Walter Tull was born in Folkestone, Kent in April 1888. His father, a carpenter and the son of a slave, arrived from Barbados in 1876, got married and started a family. But when Walter was seven his mother died and when his father died two years later, he and his brother Edward were sent to an orphanage in East London.
Both brothers found success. Edward was adopted and became the UK’s first black dentist and Walter, like a generation after him in Barbados, found success in sport. A keen footballer, he was scouted by Tottenham Hotspur in 1908 and signed to the club. He played there until 1910 before transferring to Northampton Town.
When World War 1 broke out, Walter abandoned football and joined the British Army. During his initial training, he was promoted three times and set off to France in November 1914 as Lance Sergeant Tull. His courage and abilities on the field of battle were such that his commanding officers recommended that he be trained and promoted to officer rank. Although the laws at that time forbade “any negro or person of colour’’ from becoming an officer, Walter received a commission as a lieutenant. He was the first Black officer in the British Army and the first man of colour to lead white troops into battle.
Mentioned in despatches for his ’gallantry and coolness’ under fire, he was recommended for the Military Cross but never received it for on March 25, 1918, he was killed in action. Then, after almost a century of anonymity, the tale of Walter Tull was unearthed and the Member of Parliament for Northampton South started a petition calling for Tull to posthumously receive the medal. In addition, Michael Morpurgo, author of the critically acclaimed ‘ War Horse’, has written a new novel, A Medal for Leroy, which draws heavily on Tull’s story.
Tull also took centre stage in the theatre production The Hallowed Turf which celebrates his achievements as part of Black History Month. In addition, former Premiership footballer Vinnie Jones, Oscar-nominated actor Tom Wilkinson and David Morrissey have agreed to star in a film celebrating Tull’s life.
This outstanding descendant of Barbados is also remembered on one of a special set of six coins released by the UK Royal Mint to commemorate the centenary of WWI. Phil Vasili is the author of the biography WalterTull 1888-1918, Officer and Footballer.