History January 23, 2019 at 05:00 pm

Heroic moments of the first black officer to lead white British troops into battle in WWI

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor January 23, 2019 at 05:00 pm

January 23, 2019 at 05:00 pm | History

Walter Tull is British Army’s first-ever black officer to command white troops and English football’s first black players. Pic credit: Sports Gazette

It’s been over a 100 years since the passing away of Walter Tull, British Army’s first-ever black officer to command white troops and English football’s first black players.

Yet, Tull, till today, remains one of the less appreciated heroes in Britain, and a campaign for him to be awarded the Military Cross has not seen the light of day.

For an orphan who beat all odds to break the colour barrier in English football and later becoming the first black officer in the army who was killed in action, his death should have received a lot of attention at the time.

Thanks to historian and biographer, Phil Vasili, Tull has been getting some sort of recognition, and in March 2018, a group of about 127 MPs wrote to the prime minister of Britain, asking that the medal should be awarded to Tull.

The group further described him as a “true British hero” whose “achievements in the face of the bitter prejudice that he faced throughout his life should be recognised and celebrated”.

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Walter Tull and family. Pic credit: Spartacus Educational

Born in Folkestone to a Barbadian carpenter and English mother in 1888, Tull went through a lot of challenges while growing up. His mother died of breast cancer when he was just seven and two years later, he lost his father to heart disease.

Tull and his brother were subsequently adopted by an orphanage in Bethnal Green, where staff urged Tull to develop his love of football. Tull’s brother would later be adopted by a couple from Glasgow, leaving Tull all alone in the orphanage.

He seized the opportunity to develop his footballing skills and went on to play for an amateur team, Clapton FC before signing for Tottenham as a young footballer in 1909. He became the first black outfield player to play in English association football, exhibiting his skills to thousands of spectators.

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Walter Tull. Pic credit: The Independent

But after a few senior matches, he got demoted to the reserves, largely due to the racial abuse he suffered. This cut short his career at Spurs and he went on to play for Northampton Town and Rangers before the start of the first World War diverted his attention to something else.

Tull joined the football battalion, part of the Middlesex regiment, got promoted to sergeant and fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, where he survived in the face of mass killings. In 1917, he started training as an officer in spite of the rules forbidding “any negro or person of colour” from serving in such a role.

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Battle of the Somme. Pic credit: Daily Express

From November 1917 to early March 1918, he served on the Italian Front, said a report by the BBC.

“It was here he was cited for his “gallantry and coolness” by Major-General Sydney Lawford, after leading 26 men on a night raid against an enemy position. He and his men crossed the cold River Piave into enemy territory before returning, all unharmed despite coming under heavy fire,” the report added.

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Walter Tull (first left). Pic credit: Daily Mail

After leading his company of 26 men to safety in Italy, Tull was cited for “gallantry and coolness”, even though he never received a Military Cross despite a petition supported by the former Tottenham striker, Garth Crooks, an article on The Guardian said.

On March 25, 1918, Tull was shot and killed in the early stages of what would be known as the German spring offensive. He died at the age of 29 while engaged in combat near Arras in Northern France and his body was never found.

The Walter Tull Memorial. Pic credit: BBC

Second Lieutenant Walter Tull is remembered at the Arras memorial for those who have no known grave. His name is engraved along with 34,785 other soldiers with no known grave, who died in the area between the spring of 1916 and 7 August 1918, the BBC report stated.

There is also a lasting memorial and remembrance garden in the shadow of Northampton Town’s stadium for the football star and war champion.

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