There are two myths surrounding football in the First World War. One, that everybody suddenly downed tools and had a kickabout with the Germans on Christmas Day in 1914 and two, that British soldiers played footie as they walked across no-man’s lands towards the German machine guns.
In actual fact, they were both true but maybe not to the exaggerated extent we see in film and adverts. The Christmas football game did happen, but by no means to the extent we are led to believe, and the soldiers did indeed kick footballs towards the guns, though officers had instructed them to merely kick them forward and ‘not to chase after them’, the idea being that the presence of even a little part of the beautiful game would somehow make men feel comfortable whilst walking to their doom.
One thing is for certain though, if there was a football in France during that time, then Britain’s first black professional footballer, Walter Tull, wouldn’t have been far behind.
Without this turning into just another wiki entry, let’s start with a brief summary of who Walter was and then get on to the bit we all love (and which I am pretty sure he would like to have been remembered for), in other words his prowess and bravery both on the football field and in the trenches.
WHO WAS WALTER TULL?
Born in Folkestone in 1888 after his parents had emigrated from Barbados, Walter Daniel John Tull led a difficult early life that culminated in him and his brother entering an orphanage after his dad died after his mother couldn’t afford to keep them. Despite many adversities, including being separated from his brother after the lad was adopted to a family in Scotland, Walter remained at the orphanage and soon started to thrive at both cricket and football.
It wasn’t long before Walter was spotted by local scouts and in 1908 he was signed as an Inside Left by Clapton, a local East London amateur club, having an excellent first season and being described as having ‘clever footwork’ and as ‘the catch of the season’ by one local newspaper. In that season the club won three trophies
1909: SIGNING FOR SPURS AND GETTING NOTICED BY THE PRESS
With a growing reputation as a cool headed, fleet-footed inside forward (how good we have been in the modern game btw?), Walter soon drew the attention of professional clubs and at the end of his first amateur season was snapped up by Tottenham Hotspur with a signing-on fee of £10 and a weekly wage of £4. After a couple of starts one of his most notable early games was against the then FA Cup holders Manchester United in front of a crowd of 30,000, where he won a penalty with the game finishing 2-2 to give Spurs their first point that season, gaining a truly memorable press write-up in the process:
“Tull’s display on Saturday must have astounded everyone who saw it. Such perfect coolness, such judicious waiting for a fraction of a second in order to get a pass in not before a defender has worked to a false position, and such accuracy of strength in passing I have not seen for a long time. During the first half, Tull just compelled Curtis to play a good game, for the outside-right was plied with a series of passes that made it almost impossible for him to do anything other than well.”
.. and this, my personal favourite, Goddamn how good would this have looked on Monday night football?
“Tull did not get the ball and rush on into trouble. He let his opponents do the rushing, and defeated them by side touches and side-steps worthy of a professional boxer.”
Daily Chronicle, 9th October 1909
Sadly though, racial abuse started to follow whenever Walter played and despite 10 excellent performances in which he scored twice, he was dropped to the reserves. The abuse was so bad at times that it even led to the first recorded write up of racial abuse by The Football Star, who to their absolute credit nonetheless still praised his prowess in the game, which seemed to endure whenever he was mentioned in a paper, for whatever reason ..
“He is Hotspur’s most brainy forward …
so clean in mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football … Tull was the best forward on the field.”
Spurs vs Bristol City match report, the Football Star Oct 1909
1910: SPURS’ LOSS, NORTHAMPTON’S GAIN
Despite the racism issues and Walter’s relegation to a fringe player mostly playing in the reserves, the match reports continued to glow, culminating in the 1910-11 season with 10 goals in 27 starts for the reserves and a first team goal against Manchester City. However, supposedly disillusioned by his lack of first team appearances, Walter accepted an approach from Northampton Town for a ‘heavy fee’ under the charge of the great Herbert Chapman, who would later go on to be a highly successful manager of both Huddersfield Town and Arsenal.
Chapman was sympathetic to Tull’s plight, having played years before under Britain’s first ever black player, Arthur Wharton, and this and his radical (for the time) training methods, completely revitalised Walter’s career.
Favouring the then unfashionable method of pre-game plans and tactical discussions, Chapman was one of the first coaches to make game to game adjustments based on his observance of the way the game was played in general and also the opposition’s interpretation of it. For example, when noticing the fashion for teams to defend in large numbers he developed the deep counter attack, leading to him saving the team from relegation in his first season in charge. In his second season, this approach was further validated when Northampton won the league with a record 25 wins from 40 games with 90 goals.
“The longer I have been on the managerial side of the game, the more I am convinced that all-round intelligence is one of the highest qualifications of the footballer.”
Herbert Chapman, 1910, the same time he was signing Walter Tull
This couldn’t have worked out better for Walter, who repaid Chapman’s faith in him with 110 first team appearances, mostly as a wing-half then latterly in his favoured Inside Forward position, where he truly realised his potential, scoring 4 goals in a single game.
