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Today we remember the remarkable life of Walter Tull.

Walter was born in Folkestone but grew up in an orphanage in Bethnal Green with his brother Edward, after the death of their parents. An extremely talented footballer, he won the FA Amateur Cup with Clapton, before joining Tottenham Hotspur for their tour of South America in 1909. On his return he signed on a professional contract, making him only the second black professional footballer in Britain, (the first being Arthur Wharton, goalkeeper at Preston North End) and the League’s first black outfield player. After two seasons, during which he was subjected to terrible racist abuse, he moved to Northampton Town for “a substantial fee”. He played played 111 games for Northampton and became an extremely popular player, indeed 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.”

At the outbreak of war Walter joined the 17th (1st Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment  along with many other footballers, and served on the Western Front from November 1915. After being treated for “acute mania” (shellshock) in May 1916, he returned to the front in September and took part in the Somme offensive, which resulted in over 400,000 British Casualties. Walter had so impressed his senior officers that they recommended his further promotion, and in May 1917 he became the British Army’s first Black Officer. Lieutenant Tull was then sent to the Italian Front, where he was mentioned in dispatches for gallantry, before being moved back the the Western Front as part of the attempt to break through the German lines in 1918. On March 25th, 1918, he was ordered to lead an assault on German lines at Favreuil, near Arras, and while leading the attack was struck by a German bullet. His men made several attempts to recover his body under heavy fire, without success.

 

On 17th April 1918, fellow officer Lieutenant Pickard wrote to Walter’s brother Edward 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.”

Killed aged 29, Walter’s body was never recovered, despite the best efforts of his men. His name is commemorated on the Arras Memorial Wall.

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