Walter Tull and why he should get his Military Cross

Walter Daniell John Tull was born on 28 April, 1888, in Folkestone, Kent. His father, Daniel Tull, was a carpenter from Barbados and worked as a ships joiner when he arrived and settled in England.  Coincidentally, 28th April is National Heroes Day in Barbados! Walter’s mother, Alice Palmer, came from a family of farm labourers in West Hougham, near Dover, in Kent.  Both Daniel and Alice were Methodists and may have met through attending the Grace Hill Wesleyan Chapel in Folkestone.

Alice’s mother, Sarah-Ann Palmer, welcomed Daniel to the family. As a religious man, he could read and write and with his trade he represented a good catch for Alice. Sarah-Anne writes in January 1880:

You have asked me for my only daughter . . . there are two things I must beg of you and the first is of the most importance that you will be kind to her for she is a tender plant . . . the other is that you will never take her out of England whilst I am alive. Do not think Dan in raising these two things that I doubt your love for her on that point I am perfectly satisfied your actions have shown that and your respect for the family . . . sharing in one another’s joys and sorrows you will find the path at times very rough and uneven but you must bear with one another’s weaknesses and try and help one another . . . kindest and best love to your dear self . . . dearest child. 

Daniel and Alice were married at Grace Hill Wesleyan Chapel a month later on 25 February. They had six children, Bertha, who died in infancy, William, Cecilia, Edward, Walter and Elsie. Walter and his siblings went to North Board Elementary School – now called Mundella Primary School – on the corner of Walton Road where they lived in a small terrace at 51. Walter could’ve kicked a football from his front door into the school playground, it was that near.

From all accounts you get the idea that the Tulls were a relatively content working class family: Daniel was constantly in work as a carpenter, they were in contact with their Palmer relatives and regular attenders at chapel which, according to Edward, was the focus of the their social life. Sadly, in 1895, Alice, aged 42, died of breast cancer and other complications leaving Daniel a single father of four children. An immediate, practical solution was sought within the wider Tull/Palmer families with Daniel marrying Alice’s niece, Clara Palmer, aged 26. Within a year of marrying they had a daughter, Miriam.  Tragically, as was not uncommon in ordinary families, death once more visited the Tulls less than two months after she was born: on the 10 December, 1897, Daniel passed away suddenly of a heart attack.

In any era making ends meet when the main breadwinner dies is a difficult challenge but for working class families in the 19th century – when there was no Welfare State – it could very rapidly lead to starvation and homelessness.

With only William working, as an apprentice carpenter, Clara was forced to rely on the charity of her extended family, the chapel and the community in the form of Poor Law relief. Even with this help it wasn’t enough to feed herself, six children and pay the rent. Working with the minister at Grace Hill Chapel it was decided that Edward and Walter would have go to an orphanage.

You wonder what was going through the boys minds as they arrived at Cannon St Station, London on that cold winter’s day, 24 February, 1898. Traumatised by the death of both parents within two years of each other and being torn away from the their siblings and step-mother, Walter and Edward arrived at the Children’s Home in Bonner Road, Bethnal Green unsure of what their future held for them. London was the largest city in the world at that time with a densely packed population of over 7 million. East London, in particular, was notorious for its poverty and homelessness. Many children lived and begged on the streets. People everywhere, noises and smells that overpowered the senses, it was literally a world away from the rolling hills and fresh sea air of the Kent coast they were used to.

The Orphanage was founded by the Reverend Dr Thomas Stephenson, a Methodist minister who was so moved by the plight of homeless children in London that, after tirelessly campaigning for funds, opened his first Home in Lambeth in 1869. His institution is now better known as Action for Children.

For the next two and a half years Walter and Edward lived together in one of a collection of terraced houses which formed the Bonner Road orphanage. It was comparatively progressive, with a swimming pool and  training school for the ‘Sisters’,  the surrogate mothers who would head each house of 15 or so children. Stephenson wouldn’t employ staff who’d been trained at other orphanages because the chances were, he felt, they wouldn’t be child-centered. Their house was Highfield with five boys to each bedroom.

