Waging a war for Tull
A BATTLE of a different kind is being waged in England to get the British Army to award one of its highest honours to a Bajan-Brit killed during World War I.
Walter Tull, believed to be one of Britain’s first black army officers also made history in 1909 when he became the first black outfield professional footballer in England, playing for Tottenham Hotspur.
Now, almost a century after he gave his life while leading a group of white soldiers in an attack on the Western Front, a campaign is gathering steam in England to getthe army to award the son of a Barbadian one of England’s highest honours, the Military Cross.
A play based on Tull’s life is being produced in London and many supporters say the Bajan-Brit earned the posthumous honour and insist it’s about time his battlefield exploits should be recognized by the Ministry of Defence.
“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 officer material,” asserted Phil Vasil, the author of Tull’s biography. “The rules were broken because it suited the army to do so. However, the rejection of his Military Cross recommendation was, I feel, because he embodied a legal contradiction of an officer of non-European descent.”
The drive for the award is based on his exemplary military record and his leadership and determination to help Britain win the war. After he gave up professional football to answer the call for able-bodied men to fight in the trenches, he was given an officer’s commission. Tull was shell-shocked during the Battle of the Somme but was quick to return to the front lines where he was eventually killed. He was revered by his men, so much so that they broke rank to retrieve his body from the battlefield.
“He had been recommended for the Military Cross and had certainly earned it,” Lieutenant Pickard said to Tull’s family at the time.
Michael Morpurgo, who wrote the War Horse and was inspired by Tull’s story, put it differently.
“Apart from the fact that the man clearly deserved it [the medal] the most important thing is he represents one of the earliest examples of a black man dying for his country,” said Morpurgo.
Lord Danmart, a former head of the British Army, said recently that he 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 army 20th century”.
But service in the army was only a small part of Tull’s life story. After his parents died when he was 10 years old, Tull was taken in by a Methodist Church orphanage and was later signed by Tottenham Hotspur to play for the First Division club.
Published reports at the time detailed the appalling racist abuse he suffered at the hand of English football fans. It was so brutal after an away game at Bristol City that a journalist wrote in 1909: “Let me tell those Bristol hooligans that Tull is as clean in mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football.”