Spartacus Blog

Walter Tull: Football and War Hero

John Simkin

Walter Tull was a successful professional footballer in 1914. He had joined Tottenham Hotspur in 1909. He was only the second black man to play professional football in Britain. The first was Arthur Wharton, who signed for Preston North End in 1886. At the time Wharton held the world record for the 100 yards and was was the first black athlete to win an AAA championship. (1) However, he suffered considerable prejudice from the football community. Athletic News, the leading football newspaper in the country, commented: "Good judges say that if Wharton keeps goal for Preston North End in their English Cup tie the odds will be considerably lengthened against them. I am of the same opinion ... Is the darkie's pate too thick for it to dawn upon him that between the posts is no place for a skylark? By some it's called coolness - bosh!" (2)

On 20th July, 1909, he was paid a £10 signing-on fee (the maximum allowed). Tull was also paid the maximum wage of £4 per week. This had been imposed by the the Football Association in May 1900. It also abolished the paying of all bonuses to players. These restrictions upset professional footballers and in January 1909, the players formed the Association Football Players Union. Led by Billy Meredith, Charlie Roberts, Charlie Sagar, Sandy Turnbull, the leading players at Manchester United, the AFPU threatened strike action unless they were allowed to negotiate their own wages. However, the AFPU were unsuccessful in its campaign to increase footballer's wages. (3)

Walter Tull: Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham Hotspur had just been promoted to the First Division of the Football League. Tull made his debut against Sunderland. Spurs lost 3-1 and they suffered a second defeat against Everton the following week. Jeffrey Green, the author of Black Edwardians (1998) commented: "Walter Tull's first match for Spurs was at their first division debut in 1909. The London team had crowds that numbered thirty thousand, and they thrilled to Tull's skills. He was an inside forward, with the role of supplying the winger with good passes. The Daily Chronicle observed that Tull was a class above many of his team mates. It was felt that had Spurs obtained a decent winger then the combination would have been the best in England. Newspaper reports of Spurs matches refer to Tull as 'West Indian' and 'darkie'. " (4)

They got their first point with a 2-2 draw against Manchester United. In this game Tull caused the opposition defence serious problems and was brought down for a penalty. Tull got considerable praise for this performance against Manchester United. One national newspaper, The Daily Chronicle, reported that "Tull's display on Saturday must have astounded everyone who saw it. Such perfect coolness, such judicious waiting for a fraction of a second in order to get a pass in not before a defender has worked to a false position, and such accuracy of strength in passing I have not seen for a long time. During the first half, Tull just compelled Curtis to play a good game, for the outside-right was plied with a series of passes that made it almost impossible for him to do anything other than well." The newspaper went on to discuss other aspects of his play: "Tull has been charged with being slow, but there never was a footballer yet who was really great and always appeared to be in a hurry. Tull did not get the ball and rush on into trouble. He let his opponents do the rushing, and defeated them by side touches and side-steps worthy of a professional boxer. Tull is very good indeed." (5)

Walter Tull at Tottenham Hotspur
Walter Tull at Tottenham Hotspur

Walter Tull scored his first goal against Bradford City a week later. The Daily Chronicle pointed out that he was "a class superior to that shown by most of his colleagues". In a game against Bristol City on 9th October 1909, Tull was racially taunted by the crowd: "A section of the spectators made a cowardly attack upon him (Walter Tull) in language lower than Billingsgate...Let me tell these Bristol hooligans (there were but few of them in a crowd of nearly twenty thousand) that Tull is so clean in mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football whether they be amateur or professional. In point of ability, if not in actual achievement, Tull was the best forward on the field." (6)

However, after playing just seven first-team games he was dropped and played the rest of the season in the reserves. Phil Vasili has raised questions about the reasons for his demotion: "Quite why Tull was never given another chance in the first team that season remains open to speculation, so I will. All that's certain is that he was good enough, when on form, to have merited selection. And there is nothing in the contemporary match reports to suggest a sustained loss of confidence. Wider social pressures may have played a role, especially if the racial abuse Tull received at Bristol was unnerving ambitious directors." (7)

Northampton Town

In the 1910-11 season he played in only three games. This included a goal against Manchester City. He also scored 10 goals in 27 league games with the reserves. Disillusioned by his lack of first-team appearances he was transferred for what was said to be a "heavy transfer fee" to Northampton Town in the Southern League. He was signed by Herbert Chapman who was later to become a highly successful manager of Huddersfield Town and Arsenal. Chapman had originally played under Britain's first black player Arthur Wharton, when he was the coach of Stalybridge Rovers. Chapman, Tull and Wharton were all from Methodist backgrounds.