They kept in close contact with their family back in Folkestone, writing letters and having visits. Walter joined the orphanage football team and both the orphanage choir.  It was on a fund raising tour with the choir that, in the autumn of 1900, Edward captivated a Glaswegian couple, James and Jean Warnock, who were struck by his beautiful voice.  James was a dental practitioner and in letters enquiring about adoption he suggests Edward could follow the same path, which he duly did becoming, as far as we know, the first Black dentist in Glasgow. The Warnocks were also keen not just for Walter and Edward to remain in contact but for all the Tull family to do so, inviting them periodically to Glasgow.

Nevertheless, this was another body blow for the young adolescent Walter. He and Edward were very close and remained so. Very probably, it was his passion for, and excellence in, sports – particularly football and cricket – that helped him through. We know from his school reports and letters around this time that he reacted, his behaviour becoming more erratic. Yet, typical of the inner strength that was to become such a noticeable feature of his character, after successfully completing his elementary schooling, Walter was apprenticed to the Home’s prestigious printing department.

The residents at the orphanage did not have full independence until they were 21 so it was as an ‘an orphan’ that in October, 1908, the 20 year old joined one of the most successful amateur football clubs in England, Clapton F.C.. By the close of that season they had won three competitions, including the F.A. Amateur Cup with Walter not playing in a losing side. Not surprisingly, the East London club’s ‘catch of the season’ as it was described by one newspaper was now attracting the attention of professional clubs, including the capital’s biggest, Tottenham Hotspur.

Walter’s first game for Spurs’ first team was in South America on their summer tour of Argentina and Uruguay.  Playing at centre-forward the Buenos Aires Herald noted ‘early in the tour Tull has installed himself as favourite with the crowd’.   Not bad for an orphanage boy from Bethnal Green! His Football League debut was also Spurs first ever game as members of the top division, against Sunderland at Roker Park, 1 September, 1909 where they lost  3-1.

Two weeks later Walter’s made his home debut against FA Cup winners Manchester United in front of the biggest crowd of the day, over 30,000. Brought down for a penalty, the conversion resulted in a 2-2 draw, Spurs first point of the season. Match reports suggest he had a very good game, the Daily Chronicle reporter enthusing:

Tull’s . . . display on Saturday must have astounded everyone who saw it. Such perfect coolness, such judicious waiting for a fraction of a second in order to get a pass in not before a defender has worked to a false position, and such accuracy of strength in passing I have not seen for a long time. During the first half Tull just compelled Curtis to play a good game, for the outside right was plied with a series of passes that made it almost impossible for him to do anything than well. Tull has been charged with being slow, but there never was a footballer yet who was really great and always appeared to be in a hurry. Tull did not get the ball and rush on into trouble. He let his opponents do the rushing, and defeated them by side touches and side-steps worthy of a professional boxer. Tull is very good indeed.

In an overly physical game at Bristol City a few weeks later Walter was the target of sustained racist abuse from home supporters. The Daily News reporter DD described the Bristol City fans racist language as ‘lower than Billingsgate’, code for saying it was cruel and vicious.  Another paper reported ‘a cowardly attack on him’ by a section of the Bristol City support.  This treatment of Spurs’ ‘most brainy forward’ so incensed  DD that his match report carried the sub-heading ‘Football and the Colour Prejudice’. This is the first time I’d seen racism in football highlighted. He 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…the best forward on the field.’

I’m sure his friend and fellow first teamer Jabez ‘Dorando’ Darnell stood by Walter both on and off the field but it seems the Bristol abuse embarrassed some Spurs’ officials. Despite having generally played well since the start of the season, Walter was soon dropped to the Reserves, making only three more appearances in the first team.

In 1911 he was sold for ‘a heavy transfer fee’ to the ‘Cobblers’.  Manager Herbert Chapman was, like Walter, both a Methodist and an ex-Spurs player and had once played with Arthur Wharton, England’s first black professional footballer, at Stalybridge Rovers.  He was later to bring enormous success to both Huddersfield and Arsenal, forging a reputation as one of the greatest managers ever. Chapman had a knack of not only being able to spot potential but in signing these players. When arranging a transfer meeting at a restaurant or bar with the opposing club officials, the Yorkshireman would arrive early and lay out his requirements to the head waiter. “When I order drinks, it’s doubles for t’other party and water for me….” The instruction would be followed by a generous tip!  And he too has a statue, greeting supporters outside the Arsenal stadium.

