Wars often bring about social change, or at least mark the start of a change in attitudes, and the First World War brought many, including the first black officer in the British army – Walter Daniel John Tull.
Tull was born in Folkestone, Kent, in 1888, the son of Daniel Tull, a Barbadian carpenter, and English-born Alice Palmer. His grandfather had been a slave in Barbados.
Daniel and Alice had six children, but Alice died of cancer in 1895 when Tull was aged seven and a year later his father married her cousin, Clara Palmer.
Clara gave birth to a daughter in 1897, but Daniel died from heart disease just three months later and Clara found herself unable to cope with such a large family on her own. The minister at the local Wesleyan Chapel recommended that Walter and his brother Edward be sent to the Children’s Home and Orphanage (CHO) in Bethnal Green, London.
The brothers spent two years in the orphanage but were separated when Edward was adopted by a family in Glasgow. Tull was devastated by the separation and, as an aside, Edward went on to become the first person of mixed heritage to practice dentistry in the UK.
Walter Tull was apprenticed in the CHO print shop and left school at fourteen to work in the printing industry, but his great love was playing football and when he was twenty he joined Clapton, a successful amateur team, and helped them win three trophies. Such was the impact he made that four months later he was to join Tottenham Hotspur on a tour of South America.
On his return, he was paid a £10 signing-on fee and wages of £4 a week to join the club. Tull made his debut against Sunderland in September 1909, so becoming just the third black player to appear in the highest level of the game in England.
The Daily Chronicle said of him: ‘Tull has been charged with being slow, but there never was a footballer yet who was really great and always appeared to be in a hurry. Tull did not get the ball and rush on into trouble. He let his opponents do the rushing, and defeated them by side touches and side-steps worthy of a professional boxer. Tull is very good indeed.’
Sadly Tull had to endure racial abuse from the crowds, particularly in a match against Bristol City as reported by the Chronicle: ‘A section of the spectators made a cowardly attack upon him in language lower than Billingsgate…Let me tell these Bristol hooligans that Tull is so clean in mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football whether they be amateur or professional. In point of ability, if not in actual achievement, Tull was the best forward on the field.’
How badly this affected him we can only speculate, but Tull was dropped to the reserves. He was then signed for Northampton Town by Herbert Chapman who famously went on to manage Arsenal. Tull played 110 games for the club becoming one of its most popular players and a monument to him can be seen outside the Sixfield ground.
Tull was on the verge of signing for Glasgow Rangers when war was declared in 1914 and instead he enlisted with the Football Battalion, part of the Middlesex Regiment. The Army recognised his leadership qualities and he was quickly promoted to the rank of sergeant.
He arrived in France in November 1915 and like so many others, he found life in the trenches difficult. In May 1916 he was sent home suffering from shellshock, but recovered and returned in time to take part in the ill-fated Battle of the Somme in September the same year. Tull again fell ill, this time from trench fever, and was sent home to recuperate.
But Tull had impressed his senior officers and instead of returning to France, he was sent to officer training school at Gailes in Scotland. He was commissioned in May 1917, despite the 1914 Manual of Military Law specifically excluding soldiers that were ‘not of pure European descent’ from becoming commissioned officers. This was on the grounds that white soldiers would not accept orders from a black officer.
As Lieutenant Walter Tull, he proved them wrong when he was sent to the Italian front where he led his men at the Battle of Piave and was mentioned in dispatches: ‘You were one of the first to cross the river Piave prior to the raid on 1st-2nd January 1918 and during the raid you took the covering party of the main body across and brought them back without a casualty in spite of heavy fire.’
He was transferred to France and on 25th March 1918 he led an attack on Favreuil and was hit by a German bullet. His men tried to bring him back to the trenches, despite heavy machine-gun fire, but they were driven back and Tull’s body was never found.
In a letter to his brother Edward, a fellow lieutenant wrote: ‘He was brave and conscientious; he had been recommended for the Military Cross, and had certainly earned it, the Commanding Officer had every confidence in him, and he was liked by the men. 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.’
That Tull did not receive the Military Cross is a matter of some controversy. In his 2009 biography, author Phil Vasili says: ‘Walter Tull was made an officer at a time when the Army was desperately short of men of officer material. I’m convinced that to have given him his Military Cross would have admitted to the powers-that-be at the War Office that rules had been broken in commissioning a black man.’
Tull’s brother Edward campaigned for a posthumous award of the MC until his death in 1950 and Michael Morpurgo, author of Warhorse, began an online petition to this effect. He also hopes that there might one day be a statue of Tull outside the Imperial War Museum as ‘a tribute to one man’s fight against prejudice and evil and an inspiration to new generations.’
For now, the recognition he deserves came in 2014 when Tull appeared on a £5 coin by the Royal Mint as part of the commemoration of the First World War.