Football pioneer and war hero Walter Tull may be honoured at last


For the best part of 80 years, it was not just the body of the British Army’s first black officer that lay buried in the killing fields of northern France. Walter Tull, born in Folkestone to a Bajan carpenter and English mother in 1888, had also played as an inside forward for Tottenham and Northampton before the first world war. He died on 25 March 1918 near the village of Favreuil in the Pas-de-Calais region – one of 250,000 allied troops to perish during the spring offensive.

A series of events in Northampton this weekend will mark the centenary of his death, with the Football League backing a government-led project that celebrates Tull’s legacy. Starting on Monday, Tull 100 will offer small-scale funding to local groups in an effort to increase participation in sport among ethnic minority groups.

Tull featured on a special £5 coin in 2014 to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of war but his death was never mentioned in any official reports of the time. Until the mid-1990s when his family and the historian Phil Vasili began to look into what had happened to Tull and twin brother, Edward, the only evidence of his fate was the presence of his name on the Arras memorial for those who have no known grave.

“It wasn’t politically expedient to tell his story because he embodied a contradiction,” Vasili says. “The manual for military law said officers had to be of pure European descent and he wasn’t. It wasn’t until June 1918 that the army council said they would officially accept men of colour into British regiments. Honouring him when he died might have exposed the institutional racism that existed.”

After making his name with the amateurs of Clapton, Tull had enjoyed early success at Tottenham making 20 appearances, scoring four goals, before he was purchased by Herbert Chapman’s Northampton in 1911. In spite of the racism he faced from opponents and opposition supporters, he played more than 100 times for the club and became an established member of the side which regularly challenged at the top end of the Southern League.

Tull was among the first to sign up when war was declared in 1914. A member of the footballers’ battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, he fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant on 30 May, 1917 despite laws supposedly preventing him from doing so. Tull was cited for his “gallantry and coolness” during the Italian offensive of that year after safely leading 26 men on a night raiding party. Vasili believes he was subsequently recommended for a military cross but the ministry of defence has always maintained it has no record of that.





Walter Tull memorial



The Walter Tull memorial outside the Sixfields Stadium in Northampton. Photograph: Alamy

In 2016, Vasili uncovered fresh evidence that could suggest a reason for the army’s reluctance to recognise him in the form of a top-secret memo sent by a General White – the head of recruitment in New York – to the War and Colonial Offices. That made it clear any “wooly [sic] headed niggers” were not wanted for the forthcoming spring offensive that eventually led to the allied victory later that year. “We now refuse to post coloured men to ‘white units,’” the memo stated. “These ‘niggers’ must therefore go to native units if accepted. Can we take them for W Indies or other bns [battalions]?”

Northampton erected a memorial to their former player outside Sixfields Stadium in 1999 and still take the lead in remembering one of English football’s first pioneers. Vasili, who has recently published an updated version of his book Walter Tull, 1888‑1918, Officer, Footballer: All the Guns in France Couldn’t Wake Me, will also be speaking at a ceremony in the town centre on Saturday before a memorial service takes place at All Saints Church on Sunday.

Members of Tull’s family will be present and Vasili says they are fully in support of the campaign for him to be honoured posthumously. On Friday, a letter signed by 127 MPs including Jeremy Corbyn called on Theresa May to “right the wrong” and award Tull a military cross, although that would require a change to current rules.

There is, however, a precedent. In 2015, the United States awarded Medals of Honor to Henry Johnson, who was black, and William Shemin, who was Jewish, in belated recognition of their sacrifice during the conflict and Vasili hopes the British government will follow suit.

“It’s a carbon copy of Walter’s story,” he says. “When they were awarded their medals, Barack Obama acknowledged that we can’t put right the injustices of the past but we can say sorry for them to try and make amends. It’s long overdue recognition. I’m just hoping the MoD will take the lead from Obama and recognise him properly.

“By giving him his military cross it’s almost like a symbolic gesture to apologise for the injustices that other soldiers of colour have gone through.”



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