Walter played over 100 first team matches for the Cobblers and was a crowd favourite. For much of the time he lived at 26 Queen Street, Rushden home of Miss Annie Williams. We know literally nothing of Annie save she was about six years younger than her lodger. If anyone can throw further light on their relationship I’d be happy to know! In the summer Walter played for Rushden Cricket Club.

When war was declared in August, 1914 the attitude of the football administrators was to keep calm and carry on! The season continued. However, on the 21 December Walter volunteered for the Football Battalion (17th Middlesex Regiment), the first Northampton player to join the army. Like so many others he probably viewed enlisting as both a responsibility and duty given the intense nationwide pressure upon young men to respond to the crisis.  In joining a battalion of other footballers in a predominantly civilian army he was among like-minded people – recruits without a trained military mindset – who knew him and knew of him, an important detail for a lone man of colour often challenged to prove himself equal. Training in England Walter was able to continue playing for the Cobblers until the end of the season.

During training Walter was promoted three times. On 18th November 1915, as Lance Sergeant he finally departed for northern France from his hometown port of Folkestone. The 17th Middlesex suffered their first casualty, Private James Mc Donald from Fife, on 11 December. For the next five months it was in and out of the combat zone, usually spending about three weeks at the front line. Writing home early in 1916 Walter describes how:

For the last three weeks my Battalion has been resting some miles distant from the firing line but we are now going up to the trenches for a month or so. Afterwards we shall begin to think about coming home on leave. It is a very monotonous life out here when one is supposed to be resting and most of the boys prefer the excitement of the trenches to the comparative inaction whilst in reserve.

The one indisputable truth about the First World War is that those promoting it in August 1914 did not warn that it would lead to mass killing on a scale previously unseen. Had they done so perhaps Walter would have accepted that ‘monotony’ to ‘ the excitement of the trenches’ because within a couple of months he was paralysed with acute mania (aka shell shock/trench fever), or what today would be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress syndrome. Admitted to a field hospital on his 28th birthday he was transferred back to England ten days later. He had served nine continuous days on the front line.

Characteristically, after recuperation he returned to France and fought in the last months of the Battle of the Somme. In all 420,000 British troops were killed in just 4 months. Walter’s courage and soldiering abilities encouraged his superior officers to recommend him for a commission. On 26 December, 1916, Walter sailed to England on Leave and to train as an officer, receiving his commission on 30 May, 1917.

As 2nd Lieutenant Tull he joined the 23rd Middlesex. (BTW the front line life expectancy of a 2nd Lieutenant was 6 weeks!) His status as a man of colour issuing orders to White infantry soldiers in the field was unique as far as we know. And it contradicted the thinking behind the rules prohibiting such promotions: that White soldiers would not accept being commanded by a man of colour and that such opposition would be bad for morale. And what did Walter himself think? We get a slight clue with a postscript in a letter to Edward written from France on 10 August 1917: “am  applying for a transfer to the BWI when the Batt. Come out tomorrow”.  The BWI is the British West Indies Regiment created in the summer 1915 to accept men of colour, both in the Caribbean and Britain.

In my humble opinion its place as a footnoted afterthought belies its significance: why would the recently commissioned 2nd Lieutenant want to switch regiments after serving two and half years with soldier comrades with who were, for the most part, brother footballers? It raises a number of questions: was he conscious of his ‘otherness’ as a Black officer in a White battalion; did he face a residue of hostility even among his brother footballers?; would he have felt more at ease in a force that had as its uniting characteristics ethnicity and the common experience of racism? Not surprisingly he didn’t get his transfer: he was just too good a soldier for the Middlesex to lose.

After fighting in the Battles of Messines and Passchendaele the 23rd Middlesex and was sent to the Alps to strengthen the Italian Front Line. Walter is recorded in the battalion’s War Diaries as twice leading his men across the icy cold River Piave on night raids and both times returning without a single casualty.  A secret report of the January 1st raid was written for General Headquarters by Lieutenant Colonel Haig Brown, Commanding Officer of the 23rd Middlesex, where he praised Tull’s  group:

“The covering party established themselves in a forward position 300 yards after crossing without any opposition, and did excellent work until withdrawn.”

Haig Brown’s  account would have provided the substance for 14 Corps GHQ Intelligence Summary for 2 January 1918 which stressed the success of all elements of the raid:

“Our patrols crossed the Piave … opposite Fontigo without difficulty. On the far bank hostile patrols were met with and considerable rifle and machine gun fire encountered. Our patrols withdrew after inflicting casualties on the enemy … Our casualties were insignificant.”

This dent in the enemy’s  defences was much publicised by the British government which was eager to propagandise early British successes in their assistance of the Italians. A New York Times  article, 8 January 1918, was headlined ‘British are Active on the Piave Front’: “British  patrols have once again crossed the Piave River, the War Office announces. They forced passages at various points, causing alarm in the enemy lines.”

Military historian Everard Wyrall wrote of the “well  organised raid on the Austrian trenches” in his two volume history of the Middlesex Regiment. General Plumer, Commander of British forces in Italy, made special mention of the action in his quarterly report published in the London Gazette  on 9 April 1918: “On  1st January our biggest raid was carried out by the Middlesex Regiment. This was a most difficult and well planned operation, which had for its objective the capture and surrounding of several buildings held by the enemy to a depth of 2,000 yards inland … The re-crossing of the river was successfully effected, and our casualties were very few.”

For his outstanding leadership Tull was cited for his ‘gallantry and coolness under fire’ by Major General Sir Sydney Lawford, commanding officer of the 41st Division and recommended for the Military Cross.

After Italy, Walter’s battalion was transferred to the Somme Valley in France.  On March 21, 1918, the Germans launched their Spring Offensive, an enormous concentration of men and machinery to win the war. Four days later, 25 March, Walter was killed by machine gun fire while his battalion were in retreat. Leicester goalkeeper, Private Tom Billingham and others attempted to retrieve his body under heavy fire but were unsuccessful.

Having no known grave, his name is inscribed on Bay 7, Arras Memorial, Faubourg-d’Amiens Cemetery, Arras, France.  Edward was devastated recounting to his daughter, Jean, the emotion he felt on receiving the telegram from the War Office. “The  worst moment of my life. I  just couldn’t  believe it … the thought kept going through my head, Walter is dead, Walter is dead.”

Can I finish by outlining the reasons as to why I feel that Walter’s Military Cross should now be awarded: Primarily because he obviously merited it as all the reports illustrate. His commanding officer, Major Poole DSO OBE felt so strongly about it that he broke army rules in informing Edward of the recommendation. The following quote is from Instructions Regarding Recommendations for Honours and Rewards, 1918.:

 “The subject of recommendations for honours and rewards is to be treated as strictly confidential and officers are forbidden to divulge at any time the nature of the recommendations they have made. In no case should the relatives or friends of an officer or soldier be informed that he has been recommended for  reward.”

Poole wrote to Edward:

“[He] was very cool in moments of danger & always volunteered for any enterprise that might be of service. He was recommended recently for a Military Cross. He had taken part in many raids. His courage was of a high order and was combined with a quiet & unassuming  manner.”

Fellow 2nd Lieutenant Pickard also opened himself up to court martial by writing to Edward that his brother  “had been recommended for the Military Cross and certainly earned it”.

Another reason is the injustice caused by the context of institutional racism in which Walter and other men of colour served as soldiers. On December 21 1914, on the very day Walter signed his enlistment forms at Fulham Town Hall, a senior civil servant at the Colonial Office, Gilbert Grindle, circulated a memo within his department and the War Office warning: “I  hear privately that some recruiting officers will pass coloureds. Others, however, will not, and we must discourage coloured volunteers”.

Documents freely available at the National Archives, some of which are presented as images on the screen and are referenced in the biography – available today! – illustrate in detail how both the War and Colonial Offices consistently acted to dissuade and reject men of colour from joining. The army rule book, The Manual of Military Law 1914 stated on p.198 that officers must be of ‘pure European descent’.

The introduction of conscription early in 1916 allowed greater bureaucratic control over the operation of the colour bar. However, the entry of the USA in the war provided another political and bureaucratic headache for the Army Council.  Recruitment of British subjects in the USA was under the management of General White.  In a secret telegram dated 19th February, 1918 – while Walter was fighting on the Italian Front – he asks the Army Council in London what he should do with the “Wooly  (sic) headed niggers” who seek to enlist in the States.

The day after Walter died the War Office rejected Kenneth Oehler’s application to enlist. “The  [Army] Council regret that no exception can be made in this case, there being no suitable unit to which this man  could be posted, as it is not considered desirable to post coloured men to regular British Units.”

 On 13 June 1918, the Army Council officially accepted men of colour into the British Army. The statement issued by the Ministry of National Service read: “…the Army Council have hitherto refused for enlistment into the British Army all British subjects of colour other than those enrolled into special units formed for their reception [such as the BWIR]. I am commanded by the Army Council to inform you that it has now been decided that British subjects of colour may be enlisted into combatant or other units of the British Army…”

Institutional racism was a feature of public life in the UK. But we should not rush to judge the past with present values. A social hierarchy based upon colour was seen by many with the power to influence as a natural order. Yet, we’ve seen with the loving letter of acceptance sent to Daniel before his marriage with Walter’s mother Alice, there was also a progressive strand in popular British culture that stands in the tradition of anti-slavery, votes for women, trade union rights etc. It was the practical application of this progressive attitude by recruiting officers, fellow rank and file soldiers and officers that saw them assist people of colour like Walter in breaking down the obstacles placed in front of them. In a civilian army where absolute obedience wasn’t so ingrained, soldiers did think for themselves and in so doing sometimes broke the rules.

Accepting past societies were characterised by norms of behaviour that we wouldn’t tolerate now does not mean, I feel, we should ignore past injustices. It is my belief that Walter was not given his MC because to do so would have officially recognised he embodied a contradiction: his status as a 2nd Lieutenant was a violation of army rules!

Historic injustices of institutional and personal racism have been put right. In 2001 the FA apologised for the historic racial abuse players of colour – like Tony Whelan – had to suffer as part of their working life.

The Ministry of Defence has also sought to make amends.  In 2006 Maori Sergeant Haane Manahi posthumously received formal recognition of his bravery and an apology for denial of a Victoria Cross 63 years after it was ‘ “inexplicably” countermanded by an anonymous Whitehall official in the Second World War”.

The US military has also made amends. Eighty six years after his death African-American soldier Henry Johnson was honoured with the prestigious Medal of Honour, the equivalent to the UK’s  Victoria Cross.  President Obama said: “America can’t  change what happened to Henry Johnson. We can’t  change what happened too, to many soldiers like him, who went uncelebrated because our nation judged them by the colour of their skin and not the content of their character. But we can do our best to make it right.”

There has been a campaign demanding the Ministry of Defence posthumously award Tull his Military Cross since 2006 and many groups and individuals have joined this loose federation since. Let’s hope the latest ‘big push’, Tottenham Labour m.p. David Lammy’s Early Day Motion, supported by the leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn and 125 other parliamentarians, adds the necessary additional weight to cave in the MoD’s resistance .

There is a precedent for someone receiving the MC after their death. Captain Herbert Richard Westmacott, an officer of the Grenadier Guards (2nd Battalion) on extra regimental employment to the Special Air Service (SAS), died in an encounter with the IRA. The highest-ranking SAS officer to be killed in Northern Ireland during Operation Banner Westmacott was posthumously awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in Northern Ireland during the first quarter of 1980. 


To award Tull his medal will have a practical and symbolic significance: it will right an historic injustice to an individual; serve as a belated recognition of the collective acts of bravery and gallantry by Black soldiers; and act as an apology for their second-rate treatment as combatants during the war and veterans after when they were overlooked and ignored in the London victory parades. It will, most importantly, draw a line under the historic injustice caused by the colour bar in the military.

©Phil Vasili, March 26, 2018.