Chapman was only 30 years old in 1910 and created a revolution in football with his coaching methods. When he joined the club as a player in 1907 they were at the bottom of the Southern League. At the time the club was without a manager. As Chapman appeared to be an intelligent man it was suggested by the directors that he should become player-manager. He agreed to do the job on a temporary basis as he still wanted to work full-time as a mining engineer. (8)

At that time tactics were traditionally left to players to work out on the field. Chapman believed in discussing tactics before a game started. For example, Chapman noticed that teams had a tendency to defend in large numbers. Chapman devised a method of playing that drew the opposing defenders from their own goal, and then to hit them on the counter-attack. The strategy was highly successful and that season Northampton Town managed to avoid relegation. The following season they won the Southern League championship with a record 25 wins from 40 games, a record 55 points, and a record 90 goals.

Walter Tull at Tottenham Hotspur
Walter Tull

Chapman was always looking to strengthen his side and spent most of his spare-time watching football games. It was when he was watching Tottenham Hotspur reserves that he discovered Walter Tull. Chapman took great care in recruiting players: "I am always sorry for clubs who have to act hurriedly in seeking a new player, for under the most favourable conditions it is a tricky business and demands the closest consideration. It is not enough that a man should be a good player. There are all sorts of other important factors which have to be taken into account. This takes time. The longer I have been on the managerial side of the game, the more I am convinced that all-round intelligence is one of the highest qualifications of the footballer." (9)

Tull played most of his 110 games for Northampton Town as a wing-half. However, it was only after he switched him to inside forward that he showed his true form and scored four goals in one match. Tull became the club's most popular player. The Northampton Echo reported that: "Tull has now settled in the half-line in a manner which now places him in the front-rank of class players in this position." (10)

War Hero

Other clubs wanted to sign Walter Tull and in 1914 Glasgow Rangers began negotiations with Northampton Town. However, before he could play for them the First World War was declared. Tull immediately abandoned his career and offered his services to the British Army. On 21st December, 1914, Tull became the first Northampton Town player to join the Football Battalion (17th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment). At the time it was commanded by Major Frank Buckley.

The Army soon recognized Tull's leadership qualities and he was quickly promoted to the rank of sergeant. Tull arrived in France on 18th November 1915. He was initially billeted at Les Ciseaux, 16 miles from the front line. He had still not seen action when he wrote a letter to his brother Edward Tull-Warnock in January 1916: "For the last three weeks my Battalion has been resting some miles distant from the firing line but we are now going up to the trenches for a month or so. Afterwards we shall begin to think about coming home on leave. It is a very monotonous life out here when one is supposed to be resting and most of the boys prefer the excitement of the trenches." (11)

Walter Tull at Tottenham Hotspur
Walter Tull in 1917

However, once on the Western Front, he found life difficult. In May 1916, he was sent home suffering from "acute mania" (also called shellshock). He soon recovered and was back in action by 20th September. Tull took part in the major Somme offensive, which resulted in 420,000 British casualties. Tull survived this experience but in December 1916 he developed trench fever and was sent home to England to recover. (12)

Walter Tull had impressed his senior officers and recommended that he should be considered for further promotion. When he recovered from his illness, instead of being sent back to France, he went to the officer training school at Gailes in Scotland. Despite military regulations forbidding "any negro or person of colour" being an officer, Tull received his commission in May, 1917.

