]

Walter was first offered a trial by Clapton FC in 1908. This was a good place to start his football career, albeit on an amateur basis, as Clapton was seen as one of the best amateur teams of the time.[10] Walter proved his worth for the team as he helped contribute to them winning the FA Amateur Challenge Cup, London Senior Cup and London Amateur Cup that season.[11] Tottenham soon signed him up as a professional in July 1909, so that he could join them in a football tour of Argentina, before he made his English debut for the team in September.[12] Within a month, he was racially abused by Bristol City supporters at an away match, which made all the national newspapers.[13] Soon after he was dropped from Tottenham’s first team and placed into the reserves, which he did continue to make appearances for, although on a smaller scale than he envisioned. Whilst playing one of these reserve matches against Northampton Town in February 1911, Walter again showed his talent for the game. He scored a hat trick in a 7-1 victory against Northampton.[14] It impressed the club and they signed him up for the next season. He played just over 100 matches for the team before the First World War.[15]

In December 1914, just four months after Britain entered the First World War, Walter enlisted in what was known as the Football Battalion, a battalion made up of footballers from all over the country. Within two months, he was promoted to the position of Lance Corporal, and then promoted again to Lance Sergeant.[16] In May 1916, he was invalided back to England due to shell shock, although the Northampton Mercury newspaper also reported that he was suffering from pneumonia.[17] Despite this, he returned to the fighting and took part in the Battle of Ancre, the first and second Battle of the Somme, Battle of Messines, Battle of Passchendaele and first Battle of Bapaume.[18]

First World War Football Battalion Recruitment Poster, Wikimedia Commons

With the bravery shown in battle, he was again promoted to the rank of Sergeant in 1916. He was recommended for an officer’s training course and became a Second Lieutenant in May 1917 after showing good leadership skills.[19] This went against the Army Council’s rules of only allowing those of European descent of becoming officers. The Council also said that black people should be placed in their own regiments and not mix with white people, but Walter’s example went against this as he first led white men at the Battle of Passchendaele.[20]

Whilst stationed in Northern Italy towards the end of 1917, he successfully led men on night time reconnaissance missions to gather information on German positions. Each time he did this the party came back without any casualties.[21] For this he was mentioned in dispatches and put forward by Major General Sydney Lawford for a military cross, but he didn’t receive one.[22] It’s thought he didn’t receive one as due to the Army Council’s rules.[23]

Walter was killed at Arras on 25th March 1918 during what is known as the German Spring Offensive, which was the German’s last attempt to regain control towards the end of the war. It’s reported that Private Tom Billingham, a former goalkeeper for Leicester Fosse, attempted to bring Walter’s body back to the British lines but was unable to, meaning he was unable to have a grave.[24] His name is instead mentioned on the memorial wall at the Faubourg d’Amiens cemetery in Arras.[25]

Newns, T., Epitaph of Walter Tull at the Sixfields Stadium in Northampton (2009), Wikimedia Commons

That could easily have been the last people heard of Walter, but there have been efforts to increase public awareness of his achievements in football and his sacrifice during the First World War. Northampton Town have a memorial set up outside their stadium, as well as the road that leads to their stadium being named Walter Tull Way.[26] To mark centenary celebrations of the First World War between 2014 and 2018, a special £5 coin and stamp with Walter’s face on were created.[27] Most recently, Walter was finally inducted into the Football Hall of Fame on the 20th of October 2021, with the award being collected by his grandnephew Edward Finlayson, the grandson of Walter’s brother, Edward.[28]

Whilst I am very pleased that Walter’s story has become more well known since the centenary, I must admit I was disappointed to learn that he has still not received a military cross for his bravery, despite the possible reason for his colour not allowing him to be granted one in his lifetime. A petition was set up in 2013 but didn’t receive enough signatures.[29] The granting of a military cross would be the next logical, and deserved, step in remembering the legacy of Walter Tull and the achievements he made despite the obstacles of racism and poverty he had. If any campaign is reignited for Walter to be granted a military cross, I will be right behind it as I feel he definitely deserves one.


[1] Wynn, S., Against All Odds: Walter Tull, The Black Lieutenant (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2018), p. 2

[2] Ibid, p. 3.

[3] Ibid, p. 3.

[4] Ibid, pp. 3-4.

[5] Ibid, p. 4.

[6] Ibid, p. 4.

[7] Ibid, pp. 4-5.

[8] Ibid, p. 7.

[9] Ibid, pp. 7-9.

[10] National Football Museum, ‘Walter Tull Inducted Into Hall of Fame’, 19 October 2021, https://www.nationalfootballmuseum.com/news/walter-tull-induction/

[11] Wynn, S., Against All Odds, p. 9.

[12] Ibid, p. 10.

[13] Ibid, pp. 18-19.

[14] Ibid, p. 21.

[15] Ibid, p. 21.

[16] Ibid, p. 33.

[17] Ibid, p. 36.

[18] Ibid, p. 36.

[19] Ibid, p. 41.

[20] Ibid, p. 41; Aarons, E., ‘Walter Tull: Why the Black Footballing Pioneer was Denied a Military Cross’, The Guardian, 3 February 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/feb/03/walter-tull-black-football-pioneer-military-cross-tottenham

[21] Wynn, S., Against All Odds, pp. 41-42.

[22] Ibid, p. 42.

[23] Conway, R. and Lockwood, D., ‘Walter Tull: The Incredible Story of a Football Pioneer and War Hero’, BBC Sport, 23 March 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/43504448

[24] Ibid.

[25] Walter Tull Archive, https://waltertullarchive.com/a-brief-history/

[26] Wynn, S., Against All Odds, p. 23.

[27] Aarons, E., ‘Walter Tull: Why the Black Footballing Pioneer was Denied a Military Cross’, The Guardian, 3 February 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/feb/03/walter-tull-black-football-pioneer-military-cross-tottenham

[28] National Football Museum, ‘Walter Tull Inducted Into Hall of Fame’, 19 October 2021, https://www.nationalfootballmuseum.com/news/walter-tull-induction/

[29] Wynn, S., Against All Odds, p. 54.

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