A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The officer who fought prejudice with valour

Walter Tull found fame as a footballer, then made history as Britain's first black officer. Charlie Cooper on a fighter for racial equality

Four days into Germany's Spring Offensive, amid the chaos of the British retreat through the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France, a private with the 23rd Middlesex risked life and limb under shell fire to bring back the body of his commanding officer.

The devotion shown by Private Tom Billingham's fruitless attempt pointed to an officer who had inspired huge respect and loyalty. Even more remarkable, in a racially segregated army, was the colour of that officer's skin. Second Lieutenant Walter Tull, whose body was never recovered, was the first black man to be commissioned as an infantry officer in the British Army.

He was born in Folkestone in 1888, the son of a Barbadian carpenter and a Kent farm labourer's daughter. His grandmother had been a slave. In a short life, Tull made history not only in the army, but in England's nascent Football League as well. As a forward for both Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town, he defied a cruel start (orphaned at nine, and raised in an East End children's home with his brother Edward) to become only the second black player to compete in the top division.

 

The sight of a black man lining up against (and running rings around) the league's best defences was a novel one before the war. All too often Tull became, in the words of one reporter, "the butt of the ignorant partisan". When war broke out, Tull was among the first players to volunteer, joining a special footballers' battalion. In November 1915, setting out from his hometown of Folkestone, it crossed the channel to France.

Tull was singled out for his Tull was singled out for his "gallantry and coolness" following a daring raid across the frozen river Piave in January 1918

Tull soon distinguished himself, notably at the Somme. The orphanage had made him disciplined, football had honed his fitness, and after one year, he was recommended for officer training, despite the 1914 Manual of Military Law barring a "negro or person of colour" from exercising "any actual command of power".

Read more: The troops from around the world that served Britain in WW1

After completing his training in 1917, he returned to active service as a commissioned officer. Deployed to the Italian front with the 23rd Middlesex, he led his men in a daring raid across the frozen river Piave in January 1918, when he was singled out for his "gallantry and coolness" by the division's major general.

After his death, three months later, a comrade wrote to his brother to say that Walter had been recommended for a Military Cross – a decoration he never received. Campaigners and Tull's living relatives are still pushing for the honour to be awarded.

A memorial at Northampton Town's Sixfields Stadium carries a dedication by historian and Tull biographer Phil Vasili, which eloquently pleads the case: "Through his actions, Tull ridiculed the barriers of ignorance that tried to deny people of colour equality.... His life stands testament to a determination to confront those people and those obstacles that sought to diminish him and the world in which he lived. It reveals a man, though rendered breathless in his prime, whose strong heart still beats loudly."

Tomorrow: The Red Baron is shot down

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Administrator

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has a track record...

Recruitment Genius: Solar Field Sales Executive

£40000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Relations Officer

£13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: IT Help Desk Support

£14500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An IT Help Desk Support individ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable