The Story of the Soldier Who Inspired a Best Selling Author
The Story of Walter Tull
Walter was born in London in 1888, the son of a Barbadian father and an English mother. His parents both died when he was quite young and he was raised in a Wesleyan (Methodist) orphanage. It was obvious from an early age that he was a talented footballer and he became the first black player at Tottenham Hotspurs (only the third black professional footballer in Britain). In 1911 he moved to Northampton Town.
At the outbreak of WW1 black applicants to the British army were rejected as being ‘unfit.’ As a professional footballer this could not be applied to Walter and together with other professional footballers he joined the 17th (1st Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, one of the many ‘pal battalions’ formed during WW1. At the time it was customary for only those of ‘pure’ European descent to become officers but Walter’s bravery and conduct under fire impressed his superiors and he was promoted three times. In May 1917 he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant, the first black combat officer in the British army. He led a successful attack over the Piave River in Italy, from which he and his men all returned safely despite very heavy enemy fire. His Commanding Officer recommended he be awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. The medal was never given, the Ministry of Defence claiming they never received the commendation.
Walter was killed on 23 March 1918 whilst leading his men in an attack on the enemy during the 2nd Battle of the Somme. His has no known grave. His name is listed, along with 34,000 others, on the Arras Memorial in France. There is a permanent memorial to him in the Garden of Peace at Northampton Town Football Club.
Author Michael Morpurgo’s book ‘A Medal for Leroy’ was inspired by the story of Walter Tull and is dedicated to his memory.