2Lt Walter Tull
5th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment (originally 17th Battalion)
The subject of several biographies, a BBC2 television drama and a BBC Radio 5 documentary, Walter Tull is probably the most famous First World War footballer, but few people realise that he played some games for Reading FC.
Born in Folkestone on 28th April 1888, the son of a Kentish mother and a Barbadian carpenter father, Walter was orphaned at an early age following the death of his mother, Alice, through breast cancer and, after his father had re-married to Alice’s niece Clara, his own sudden death through a heart attack. With Clara unable to cope financially with a large family, Walter, along with his elder brother, Edward, was admitted to the Bethnal Green Children’s Home and Orphanage in 1897, where he developed into both a fine footballer and cricketer.
Winning the FA Amateur Cup with Clapton FC in 1909, with a record 6-0 victory in the final against Northern League, Eston United, further success quickly followed that season with Clapton winning both the London Senior Cup and the London County Amateur Cup. Up to 20th March 1909, when he was eulogised in the London Football Star newspaper, ‘as without doubt Clapton’s catch of the season,’ he had never been on a losing side.
While still a Clapton player, Walter had trials with Tottenham Hotspur, playing in a number of friendlies, but owing to his strict Methodist upbringing he struggled with the ethics of professionalism in sport. The practicalities of having to make ends meet eventually winning through, he signed professional terms and he was soon in the Spurs first team, playing his first four games for them during their tour of South America. His first Football League goal for Spurs came in a 5-1 defeat at Bradford City in September 1909, which he quickly followed by netting twice in a 3-2 victory in a mid-week friendly with Reading.
Unfortunately, as one of the League’s first outfield players of mixed heritage, he was subject to some terrible racial abuse and after particularly vicious abuse at Bristol City on 2nd October 1909 he was not selected for the Spurs team again, being demoted to the reserves as ‘protection’.
Following a loan spell at Midlands League Heanor Town in the 1910-11 season, in October 1911 he was sold to Northampton Town, managed by Herbert Chapman who was embarking on his managerial career. Walter, after a quiet start, became a very popular regular in the Northampton Town Southern League side and he most probably played against Reading during his three seasons with the Cobblers.
One of the first players to enlist in the 17th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, The Football Battalion (his service number was F55), Walter rose to the rank of Lance Sergeant but after fighting at Souchez early in 1916, he was hospitalised for three months with ‘extreme mania’, later known to be shell shock and now classed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Initially in hospital in Wimereux, he was transferred back to England on 9th May 1916.
By September he had recovered and, while he was waiting to return to the front, Walter played twice for Reading FC, in his favoured left half position, in away games at Fulham and West Ham. Those games could have done little for his wellbeing as Reading lost 9-0 and 5-1 respectively in what seems to have been Walter’s last competitive games in Britain before he returned to France on 20th September 1916, having been posted to the 23rd Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, the Second Football Battalion.
Back in military action, Walter rose to the rank of Second Lieutenant, despite the fact that army regulations forbade mixed-heritage soldiers becoming officers in command of white troops. Having fought at Passchendaele and in Italy, where Walter was commended for his gallantry and coolness, the 23rd Middlesex returned to the French frontline to fight in the German ‘Spring Offensive’. On 25th March 1918, Walter Tull was killed in a defensive action just to the north of Bapaume.
His body was never recovered but he is honoured at the Arras Memorial to the Missing. At the time of his death, he had been recommended for the Military Cross and there has been a recent online petition for the honour to be awarded posthumously. One of the roads leading to Sixfields, home of Northampton Town, is named Walter Tull Way, while a memorial to him has been erected at the stadium with the following epitaph:
“Through his actions, Tull ridiculed the barriers of ignorance that tried to deny people of colour equality with their contemporaries. 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.”
Killed in Action at Favreuil, 25th March 1918.
Commemorated at Arras Memorial, France.