1914: RANGERS AND THE FOOTBALL BATTALION
By 1914, news of Walter’s excellent league record and growing reputation as a dynamic inside forward spread north of the border to Glasgow Rangers.
Rangers, much in need of the exact player that Walter had become, were in the process of preparing a large transfer bid pretty much at the exact same time that a young Serbian student called Gavrilo Princip unwittingly began the process that led to the start of the First World War by shooting Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on the 28th June. Despite the news of this only appearing as a small footnote in many British newspapers at the time, as we all know by August of 1914 the world was at war.
Predictably, young men like Walter now had other priorities and along with many other young British footballers he immediately swapped his footie boots and kit for an army uniform and made himself available to fight, joining a specially formed ‘Football Battalion’ section within the Middlesex regiment.
Similar to the terrible decision to create Pals’ battalions, which saw young men from single communities (and even the same streets) get mowed down en masse, the footballer’s battalion would eventually lead to the loss of swathes of footballers during its history. However, without that prior knowledge, the natural camaraderie of men in arms, coupled with the additional team bonding from being footballers made the battalion a formidable fit fighting force who fought with distinction throughout the war.
In Walter’s case, the footballer’s battalion was a perfect place to extend and display the skills of tenacity, leadership and bravery in the face of adversity he had shown on the pitch and this was soon recognised with his promotion to Sergeant shortly after joining, arriving in France in 1915.
Initially billeted behind the lines, Walter reflected on the battalion’s hunger to get into the fight in a letter to his brother ..
“For the last three weeks my Battalion has been resting some miles distant from the firing line but we are now going up to the trenches for a month or so. Afterwards we shall begin to think about coming home on leave. It is a very monotonous life out here when one is supposed to be resting and most of the boys prefer the excitement of the trenches.”
Walter Tull, January 1916
However, like many soldiers the reality of warfare was deeply disturbing to experience and after a bout of shellshock in which he briefly returned to England, Walter recovered to take part in the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, witnessing no doubt the death of many friends as they went over the top in an offensive that was to last for over 4 months and claim 420,000 British casulaties, 20,000 of which were killed, almost unbelievably, in the first hour.
By this time, Walter’s leadership skills were clearly apparent and he was nominated to go on an officer’s course, which he attended in Scotland, gaining his commision in May 1917, despite military regulations forbidding “any negro or person of colour” being an officer. Once more, Walter was rewriting the rule book and challenging convention to become the first ever Black officer in the British Army.
1916-18: ITALY, FRANCE, FULL TIME
Now a seasoned war veteran of many skirmishes and battles, Walter was sent to Italy to lead his men in a famous assault at the Battle of the Piave which led to him being mentioned in despatches, when during the raid he was recommended for his “gallantry and coolness under fire” and ..
“ … took the covering party of the main body across and brought them back without a casualty in spite of heavy fire.”
British Army despatch, 2nd January 1918
Shortly afterwards, and now with 3 years of heavy fighting behind him, Walter was again sent to France towards the action which would finally and sadly claim his life, when on the 25th March 1918 he was ordered to lead his men to attack the German trenches at a place called Favreuil.
Within minutes, at the front of his men who had now become reliant on his leadership, Walter fell dead from the barrel of a German machine gun that had been pointing directly at them. It says a lot here that his men, knowing that the recovery of his body was probably futile under the continuing hail of bullets, persisted in trying to recover his body for some time before finally having to retreat. How their hearts must have sank when days later when the battle was done, Walter’s body couldn’t be found.
Perhaps the best final words on his death were written at the time by his friend, another officer called Lieutenant Pickard, who wrote to Edward, Walter’s brother, on the 17th April 1918 to say ..
” …the Battalion and Company have lost a faithful officer; personally I have lost a friend. Can I say more, except that I hope that those who remain may be true and faithful as he.”
Lieutenant Pickard, 17th April 1918
EPILOGUE: WHY HAVE I WROTE THIS?
At this time of year we often say ‘lest we forget’ and reflect for a minute on those who died in the wars and I’m sure the vast majority of us truly mean it. However yesterday whilst watching Salford play Burton Albion during the minute’s silence with my best pal next to me and a pie and a pint I had one of those moments when I just felt so Goddamn grateful for what we have.
In other words, how bad would life be without our mates, food in our bellies and the freedom to enjoy the wonderful things that are our beautiful game and maybe a cheeky cup run in Football Manager?
With that in mind and with the 100 years anniversary of WW1 now gone, I just wanted to to call attention again to fellas like Walter who when it came down to it were just fellas like us, albeit with the courage to stand up to tyranny and to fight and die for the incredible life we have today.
So here’s to you Walter, and see all you fellas soon for the next blog when we shall be returning to SM Caen (who btw have just gone top of the league) 🙂
PS You’re cutting onions, I’m not.
Best wishes, lest we forget,.
Daz aka @fmheathen