The forgotten hero

(The Guardian, 25 March 1998)

He was a war hero and a football star, the first black officer in the British army and the first player to suffer racist abuse. Ever heard of him? Richard Askwith on Walter Tull, Britain’s forgotten multicultural icon

A scene from the past . . . a British lieutenant rouses his men in a Flanders trench in the final months of the first world war and exhorts them to make one more suicidal dash for the enemy line. He is first over the top, and is killed almost immediately. The assault soon peters out; but, for some time afterwards, his men make sorties in the murderous gunfire, trying to retrieve the body of an officer they have grown to love. Footnote: the dead officer is black.

Cut to a different scene. Two of Britain’s leading football clubs are playing a match on a Saturday in October. The ball falls at the feet of a black player, and a section of the crowd erupts in racial abuse: taunts, monkey sounds and worse. Footnote: the year is 1909.

The two scenes have several things in common. The unexpectedness of the footnotes betrays our prejudices. They depict aspects of our history of which most of us are ignorant. And they both involve the same man: Walter Daniel Tull.

Walter Tull was one of Britain’s first black professional footballers, playing for Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town in the years leading up to the first world war. Despite the poorest of backgrounds, he also became Britain’s first black army officer – an almost unimaginable achievement at the time. He died in the second battle of the Somme, 80 years ago today. This summer, a Walter Tull Memorial Garden will be opened next to Northampton Town’s Sixfields Community Stadium. It is hard to imagine a less glamorous site. Yet the fanfare for the official opening – due in July – is likely to be considerable.

Walter Tull enthusiasts expected to attend include Bernie Grant (who thinks he should be on the national curriculum), Trevor McDonald (who has given a radio talk about him), David Mellor (whose Football Task Force would like all football clubs to imitate the anti-racist policy Northampton Town has created in Tull’s honour), the MEP Angela Billingham (one of whose ancestors served under Tull), the actor Nicholas Bailey (who wants to make a film about Tull’s life), perhaps even Irvine Welsh (who is collaborating with Tull’s chief historian on a screenplay involving the other great black footballer of that period, Arthur Wharton). Sir Hermann Ousley, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, is one of Tull’s biggest fans: ‘The current recognition of Walter Tull’s contribution to football and to the services is terribly important,’ he says, ‘because it makes visible a part of British history that has been denied.’ The administrators of the Methodist-run orphanage in Bethnal Green can hardly have foreseen such an illustrious future when 10-year-old Walter was admitted to their care, along with his brother Edward, in 1898. But Tull had a rare gift for transcending adversity. His grandfather was a slave in Barbados. His father, a joiner, came to Britain in 1876, married a girl in Folkestone, joined the Methodist church there and had six children. When Walter was seven, his mother died. Two years later, his father died. His stepmother was unable to support all six children, and the local church arranged for Walter and Edward to be taken into care.

It was a harsh environment, but what remained of their family stayed in touch, and, one way or another, both boys grew up as paragons of moral self -sufficiency. Edward ended up as a successful dentist in Glasgow. Walter served an apprenticeship as a printer, played football as an amateur with Clapton, and then signed for Tottenham Hotspur in 1908. He wasn’t quite Britain’s first black professional, that honour goes to the Darlington and Preston North End goalkeeper, Arthur Wharton. But Tull was the league’s first black outfield player, and his rarity value attracted considerable media interest; as did his skill. The Daily Chronicle described him as ‘very good indeed’, with ‘a class superior to that shown by most of his colleagues’.

Playing at inside left, Tull looked to have a bright future. Then, in a game at Bristol City in 1909, he was racially abused by fans in what the Football Star called ‘language lower than Billingsgate’. The incident was deeply traumatic for Tull and the club. The following season, he played only three first-team games; the season after, he was sold for ‘a heavy transfer fee’ to Northampton Town. There, Tull flourished again, playing 110 first-team games for the club, mostly at wing-half. He was probably their biggest star. In 1914, he was on the point of signing for Glasgow Rangers. Then came war.

It was perhaps inevitable, given the spirit of muscular Christianity in which he was raised, that Tull should make a swift transition from sport to war. What was less inevitable was that he should conduct himself with even more distinction on the battlefield than on the playing field. Yet he did. He enlisted in the 17th (1st Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, alongside many other professional footballers. By 1916, he had been made a sergeant. Among other actions, he was involved in the murderous first battle of the Somme. We can only guess the horrors he endured, but they did not break him.

Instead, something extraordinary happened. Towards the end of 1916, he was invalided home with trench fever. On leaving hospital, he went to the officer cadet training school at Gailes in Scotland. This was unprecedented. Indeed, it was technically impossible: the 1914 Manual of Military Law specifically excluded ‘Negroes’ from exercising ‘actual command’ as officers. Yet Tull’s superior officers must have recommended him – a remarkable tribute to his charisma.