Walter Tull became the first Black combat officer in the British Army. As Phil Vasili has pointed out in his book, Colouring Over the White Line: "According to The Manual of Military Law, Black soldiers of any rank were not desirable. During the First World War, military chiefs of staff, with government approval, argued that White soldiers would not accept orders issued by men of colour and on no account should Black soldiers serve on the front line." (13)

Walter Tull at Tottenham Hotspur
Walter Tull with other officers in 1917

Lieutenant Walter Tull was sent to the Italian front. This was an historic occasion because Tull was the first ever black officer in the British Army. He led his men at the Battle of Piave and was mentioned in dispatches for his "gallantry and coolness" under fire. "You were one of the first to cross the river Piave prior to the raid on 1st-2nd January, 1918, and 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." (14)

Tull stayed in Italy until 1918 when he was transferred to France to take part in the attempt to break through the German lines on the Western Front. On 25th March, 1918, 2nd Lieutenant Tull was ordered to lead his men on an attack on the German trenches at Favreuil. Soon after entering No Mans Land Tull was hit by a German bullet. Tull was such a popular officer that several of his men made valiant efforts under heavy fire from German machine-guns to bring him back to the British trenches. These efforts were in vain as Tull had died soon after being hit. One of the soldiers who tried to rescue him later told his commanding officer that Tull was "killed instantaneously with a bullet through his head." (15)

Tull's body was never found. On 17th April 1918, Lieutenant Pickard wrote to Walter's brother and said: "Being at present in command (the captain was wounded) - allow me to say how popular he was throughout the Battalion. He was brave and conscientious; he had been recommended for the Military Cross, and had certainly earned it, the Commanding Officer had every confidence in him, and he was liked by the men. Now he has paid the supreme sacrifice; the Battalion and Company have lost a faithful officer; personally I have lost a friend. Can I say more, except that I hope that those who remain may be true and faithful as he." (16)

Campaign for War Medal

The family of Walter Tull never received the Military Cross. The Ministry of Defence has claimed that there is no record of the Military Cross recommendation was found in Tull's service files at the National Archives. Phil Vasili has argued that it is possible that there are political reasons for this: "Walter Tull was made an officer at a time when the Army was desperately short of men of officer material. I’m convinced that to have given him his Military Cross would have admitted to the powers-that-be at the War Office that rules had been broken in commissioning a black man. But his promotion illustrated the absurdity of their thinking, that white soldiers would not respect black officers."

Edward Tull-Warnock continued with the campaign until his death on 3rd December 1950. Phil Vasili played an important role in this with the publication of his book, Colouring Over the White Line (2000). This was followed by Walter Tull, Officer, Footballer: All the Guns in France Couldn't Wake Me (2009). Dan Lyndon published Walter Tull: Footballer, Soldier, Hero in 2011.

In 2012 Michael Morpurgo, the author of the novel Warhorse (2007), started an online petition urging "the Government to take up Walter’s case – and finally award him his Military Cross posthumously." Morpurgo hopes that eventually there might be a statue of Walter Tull outside the Imperial War Museum in London as "a tribute to one man’s fight against prejudice and evil and an inspiration to new generations". (17)

John Simkin (20th October, 2021)


(1) Philip Gibbons, Association Football in Victorian England (2001) page 277

(2) Athletic News (29th October, 1887)

(3) James Walvin, The People's Game (1994) page 89

(4) Jeffrey Green, Black Edwardians (1998)

(5) The Daily Chronicle (9th October, 1909)

(6) Phil Vasili, Colouring Over the White Line (2000) page 50

(7) Phil Vasili, Colouring Over the White Line (2000) page 48

(8) Herbert Chapman, Herbert Chapman on Football (1934) page 2

(9) Herbert Chapman, Herbert Chapman on Football (1934) page 25

(10) Northampton Echo (15th March, 1913)

(11) Walter Tull, letter to Edward Tull-Warnock (January, 1916)

(12) Phil Vasili, Colouring Over the White Line (2000) page 52

(13) Phil Vasili, Colouring Over the White Line (2000) page 53

(14) 23rd Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment Diary (January, 1918)

(15) Major B. S. Poole, letter to Edward Tull-Warnock (12th April, 1918)

(16) Lieutenant Pickard, letter to Edward Tull-Warnock (17th April 1918)

(17) Dennis Ellam, The Daily Mirror (9th March, 2013)

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