The legacy of former Tottenham Hotspur and Clapton footballer Walter Tull ahead of the 100th anniversary of his death
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This is an extract from Phil Vasili’s Walter Tull biography ‘1888 to 1918’ published by London League Publications
This weekend football will be commemorating the captivating achievements of a revered Black Briton Second Lieutenant Walter Tull.
He was killed in action at the Second Battle of the Somme – the last major German offensive of the First World War – on 25 March 1918, aged just 29.
The carnage shaped the 20th century. It wiped out a generation of young men causing immense emotional and physical devastation for individuals, families and communities.
Those killed were not brought back to the UK for burial. This denied closure with grief passing from generation to generation.
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When I met Tull’s niece, Jean Finlayson, in the early 1990s she was eager to emphasise that her father’s brother “hated the war”.
Tull’s body decomposed in Northern France, his story with it. Why were the unique achievements of Britain’s first Black working class officer so quickly forgotten? Simply – and bluntly – it wasn’t politically expedient to remember that a man of colour fought heroically on the Somme.
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The remained Army Council stubbornly opposed accepting men of colour into regular British regiments until June 1918, while 1914 Manual of Military Law forbade officers that were not ‘of pure European descent’.
Incredibly Tull received his commission in May 1917, just after he’d signed for Glasgow Rangers in the February.
He was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant because he was good at what he did and was respected by those he worked with who in turn trusted him with their lives.
In doing so they accepted he was their equal and more. And were prepared to put their reputations and lives on the line for him.
While fighting with live ammunition was new to Tull, his persona had been forged in battles long before he reached the trenches: the psychological struggle for dignity in an imperial order that demeaned people of colour; the emotional battle in dealing with the trauma of the death of his mother at seven.
If that wasn’t enough, the sudden passing of his father Daniel two years later piled grief upon grief with his removal, along with brother Edward, from his stepmother, brothers and sisters to Rev. Dr Stephenson’s Home – now Action for Children - in far away London, then the biggest city in the world.
Thirty three months later Edward was adopted by the Warnocks of Glasgow. His brother was the only person with whom he had spent all his life and now in 1900, he was gone.
Initially the fighting in France might have seemed like a continuation of the mercurial ups and downs that had so far characterised his brief existence: the adrenalin of the front line; the deep camaraderie and exhaustive, collective relief off.
But the incessant ambience and reality of horror soon overwhelmed. On his 28th birthday Tull was hospitalised to England with shell shock or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Yet, true to form Walter bounced back and returned within months. To the Battle of the Somme.
Bounce-back-ability was a characteristic feature. The target of extreme racist abuse against at Bristol City in 1909, he just played better.
An incandescent reporter wrote: “He is the Hotspur’s most brainy forward. Candidly, Tull has much to contend with on account of his colour. His tactics were absolutely beyond reproach, but he became the butt of the ignorant partisan.
“Let me tell those Bristol hooligans ... Tull is so clean in mind and method as to be model for all White men who play football ... In point of ability, if not in actual achievement, Tull was the best forward on the field.”
Having beaten his personal trauma into submission he volunteered for heroics in Italy.
Major General Sidney Lawford, Commander of the 41st Division, commended Tull for bravely leading a night mission across enemy lines in the Italian Alps: “I wish to place on record my appreciation of your gallantry and coolness.
“You were one of the first to cross the river prior to the raid on 1/2 Jan. 1918 & during the raid you took the covering party of the main body across and brought them back without a casualty in spite of heavy fire.”
His incredible resilience has a direct connection with the outpouring of love caused by the death of one of the 20th century’s greatest cultural icons, Muhammed Ali. As men of colour, they shared many qualities and experiences.
Both changed attitudes through sacrifice: Ali in getting people to see the idiocy of the Vietnam War and being stripped of his title as a consequence; Walter in getting people to see the idiocy of the idea that people of colour were inferior and White soldiers wouldn’t take orders from a Black officer.
And, being stripped of his life in the process. Both, against the odds, inspired positive change in their life time. Both have the ability to do this with their legacies after their deaths.
Ali’s story is rightly seared into popular consciousness. Tull’s is, at last, becoming known in Britain.
He was killed by a bullet from a German soldier. Yet his brilliance as footballer was remembered, ironically and cryptically, in that man’s country long after it was forgotten here.
Spurs had toured Germany in 1911. Such was Tull’s impact on a budding German international that he adopted the nickname Tull’!
Otto ‘Tull’ Harder became a poster boy of German football (and tried as a Nazi at Nuremberg!). As Sir Alex Ferguson once said, ‘football, bloody hell!’
I’ve no idea how important music was in Tull’s life. It has managed to soothe the pains of misfortune throughout most of our existence.
Yet, we might better connect with his legacy not though the prism of war but through the songs of Edwin Starr and John Lennon.
Both sang about the horror and destructiveness of war and humanity’s overwhelming desire for peace.
In these difficult and worrying times we look to role models to inspire. Tull was a man who made the impossible possible!
He has even inspired one of our greatest playwrights, Tom Stoppard to observe: “Walter Tull’s story is one of a myriad of lost histories that make up our national story and one of the most inspiring, resonating in the echo chamber of our national sport when a black footballer was the black swan in the beautiful game.”