And Tull’s commission was clearly more than honorary. Sent to the Italian front in 1917 as a second lieutenant in the 23rd (2nd Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, he was mentioned in dispatches for the ‘gallantry and coolness’ with which he led his men in the first battle of Piave. In 1918, he and his men returned to France, where they fought in the second battle of the Somme. The end of the war was almost in sight; but Tull never saw it. On March 25 1918, the 29-year-old officer was killed in no-man’s land near Favreuil. His commanding officer broke the news to Edward Tull in startlingly emotional terms, remarking on ‘how popular he was throughout the battalion. He was brave and conscientious . . . The battalion and company have lost a faithful officer, and personally I have lost a friend.’ But though the obituaries for Tull were effusive – ‘an officer and a gentleman, every inch of him’, said one – society at large did not consider the untimely death of a black, working-class orphan a loss worthy of permanent commemoration, and he passed from the public mind.

This was a pity. As the century has unfolded, the evil of racial discrimination in football and in the armed forces has returned to haunt us again and again. Next Monday, the Football Task Force will publish a report, which is expected to conclude that for every high-profile incident of alleged racism in football (Ian Wright and Peter Schmeichel, Nathan Blake and Bobby Gould, Stan Collymore and Steve Harkness . . .), there are dozens beyond the limelight. Black managers are almost unheard of, racism is rife in the amateur game, and, while some 25 per cent of Professional Footballers’ Association members are from ethnic minorities, the equivalent figure among fans is only 1 per cent.

In the recruiting office, meanwhile, the army has finally woken up to the fact that its racial imbalance (only 1.02 per cent of its personnel are non-white, compared with nearly 7 per cent of the British population) may have something to do with its current manpower crisis. By a sad irony, the main gimmick of the recruitment campaign it launched late last year is a familiar ‘You Country Needs You’ poster with the figure of Kitchener replaced by a photograph of a black serving officer. Is it really too fanciful to suggest that, for want of a commonly-known story of a black sports star who was also a war hero, our nation has been the poorer? The Ministry of Defence scorns the idea that retelling the story of Tull’s heroism might bolster the army’s new equal opportunities initiative. ‘What we would ask ourselves,’ says a spokesman airily, ‘is what is the relative impact of a historical role model, compared with someone who is in the here and now?’ Those who fight racism in sport are less dismissive. ‘He’s an excellent positive role model,’ says Ben Tagg of Kick It Out, the official campaign to drive racism out of football. ‘It’s excellent that his story’s being told.’ Having been written out of history, Tull is now being written back in.

The process began six years ago, when Phil Vasili, a 41-year-old social science lecturer for the Open University, came across a passing reference to Tull while researching a book about Britain’s earliest black footballers. Tull, says Vasili, ‘shouted at me for more research. I felt he deserved more recognition.’ In early 1996, Vasili published an article on Tull for the academic journal Race & Class. Shortly afterwards, the newsreader, Trevor McDonald, gave a radio talk on the subject, based on Vasili’s research. One of his listeners was a Northampton Town fan, Sean O’Donovan, who began to lobby the club to honour Tull’s memory. The club was looking for ways to launch an equal opportunities policy, and so Tull was co-opted for the cause of racial tolerance.

In January 1997, the policy was launched at a Walter Tull Memorial Match. Among those present was Bernie Grant, MP for Tottenham and Edmonton, who had been dragged along by his constituency secretary – Sean O’Donovan. Subsequently, Grant began to lobby Spurs to honour Tull too; and, though he received short shrift (‘If we honour one player, we’ll have to honour them all,’ was the club spokesman’s comment), it all helped to increase public awareness, adding lustre both to Vasili’s work (which has now expanded to include screenplays, as well as a book about Arthur Wharton, An Absence Of Memory, to be published by Frank Cass this summer); and to Northampton’s anti -racism campaign. A good half-dozen clubs – most recently Millwall – have launched anti-racism initiatives specifically inspired by Walter Tull’s old club. Even Bristol City, scene of that first racist heckling in 1909, is currently staging an exhibition devoted to the forgotten history of Britain’s early black footballers, with pride of place going to Tull.

What sort of a man was Tull? Vasili thinks that he had an unusual ‘inner strength – he was dogged and persistent, but he didn’t shout’. The Reverend Duncan Finlayson, a retired Church of Scotland minister who is Walter Tull’s nephew-in-law, believes that he had ‘a kind of integrity, openness, intelligence – not pious, but a person of integrity, with a non-conformist conscience’.

Such second- and third-hand impressions cannot create a complete portrait, but some of the blanks can be filled by questions. Why did Tull’s (white) men risk heavy machine-gun fire in their efforts to retrieve his body? Why did Tull’s superior officers risk the wrath of an establishment that considered ‘Negroes’ scarcely human by recommending him for a commission? As Bernie Grant says, ‘Simply to have done what he did, he must have been a remarkable man.’ The specific qualities that made him remarkable include most of the virtues traditionally claimed as Anglo-Saxon: modesty, dignity, honesty, quiet determination, courage – in short, a stiff upper lip. But Tull was much more than that. He was a figure of inextinguishable spirit, who was loved by Britons black and white, and who gave his life for his country.

Sometimes, the good that men do lives after them. Walter Tull is a case in point. When the Walter Tull Memorial Garden finally opens, the honour will help to correct a long-standing injustice to Tull himself; but it will also go a small way towards correcting a much greater injustice to all black Britons, by drawing attention to a forgotten part of our common history. If ever an Englishmen deserved to rest in peace, Walter Tull does.

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