2nd Lt Walter Tull

Football

Walter became 2nd Lieutenant Tull of the 23rd Middlesex Battalion; one of the first black officers to lead white men into battle'

Submitted by Louise Hannam-Jones History Curator at Northampton Museums and Art Gallery

Walter Daniel John Tull was born on 28 April 1888 in Folkestone, Kent to his father Daniel from Barbados, and his mother Alice from Dover. He was one of six children, but unfortunately both parents died by the time he was 9 years old.

Walter and his brother Edward went to live in the Children’s Home and Orphanage in Bethnal Green, London. The two Tull brothers soon adapted to life in the orphanage, both joining the choir and Walter joining the football team.

Football became an important aspect of Walter’s life, and at the age of 20, he joined Clapton F.C. in 1908. His ability soon attracted the attention of the professional clubs and a year later, Tull was appointed by Tottenham Hotspurs. Walter became the second black professional football player in British history. However, shortly after joining the club, Tull experienced racism from the Bristol City crowd at an away game.
Although the press supported Walter, he was dropped from the first team to the reserves at Tottenham. In 1911, Tull transferred to the Northampton Town Football Club or the ‘Cobblers’ as they are often referred to. Here Walter played over 100 matches for the first team and became the crowd’s most popular player.

When the First World War was declared in 1914, Walter was the first Cobbler’s footballer to join the army, enrolling with the Football Battalion (17th Middlesex Regiment). During training Walter was popular amongst fellow footballer soldiers and was promoted three times. On 18th November 1915, he departed Folkestone for France. Walter served on the front line for the next few months which lead to his diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and was transferred back to England to recover in 1916.

Walter returned to the war to fight in the Battle of the Somme. Following this, he trained as an officer and was recommended for a commission in 1917. Walter became 2nd Lieutenant Tull of the 23rd Middlesex Battalion; one of the first black officers to lead white men into battle. His battalion fought in the battles of Messines and Passchendaele, and on the frontlines in the Alps and the Somme.

In the last 100 days of War, the German Spring offensive commenced with the second battle of the Somme on 21st March 2018. In the days that followed, the 23rd Middlesex battalion were attacked under heavy fire, with large numbers of casualties recorded. On 25th March as the battalion retreated, sadly Walter Tull lost his life in the machine gun fire.
Fellow footballer Private Tom Billingham, Leicester FC’s goal keeper attempted to retrieve Tull’s body but was forced to leave him in order to save his own life.

Walter Tull is remembered on the Arras Memorial, Faubourg-d’Amiens. Back in Northampton, Walter Tull’s name lives on in many forms. As well as roads and buildings named after our sporting war hero such as Walter Tull Way and Walter Tull House, there are 2 physical memorials dedicated to Tull. These are the 1999 Northampton Town Football Club memorial at Sixfields Stadium, and the bronze statue of Tull himself in the Courtyard of Northampton Guildhall in 2017. A Centenary Memorial was held in March in 2018 at the statue to remember Walter Tull, who to this day remains a role model, from footballer to officer.