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Battle for justice over black officer

A new play about a First World War hero strengthens the campaign to award him a Military Cross

He should be the stuff of legend. An orphan at 10, he defied racists and bigots to play football in England's top tier before becoming one of Britain's first black Army officers. So revered was he that, when he made the ultimate sacrifice, his men broke rank to try to rescue his body from the battlefield. Yet relatively few people have heard of Walter Tull. A play about his life, which debuts this month, is about to change that and has reinvigorated a campaign to have him awarded a posthumous Military Cross.

Tull, written by Phil Vasili, who also wrote Tull's biography, begins previewing at Bolton's Octagon this Thursday. "Walter was made an officer during a time when it was practically expedient for the Army: after the Battle of the Somme, when it was desperately short of men of officer material," he said. "The rules were broken because it suited the Army so to do. However, the rejection of his Military Cross recommendation was, I feel, because he embodied a legal contradiction as an officer of non-European descent."

Michael Morpurgo, the author of War Horse, is backing the campaign and said the medal would "right a wrong". A Medal for Leroy, Morpurgo's most recent book, was inspired by Tull's story. "Apart from the fact the man clearly deserved it, the most important thing is he represents one of the earliest examples of a black man dying for his country," he said. "He pulled himself up by his bootlaces. It is a story so relevant to today."

Tull, whose father was from Barbados, was taken into a Methodist orphanage after his parents died and was signed by Tottenham Hotspur in 1909, when he became England's first black professional outfield footballer. He suffered appalling racist abuse, so ferocious that, after an away game at Bristol City in 1909, a journalist wrote: "Let me tell those Bristol hooligans that Tull is so clean in mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football."

He moved to Northampton Town in 1911, but answered his country's call in the First World War where he was eventually commissioned as an officer – thought to be the first black officer in the Army. He was shell-shocked during the Battle of the Somme but returned to action before being killed, aged 29, leading an attack on the Western Front in March 1918. Lieutenant Pickard, who was in command of Tull's company, wrote to his family after his death: "He had been recommended for the Military Cross and had certainly earned it."

Lord Dannatt, former head of the British Army, said: "I would like to think that if his actions were worthy of a Military Cross he would have received one regardless of the colour of his skin. But, then, that thinking reflects the 21st century, not the early 20th century." The campaign has also been backed by the Professional Footballers' Association, Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton MPs, groups and organisations.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "There is no record of the MC recommendation in 2nd Lt Tull's service files."