In part one, we went into soccer pioneer Walter Tull’s short career in English professional football. A stellar athlete he performed well on each of the clubs he joined. It would be a sense of British patriotism during World War I that ended his professional career.
World War I Service
Europe was at war in the summer of 1914 and eventually, Walter Tull would join the British war effort. He would be recognized in the press as both the first Northampton Town player to join the British Army and as the first Black infantry officer.
He was placed in the 17th Service Battalion, Middlesex Regiment initially. Known as the “Football Battalion,” it was one of several pals battalions—a fight force made of soldiers who enlisted together and were either friends or family. Tull was also a member of the 23rd or Second Football Battalion.
In 1916, he fought at the Battle of the Somme and possible two other conflicts that the 17th participated in: the Battle of Guillemont and the Battle of Delville Wood. It was following the Battle of the Somme that he was promoted to second lieutenant. Prior to that, he served as a lance sergeant.
While serving with the 23rd Battalion in late 1917 and early 1918, he participated in conflicts on the Italian Front and was said to be as commendable a soldier as he was a football player. On one account, Tull led a 26-man raiding party against the enemy. Not only was this raid successful, he didn’t lose a soldier under his command.
Even though it was against British Army rules, the 23rd’s commanding officer Major Poole as well as second lieutenant Pickard stated that Walter Tull was recommended for a Military Cross.
Death and Tributes
In March 1918, Tull and the 23rd headed into conflict in northern France against Germany. He would meet his fate later that month on March 25 while fighting in the First Battle of Bapaume. During the battle, former Leicester Fosse goalkeeper and private Tom Billingham attempted unsuccessfully to retrieve Tull’s body under enemy fire. As a result, his body was never recovered and returned to England.
In the years following his death, it was revealed that the Rangers F.C club in Glasgow had signed with them while stationed in Scotland. Towards the end of the century in July 1999, Northampton Town F.C. erected a memorial to Walter Tull in Sixfields Stadium’s Garden of Remembrance.
Other tributes to him include a £5 coin in 2014 from the Royal Mint and a road near Sixfields Stadium. There is also a bar, a number of statues, and a tribute game. In 2018, one hundred years following his death, he received the Military Cross.