Against All Odds: Walter Tull the Black Lieutenant

Written by Stephen Wynn
Review by Edward James

Walter Tull, born in Kent to West Indian parents, was the first black officer in the British army to lead white troops into action.  There were at least three other black officers at the time (WW1), but they were not front-line infantry.  For a permanent commission an officer had to be of ‘pure European descent’, but the army was not so fussy about temporary wartime commissions.

Unlike the other black officers Tull was not rich or well-educated.  He grew up in a children’s home in east London.  His distinction was that he became a professional footballer with Tottenham Hotspur, one of the first black professionals. His military career was not a happy one, although the author does not go into this.  In 1915 he was sent back from France suffering from ‘shellshock’, but after a long convalescence was selected for officer training, returned to the front and was killed in the final months of the war.

Too little is known about Tull to fill a book, so the author fleshes it out with biographies of other black officers and footballers and casualty lists from Tull’s unit.  There is a wonderful historical novel to be written here.