Sports

How one of Britain’s first Black footballers became a war hero

Earlier this year, 43,000 people gathered at Rangers’ Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow for a pre-season friendly. The match between Tottenham Hotspur and Rangers was to honor the memory of a footballer who had passed away more than 100 years earlier.

Walter Tull’s life had been extraordinary—a “proof”, according to Phil Vasili, the author of his biography, “of the determination to face those people and obstacles that tried to shrink him and the world in which he lived”.

Tull was born in April 1888 in the coastal town of Folkestone, England. His father, Daniel Tull, was a black carpenter from Barbados whose parents were enslaved. His mother, Alice Elizabeth Palmer, was a local white woman.

By the time Tull was nine, both his parents had died. So he and his brother, Edward, were sent to an orphanage in East London’s Bethnal Green. When Edward was later adopted by a family in Glasgow, Scotland, Tull was left alone.

He sought solace in the orphanage’s football team, where his skills attracted the attention of the local amateur side, Clapton FC. Tull joined them in October 1908 and soon inspired them to win the FA Amateur Cup, London County Amateur Cup and London Senior Cup. The Football Star, a London magazine, proclaimed him “catch of the season”.

Soon one of the country’s biggest clubs called. In the summer of 1909, Tull signed for Tottenham Hotspur, becoming only the third mixed-race player to appear in the top tier of English football, the First Division.

His first two games for Tottenham played as an inside forward against Sunderland and FA Cup holders Manchester United. During his brief stay in north London, Tull scored two goals in 10 games and was hailed by The Football Star as “Hotspur’s most astute striker … so pure of mind and method that he is a model for all white men who play football” .

But only 0.04 percent of the population of Edwardian Britain was black, and Tull faced racism from the stands.

There was one game at Bristol City in October 1909 when Tull was brutally abused. The Football Star reported that “part of the mob assailed him cowardly in language lower than that of Billingsgate” – a word that had become synonymous with foul language as used in London’s fish market centuries ago.

A team photo of Clapton FC, 1908-1909, including Walter Tull, seated second from right in the front row. This photo is a postcard that Walter Tull sent to his older brother Edward in Glasgow in October 1909 [Photo by Walter Tull Archive/Finlayson Family Archive/Getty Images]

Tottenham responded by dropping Tull into their reserve team. It is unclear whether this was for his own protection or whether the decision was made to appease the racist gangs, but Tull languished there for two years, until Northampton Town, a Southern Football League team, signed him in October 1911. .

Herbert Chapman, the manager who signed Tull, had his first football management job. He would go on to establish himself as one of the greatest ever managers in English football, winning four First Division titles with his famed sides of Huddersfield Town and Arsenal in the 1920s and 1930s. Tull would make 111 appearances for Northampton before his career was interrupted in the summer of 1914 by the outbreak of the First World War.

From football field to battlefield

In December of that year, Tull enlisted in the 17th Battalion of the British Army’s Middlesex Regiment. Known as the Football Players Battalion, it was created to show that professional football contributed to the war effort. By the spring of 1915, about 200 professional football players had enlisted in the battalion. They were joined by club staff, amateur players and even fans who wanted to fight alongside the players they were used to watching from the terraces.

Tull arrived in France in November 1915. Towards the end of 1916, he fought in the Battle of the Somme, in which more than a million soldiers were killed or wounded in four months. The British Army alone suffered about 420,000 casualties, including 125,000 dead. Tull survived but suffered “shell shock” and was sent home to England to recuperate.

By this time, Tull had so impressed his senior officers that before returning to France, he was sent to the officer cadet training school in Gailes, Scotland, which was contrary to military regulations that “any negro or person of color” forbade being commissioned as an officer. The military ignored their own rules to make the most of Tull’s talents.

While Tull was in Scotland he was approached by Rangers who signed him to play for them when the war ended.

By May 1917 he had risen to the rank of second lieutenant. Between November of that year and March 1918, he served on the Italian front, leading 26 men in a night attack during the Battle of the Piave River. Tull crossed the river with his troops in northern Italy into enemy territory before returning without suffering any casualties, earning praise for his “gallantry and composure” under heavy fire.

“He mocked the Army Council’s entrenched position that white rank-and-file soldiers would not follow orders from a black man,” said Vasili, Tull’s biographer. “[He was] a soldier who inspired such love contrary to ‘common sense’ notions and official rules and regulations.”

Tull moved to northern France on 8 March 1918, with the 23rd Battalion to be stationed near Arras. In the early hours of March 21, before sunrise, the Germans began to bombard the British and French forces in what was their spring offensive and their last concerted effort to win the war.

Over the course of five hours, 6,600 German guns fired 3.5 million high-explosive shells at British and French positions. Unwittingly, the British were forced to fight back in a defensive action that would last four months and inflict 418,000 casualties. Among them was Walter Tull.

On March 25, 1918, Tull was shot down and killed during the First Battle of Bapaume near the village of Favreuil in the Pas-de-Calais.

Under heavy fire, Private Tom Billingham, a former Leicester Fosse goalkeeper, attempted to retrieve Tull, but was unsuccessful. His body has never been found.

Ridiculous ‘barriers of ignorance’

The name of one of the first black players in British football and the first black officer in the British Army to lead a battalion of troops is inscribed on the Arras Memorial in France, alongside those of 34,794 other soldiers who lost their lives but did not did get a proper burial.

Tull’s Battalion Commander, Major Poole, stated that he would be nominated for a Military Cross, one of the highest honors awarded by the British Army, but he never received it. Vasili believes he has found evidence in the form of a top secret memo explaining the army’s reluctance to recognize Tull. In the memo, which contains highly racist language, the head of British Army recruiting in New York stated: “We are now refusing to send men of color to white units.”

It may have been a final example of the racism directed at a man who, according to Vasili, “ridiculed the barriers of ignorance that tried to deny people equality of color with their contemporaries”.

It took many decades, but Tull would be remembered. In 1999, a memorial to him and a memorial garden were created outside Sixfields Stadium in Northampton Town, while Walter Tull Way and a nearby pub were also named after him.

In October 2021, Tull was inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Manchester attended by his great-grandnephew Edward Finlayson and former Tottenham and England defender Ledley King.

“Since I heard about Walter Tull as a young Spurs player, I’ve been a huge fan,” said King. “He is a true inspiration to me and a pioneer to every black footballer who has broken through since then.”

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Merry

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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