The tale of Walter Tull: WW1 hero shot dead in no-man’s land and English football’s first black outfield player

By Alex Bysouth

The tale of a remarkable World War One hero shot dead crossing no-man’s land on the Western front and first ever black outfield player in the Football League is an inspiring story, but one heard by so few.

The world premiere of ‘Tull’ plays at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton this month and coincides with a campaign to decorate Walter Tull posthumously for his First World War efforts, which were never recognised due to the colour of his skin.

Tull – an orphaned black boy who became an inside forward for Spurs in 1908 – managed to overcome the prejudice he faced on the football pitch and racial military rules to join the Great War effort in 1914.

His heroism in battle was rewarded with promotion to Second Lieutenant in 1917, becoming one of the first black British officers in the British army, but Tull was killed in action aged 29 in France a year later – his body never recovered, but his name remembered on the war memorial at Arras among 30,000 other soldiers.

Phil Vasili spent 15 years researching Walter Tull before putting together his biography, after an attempted film project failed to get off the ground the screenplay was adapted for theatre with the help of artistic director David Thacker.

“Everyone at The Octagon, Bolton, has done a fantastic job in bringing the script and story alive,” said Mr Vasili.

“It is exciting because Tull’s story deserves to be more widely known and it is told by the cast in such an exhilarating way.

“Artistic director David Thacker, the wonderful cast, movement director Lesley Hutchison, the composer Adrian Johnston and the technical crew have all helped shape what we see on stage.”

Just £4 a week may seem like nothing when compared to Wayne Rooney’s quarter of a million a week, but Tull – whose father, a carpenter from Barbados, passed away before the turn of the century – was the highest paid footballer at Spurs at the time.

But his talent did not stop him becoming the victim of racial abuse from the terraces and he was eventually dropped from the side, despite being regarded in the press as a sportsman and a gentleman.

“Tull faced a schizophrenic world, full of good and bad,” explained Mr Vasili. “The obvious issue was racism.

“Black people in Victorian and Edwardian Britain were, quite simply, seen by many as biologically and intellectually inferior – less evolved.

“This dovetailed with the British ruling classes’ role as masters not only of Britain but of a large Empire in Africa where justification was needed for invasion and pillage.

“However, there were many progressive people, groups and organsiations in this country that fought against this ruling class view of the world.”

Keen to help the war effort, Tull volunteered for the Football Battalion 17th Middlesex Regiment and was sent to France to fight, before suffering severely from shell shock in 1916.

Mr Vasili believes Tull’s determination to break down class and racial boundaries can be an important lesson in today’s society.

“Tull fought back hard against those obstacles placed in his path,” he explained. “But he couldn’t do it alone – he needed help.

“By sticking together against those people and groups that try to divide us on the terraces and in society generally people of colour, anti-racists and the working-class can defeat racism.”

During Tull’s time, the British army required officers of ‘pure European descent’ and forbid ‘any negro or person of colour’, despite shell shock his efforts on the Somme saw him promoted to Second Lieutenant where he would lead soldiers across enemy lines – brave leadership which saw him recommended for a Military Cross.

However, Tull was never officially recognised for his bravery and efforts to award him a Military Cross posthumously are gathering momentum.

But Mr Vasili – a lifelong Marxist from a council estate – is sceptical about the intentions of the Ministry of Defence when recognising Tull posthumously.

“I think the MoD and government would like to give Walter his Military Cross and then use the positive publicity to military recruiting purposes to fight their wars,” he said.

“I think Tull – who came to hate the war – would be shocked to find he could be manipulated in this way.

“I’m not sure with me heading the campaign they would concede despite him thoroughly deserving it, as one of his fellow officers said at the time.”

War Horse author Michael Morpurgo has backed the campaign and is also calling for a statue of Tull to be unveiled in London.

“I think this is why Michael Morpurgo gets a lot of publicity in the media talking about the Military Cross campaign,” said Mr Vasili.

“As an ex-officer and Sandhurst man they could quite happily allow him victory on Walter’s behalf.”

Tull, by Phil Vasili, runs at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton from February 21 to March 16.

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