Walter Tull - first black infantry Officer British Army - BajanThings

2nd Lt Walter Tull – first black infantry officer in British Army (1888 – 1918)

Walter Daniel John Tull was born in Folkestone, Kent, on 28 April 1888 to Barbadian carpenter Daniel Tull and Kent-born Alice Elizabeth Palmer.  In 1895, when Walter was seven, his mother died of cancer.

A year later his father married Alice’s cousin, Clara Palmer. She gave birth to a daughter Miriam, on 11 September 1897. Three months later Daniel died from heart disease. Clara was unable to cope with Alice’s five children (William, Cecellia, Edward, Walter, Elsie) plus her new born daughter Miram. The resident minister of Grace Hill Wesleyan Chapel, recommended that the two boys of school-age, Walter and Edward, should be sent to the National Children’s Home orphanage in Bethnal Green.  The eldest son William was working, and could therefore make his weekly contribution to the family pot.

Tull grew up in the orphanage in Bethnal Green. His football career began in 1908 for Clapton FC.  He went on to play for Tottenham Hotspur. He suffered quite a bit of racial abuse from the terraces. He then went on to play for Northampton Town.  Tull become only the second black player to compete in the Football League.  The sight of a black man lining up against (and running rings around) the league’s best defences was a novel one before the World War I.

When the war broke out in 1914 Tull was the first man in the team to join up.  He volunteered for the Football Battalion, part of the 17th Middlesex Regiment.  In November 1914, he was sent to Les Ciseaux in France.

In May, 1915 Walter was sent home with with ‘acute mania’ what we now know as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Walter returned to France in September 1916 and fought in Battle of the Somme, between October and November, 1916.

Walter Tull with fellow officers after being promoted to second lieutenant in 1917
Walter Tull with fellow officers after being promoted to second lieutenant in 1917

The orphanage had made him disciplined, football had honed his fitness, and having shown considerable leadership qualities while serving on the Western Front, Walter Tull’s courage and abilities encouraged his superior officers to recommend him as an officer.  On 26 December, 1916, Walter went back to England on leave and to train as an officer at Gailes, Ayrshire.  This was a considerable promotion for any man serving his country but of greater importance for a black man at that time.  This was a time when officers were not supposed to be black. They could only be privates and NCOs.

Walter Tull was promoted from Sergeant to Second Lieutenant in May 1917, becoming the the first black infantry officer ever to serve in the British Army.

After Tull was commissioned he was sent to Italy where he was mentioned in dispatches for “gallantry and coolness” while leading his company of 26 men on a night raiding party, crossing the fast-flowing rapids of the River Piave into enemy territory and returning them unharmed.

Soon after he was recommended for a Military Cross.

After their time in Italy, Second Lieutenant Tull’s Battalion was transferred to France to take part in a push to break through the German lines at Favreuil, in the Somme Valley.

A letter from Lieutenant Pickard to Tull's family telling them that he was popular with the men and had been recommended for the Military Cross in recognition of his bravery
A letter from Lieutenant Pickard to Tull’s family telling them that he had been recommended for the Military Cross in recognition of his bravery

On 25 March 1918 while leading his men forward to attack German positions at the Battle of Bapaume he was killed by machine gun fire.

His men tried to retrieve his body from No Man’s Land but they were beaten back by heavy enemy machine gun fire.  Second Lieutenant Tull was just 29.  His commanding officer broke the news of Walter’s death to his brother Edward saying how popular he was in the Battalion, brave and conscientious and that he had lost a faithful officer and a personal friend.

While there are no official records of the recommendations of the Military Cross award, letters to Tull’s family show that two officers said he had been recommended for a Military Cross.  A fellow officer, Lieutenant Pickard, wrote to his family: “He was brave and conscientious; he had been recommended for the Military Cross and had earned it; the commanding officer had every confidence in him and he was liked by the men.”

At that time a soldier couldn’t be awarded a Military Cross posthumously.  So Second Lieutenant Tull never got his medal!  This changed in 1979, however, no allowance was made for the award of the Military Cross posthumously prior to 1979.

Walter Tull’s body was never found and he is one of over 35,000 of soldiers from World War I who has no known grave. His name is inscribed on Bay 7 of the  Arras Memorial in Faubourg-d’Amiens Cemetery in Arras, France.

Northampton Town Football Club memorial to former player Walter Tull
Northampton Town Football Club memorial to former player Walter Tull

Northampton Town Football Club dedicated a memorial to their former player Walter Tull in 1999 and they named the road to Sixfields Stadium “Walter Tull Way”.

On one side the memorial reads:
Walter Daniel John Tull born 28 April 1888
1909 – Tottenham Hotspur FC
1911 – Northampton Town FC
1914 – Enlisted into 17th Battalion, 1st Football
1917 – The first black Briton to be commissioned a combat officer
1918 – He was killed at the second Battle of the Somme
He was awarded the 1914-15 Star and British War and Victory medals

On the rear is an epitaph written by Phil Vasili, that reads:
“Through his actions WDJ Tull ridiculed the barriers of ignorance that tried to deny people of colour equality with their contemporaries. His life stands testament to a determination to confront those people and those obstacles that sought to diminish him and the world in which he lived. It reveals a man, though rendered breathless in his prime, whose strong heart still beats loudly.”

Walter Tull’s story was also the inspiration for author Michael Morpurgo’s book “A Medal For Leroy” and is dedicated him.

Walter and Edward Tull. Phil Vasili/Finlayson Family Collection
Walter and Edward Tull
Phil Vasili/Finlayson Family Collection

In 2014 Walter Tull was featured on a five pound silver coin, produced by The Royal Mint as part of the commemorations of the centenary of World War I.  The silver coin shows a portrait of Walter Tull with a backdrop of infantry going “over the top” as a tragic reminder of so many men’s sacrifice, as the world continues to remember the centenary of the outbreak of World War I.

Both Walter Tull and his brother Edward Tull are forgotten Bajan heroes we remember.

Second Lieutenant Walter Tull was the first black infantry officer ever to serve in the British Army – at a time when officers were not supposed to be black.  Tull proved them very wrong.

For Remembrance Sunday in November, why not plant a Remembrance Cross in one of the dedicated fields of remembrance for 2nd Lt Walter Tull – Middlesex Regiment 5th Bn. attached to 23rd Bn. (formerly 17th Bn.).

Walter’s brother Edward Tull-Warnock was adopted by the Warnock family of Glasgow.  He qualified as a dentist and was the first black person to practise as a dentist in the United Kingdom.

Walter’s oldest brother William Tull also served in WWI and was a sapper.  He died in 1920 from tuberculosis thought to have been linked to being gassed during the WWI.

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