The Spurs star who died fighting for his country then was denied what he deserved


Herbie Russell 2020

* Update 071120: the likely site of the WWI grave of the soldier Walter Tull has now been identified. It is probably in Croisilles, Pas-de-Calais. More in the Amazing War Stories podcast (link below)

What is it about the British, bureaucracy and duplicity? HERBIE RUSSELL, left, tells the story of a talented footballer-turned-Army officer and a century-old wound that a government ministry could easily heal


JUST OVER A HUNDRED years ago a young English soldier and former Spurs football star, led an attack on German trenches in the First World War — and was brought down by machine-gun fire in northern France. His body was never recovered.

Such was Walter Tull’s bravery, he was recommended for a Military Cross. But his family was never able to collect the medal because in the event no posthumous award was given. Almost certainly it was because he was black.

More shockingly, despite campaigns over the years, including by Tottenham MP David Lammy, the Government still refuses the gallantry medal to the Kent-born grandson of a Barbadian slave. It seems to be a continuing insult to the memory of a courageous volunteer trooper who died a few weeks before his 30th birthday, not long before the war’s end.

Formidable: Walter Tull at Tottenham and, top, at left, with Army colleagues

Entrenched attitudes meant he was not the only person in the British Army to lose to high-level prejudice. General Wilfred A. White, who had a role in recruitment, wrote that he opposed allowing West Indians (although he called them not by their geographical origins but by a revolting word) to join the spring offensive that led within the year to Germany’s defeat.

The Manual of Military Law ruled out men not of “pure European descent” from becoming active officers. Yet Tull did, overcoming the racism of the British Army to be promoted to lieutenant. Probably the British Army’s first commission of a black person, it could explain why officialdom denied him the medal his colleagues — the men who had seen him in action — thought he deserved.

Asked during the preparation of this story for a comment, the Ministry of Defence has not yet replied.

Walter Daniel John Tull was born in Folkestone in April 1888. By the time he was nine, disease had killed both his parents and he was placed in a Bethnal Green orphanage. The youngster showed a talent for football, enough talent to get a game with nearby amateurs Clapton FC. Before long Tottenham Hotspur snapped him up in what one sportswriter called “the catch of the season”. Others used racist terminology.

Tull soon justified the praise: one Spurs match report said he had a “mastery over the ball that was astonishing”. He later signed for Northampton Town, making more than 100 appearances for the Cobblers. Playtime ended in 1914, when an assassination in eastern Europe sent the world spiralling into a devastating war. Tull volunteered for the army.  

Northampton’s commemorations of the English hero include a handsome memorial and his name on a street near the club’s stadium.

Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Dutch former Chelsea footballer, who has visited the battlefield where Tull fell, said of Tull: “He had to, and he wanted to, protect his country. How beautiful is that?”

Is it not time Walter Tull was given what he was due so long ago?

Published 040720

* Walter Daniel John Tull, born Folkestone, 28 April 1888, died Pas-de-Calais, 25 March 1918, aged 29. Since 2006 several campaigns have pushed for a posthumous Military Cross for Tull but the Ministry of Defence rebuffed the attempts because, it said, medals could not be awarded “beyond five years after the event”. In 2013 an online petition did not get enough signatures to have Parliament debate the issue.

* Backstory: Hackney drops black hero; How Loving Dalston raised threat to CLR James name; Black is bountiful; Harlem Renaissance Man; Caff that broke barriers for black writers

* Further material: an author who has written extensively on Tull is Phil Vasili (link). Walter Tull’s Scrapbook (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2013), by Michaela Morgan, is available in hardback, £600, or paperback £5.19. For a moving BBC TV report, press here. The podcast Amazing War Stories tells the story of the finding of Tull’s probable grave.

* A feature film, Walter’s War, scripted by Young Vic theatre director Kwame Kwei-Armah, was released in 2008.

* Photographs of Walter Tull kindly supplied by the Finlayson Family Archive.

* Emboldened underscored words in most cases indicate a hyperlink, a reader service rare among websites. If a link does not work, it is probably because the site to which the URL refers has not been maintained. Links to articles in The Guardian do not imply any approval of its past and slavery.

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One thought on “The Spurs star who died fighting for his country then was denied what he deserved

  1. I would like to thank Herbie Russell and Loving Dalston for reminding us of the remarkable story of Walter Tull.

    As a child I grew up with the story of his life. It was only as I grew older that I began to appreciate more and more the strength of character, courage and resilience Walter must have displayed to overcome the adversity and racism he encountered in his tragically short life, but still to have achieved so much. A true hero.

    * The authorities should do the honourable thing, even at this late stage. — Editor

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