Sport Remembers Walter Tull, footballer

Against the odds - Walter Tull’s remarkable career as a footballer and a soldier

The first mixed-race combat officer in the British Army, Walter Tull was also associated with another fascinating piece of military history: he fought in the Football Battalion – a unit created for professional footballers turned soldiers.

Walter Tull was born in Folkestone, Kent, in 1888, the son of a Barbadian father and an English mother. Tull became one of the first black professional footballers in the UK, playing for Clapton, Tottenham and Northampton Town football clubs during his career.

Until the outbreak of the war in 1914, Tull made 111 appearances for Northampton Town, earning the maximum allowable wage for a footballer of £4 per week. He then joined the Football Battalion created for professional footballers as part of the Pals battalion scheme. Around 2,000 footballers came forward and nearly half were to lose their lives.

Walter Tull during his time playing for Tottenham Hotspur Football Club (c. 1910)

Walter Tull during his time playing for Tottenham Football Club (c. 1910)

The Army soon recognised Tull's leadership qualities and he was quickly promoted to the rank of Sergeant, going on to fight in the Battle of the Somme with the 2nd Football Battalion (23rd Battalion, Middlesex Regiment).

After surviving the conflict that took so many lives, Tull trained to become an officer in 1917 and was made a Second Lieutenant. He was the first mixed-race combat officer in the British Army, despite military regulations forbidding “any negro or person of colour” being an officer. At the time, military chiefs and the Government believed that white men would not take orders from a non-white officer – Tull was to prove them wrong.

Tull fought in Italy between 1917 and 1918. During this time, he was commended for his "gallantry and coolness" for leading 26 men on a night mission, crossing the fast-flowing rapids of the River Piave into enemy territory and returning his men unharmed. Soon after this, Tull was recommended for a Military Cross.

He returned to northern France in 1918 but was killed in action on 25 March during the Spring Offensive, near the village of Favreuil in the Pas-de-Calais. His body was never recovered, despite the efforts of his comrades.

His name appears on the Arras Memorial and a memorial to him was unveiled in 1999 at Northampton Town FC's ground.

"He was brave and conscientious… we have lost a faithful officer and, personally, I have lost a friend." Walter Tull's Commanding Officer

In 2014, Walter Tull was commemorated in a limited edition £5 coin from the Royal Mint, issued on the Centenary of Britain’s entry into the First World War. Make your own commemoration to Walter or one of the other casualties of the First World War by simply placing a virtual poppy in their memory on our Every Man Remembered website.

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Find out more about commemorative events for the centenary and how to get involved.

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