Death of Walter Tull, 1918
Walter Daniel John Tull (1888-1918) was an army officer and English professional footballer who played for Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town. He has been described as ‘the second person of Afro-Caribbean mixed heritage to play in the top division of the Football League, the first Afro-Caribbean/mixed heritage outfield player in the top division of English football, and the first to be commissioned as an infantry officer in the British Army’.
Tull’s parents were Daniel, a carpenter who was born in Barbados and in 1876 settled in Folkestone, and Alice Palmer, both of whom died in the late 1890s. Walter was born in Folkestone, Kent, and – along with his brother, Edward - was placed in the children’s home and orphanage in Bonner Road, Bethnal Green, on 24 February 1898. He served an apprenticeship as a printer but quickly made his name as a footballer, joining Tottenham in 1909, and transferring to Northampton Town in 1911. According to his biographer, Phil Vasili, one contemporary (but anonymous) journalist reported that he had ‘much to contend against on account of his colour’, the same reporter noting during a match at Bristol in October 1909 that he received ‘a cowardly attack on him in language lower than Billingsgate’. Yet, ‘Tull is so clean in mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football’.
After the outbreak of the First World War, he enlisted in the British army, being appointed lance-corporal in the 17th (1st football) battalion, the Middlesex regiment and promoted to corporal then lance-sergeant. After hospitalisastion for shell shock he returned to action in September 1916 and fought in the battle of the Somme. He then returned to Britain for officer training and subsequently rejoined the 23rd battalion of the Middlesex regiment as a second lieutenant. His biographer states: ‘Not only was it virtually impossible for a man of colour to be commissioned an officer, but the Manual of Military Law, 1914 stated that ‘aliens [including blacks must] … not … exercise any actual command or power’ (p. 471).
He died, unmarried, on 25 March 1918, after being shot near Favreuil, France, during the second battle of the Somme. Subsequently the commanding officer of the 23rd battalion recommended him for a Military Cross. Vasili comments that ‘Tull, through his actions, ridiculed those barriers that tried to deny people of colour equality with their contemporaries, revealing the shallow substance of these obstacles by the strength of his integrity’.