Walter Tull — over the line | On this day

A century ago, as the First World War drew to a close, a Barbadian-British man named Walter Tull was killed on the battlefield. He was one of many thousands dead in the “Flanders clay,” but also unique: as James Ferguson writes, Lieutenant Tull was the first officer of colour ever appointed in the British Army, in defiance of race prejudice

  • Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

The British cemetery near the northern French village of Favreuil contains 401 graves, the last resting places of British troops and a handful of Commonwealth soldiers and Germans killed in the First World War. Its rows of tombstones, immaculately tended and surrounded by tall poplars, stand secluded by a low wall from the surrounding muddy fields and scattered villages. Nearby, lorries thunder along the motorway that links Lille to Paris. The names of the dead are recorded, and sometimes their ages, yet there is one name of a man who was killed at Favreuil that is missing: Second Lieutenant Walter Tull. His body was never recovered, and we must assume that he lies under what war poet Edmund Blunden evocatively called the “Flanders clay.”

Like many others, Tull died tragically young — he was twenty-nine — in a terrible conflict that was meant to end all wars. Yet his death — a century ago, on 25 March, 1918 — also serves to emphasise the exceptional strengths of a man who not only rose from the humblest of backgrounds but also shrugged off prejudice and abuse to set two significant records.

Walter Tull was the first mixed-heritage professional outfield footballer to play in England’s First Division (Arthur Wharton, a goalkeeper born in Ghana, preceded him in the 1880s). This he achieved despite losing his father — a carpenter from Barbados — and his mother by the age of nine. Walter and his brother Edward were sent from their home town of Folkestone to the National Children’s Home orphanage in London’s Bethnal Green. The Methodist orphanage had a football team, and it soon became evident that Walter had exceptional talent as what we would nowadays call a midfielder. Edward’s interests lay elsewhere, and he became the first mixed-heritage dentist to practise in Britain.

After leaving school at fourteen, Tull was apprenticed to a printing firm, but he continued playing football and was eventually offered a trial and accepted by Clapton, at the time one of Britain’s pre-eminent amateur clubs. In the 1908–09 season, when Tull was regularly selected, Clapton won the Amateur Cup. His prowess did not escape the attention of bigger, professional clubs, and at the end of that season he was snapped up by Tottenham Hotspur with a £10 signing-on fee and a weekly wage of £4.

Recently promoted Spurs got off to a bad start in the 1909–10 season, but Tull’s performance against Manchester United caught the eye of a Daily Chronicle journalist: “Tull’s display on Saturday 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.”

But something bad was soon to happen. On 9 October, 1909, during an away game at Bristol City, Tull was subjected to sustained and vicious racial abuse. A journalist reported: “A section of the spectators made a cowardly attack upon him in language lower than Billingsgate . . . Let me tell these Bristol hooligans that . . . in point of ability, if not in actual achievement, Tull was the best forward on the field.” After seven games, he was suddenly dropped from the first team. His biographer, Phil Vasili, speculates that Spurs’ directors were unnerved by “social pressures” — i.e. racism — and preferred to avoid further controversy.

With little prospect of first team football, Tull moved to Southern League club Northampton Town, then managed by fellow Methodist Herbert Chapman, later to become an Arsenal management legend. Tull played 110 games for Northampton, mostly as a half back, was considered by the Northampton Echo as “in the front-rank of class players in this position,” and was reportedly on the verge of signing for Celtic when war was declared.

Tull was the first of the Northampton players to enlist, joining the so-called Football Battalion, the 17th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. He was soon identified as an exceptional soldier and was rapidly elevated to the rank of sergeant. Posted to northern France in November 1915, he wrote to Edward: “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.” But this enthusiasm would soon be tempered when he suffered from shellshock and trench fever and was repatriated to convalesce.


It was at this point that Tull scored a second first. Military regulations, in the spirit of the times, explicitly stated that “any negro or person of colour” was barred from achieving officer status. As Vasili points out in his book Colouring Over the White Line, the Army’s top brass “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.” Yet, almost inexplicably, Tull was not returned directly to the trenches, but was sent to Scotland to train as an officer. In May 1917 he was commissioned as a lieutenant.

When he was dispatched to the Italian front, it was — as the excellent Spartacus Educational website’s article on Tull remarks — “an historic occasion because [he] was the first ever black officer in the British Army.” At the Battle of Piave in January 1918 he was commended in dispatches for his “gallantry and coolness,” providing inspiration to the men he led back to safety. Several weeks later, he was to be moved back to France to take part in the British offensive against German lines.

In the terrible churned-up mud of Favreuil, Tull was ordered to lead his troops on an attack on the enemy trenches. On 25 March, as his party entered No-Man’s-Land, he was hit in the head by a German bullet and died instantly. Such was the ferocity of the fighting that his men, despite several attempts under machine gun fire, failed to recover his body. It was never found.

In his brief life, the grandson of a plantation slave in Barbados had become both a path-breaking sportsman and, unprecedentedly, an officer in the (then) highly colour-conscious British Army. On 17 April, Tull’s commanding officer wrote to Edward: “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.”

Today, Walter Tull is commemorated by a memorial at Northampton Town’s stadium, a statue in Northampton Guildhall, and a blue plaque on the house where he lived during his Tottenham days. A series of books, articles, and a play have kept his memory alive since 2000, and in 2014 the Royal Mint announced the release of a commemorative £5 coin featuring Lieutenant Tull. A campaign for a posthumous Military Cross, however, has met with no success. Poignantly, too, he possesses no headstone in Favreuil’s tranquil cemetery, where many of those who fought alongside him lie.