Walter Tull – 1914 – 1918, The War Years
Walter travelled down from Northampton to London, on 21st December 1914, to enlist in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). He was reported to be the first Northampton Town player to do so. He joined the 17th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, commonly known as the Footballer’s Battalion. Joining a ‘pals’ Battalion of fellow footballers may have made it easier for Walter to circumnavigate the problems often encountered by people of colour wishing to enlist into the British Army, during the First World War.
Walter began his army training early in 1915, but was also able to continue playing for Northampton Town, and so completed the 1914/15 season before his battalion was posted to the Pas-de-Calais, in northern France, in November 1915. By this stage Walter had been promoted three times, now holding the rank of Lance Sergeant.
In May 1916 Walter returned to England suffering from ‘acute mania’, or what today may have been diagnosed as shell shock, or post-traumatic stress disorder. After a period of hospitalisation and recuperation, Walter was considered fit to return to active service in September and was posted to the 23rd Middlesex, the 2nd Footballer’s Battalion, returning to the Western Front on 29th October 1916
Early in 1917 Lance Sergeant Tull returned to England, this time to undergo officer training. According to the 1914 Manual of Military Law soldiers that were not “of pure European descent” were specifically barred from becoming commissioned officers, and certainly from commanding British troops in action. Despite this, Walter completed his training and was commissioned on 30th May 1917.
Walter then re-joined the 23rd Middlesex, who were still serving on the Western Front, and saw action in a number of major engagements including the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendale. In November 1917, what was left of the 23rd Middlesex, was transferred to northern Italy, where in January 1918 Walter received a citation for “gallantry and coolness” under fire from Major-General Sydney Lawford, Commander of the 41st Division of the British Army.
On 8th March 1918 Second Lieutenant Tull returned to France, and the horrors of the Western Front. By 21st March the Germans had launched the offensive known as “Operation Michael”, and the Second Battle of the Somme had begun. The British and French Armies very quickly lost most of the ground gained during the conflict of the previous year.
On 25th March Walter was ordered to lead his men in an attack on German trenches at Favreuil. Not far into No Man’s Land, Walter was hit by machine gun fire, and died. Despite the best efforts of his men, his body was never recovered.
Walter is remembered on the Memorial Wall in Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery, Arras, along with 35,000 other souls whose bodies were never recovered from battlefields in that area of France.