On the 25th March, 1918, Walter Tull was killed by machine gun fire while trying to help his men withdraw.
Second Lieutenant Walter Tull was the first black British Army Infantry officer.
Walter Tull, the son of a joiner, was born in Folkestone on the 28th April 1888. Walter’s father, the son of a slave, had arrived from Barbados in 1876. In 1895, when Walter was seven, his mother died. Walter’s father remarried but he died two years later. The stepmother was unable to cope with all six children and Walter and his brother Edward were sent to a Methodist run orphanage in Bethnal Green, London.
Walter was a keen footballer and played for a local team in Clapton. In 1908 Walter’s talents were discovered by a scout from Tottenham Hotspur and the club decided to sign this promising young footballer. He played for Tottenham until 1910, when he was transferred for a large fee to Northampton Town. Walter was the first black outfield player to play professional football in Britain.
When the First World War broke out, Walter abandoned his football career to join the 17th (1st Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment.
During his military training Walter was promoted three times. In November 1914, as Lance Sergeant he was sent to Les Ciseaux in France. In May, 1915 Walter was sent home with post traumatic stress disorder.
Returning to France in September 1916 Walter fought in the Battle of the Somme, between October and November, 1916. His courage and abilities encouraged his superior officers to recommend him as an officer. On 26 December, 1916, Walter went back to England on Leave and to train as an officer.
There were military laws forbidding ‘any negro or person of colour’ being commissioned as an officer, despite this, Walter was promoted to lieutenant in 1917.
Walter was the first ever Black officer in the British Army Infantry, and the first black officer to lead white men into battle.
Walter was sent to the Italian Front where he twice led his Company across the River Piave on a raid and both times brought all of his troops back safely. He was mentioned in Despatches for his ‘gallantry and coolness’ under fire by his commanding officer.
He was recommended for the Military Cross but never received it.
After their time in Italy, Walter’s Battalion was transferred to the Somme Valley in France. On the 25th March, 1918, Walter Tull was killed by machine gun fire while trying to help his men withdraw.
Walter was such a popular man that several of his men risked their own lives in an attempt to retrieve his body under heavy fire but they were unsuccessful due to the enemy soldiers advance. Walter’s body was never found and he is one of thousands of soldiers from World War One who has no known grave.
(courtesy ww1 Colourized Photos)