Walter Tull wasn’t only a war hero, he was a pioneer in the fight against colour prejudice too. He didn’t campaign about race relations and as far as we can tell he never involved himself in politics. He just lived his short life on his own terms and set an example that represented one more step along the road toward racial equality.
He was born in Kent and was one of the first to join up when war was declared in 1914. Despite the institutional colour prejudice that was rife in the military of the day he served with great honour and commitment on several European battlefields.
The British Army of the day forbad any soldier with negroid or Asian features from attaining an officer’s commission. Yet Tull’s cool-headedness and evident courage under fire led to his commission as second lieutenant with the Middlesex Regiment. That may not be the highest rank the army has to offer but his promotion from the ranks represented a significant watershed all the same.
The challenges this junior officer must have had to overcome would have been manifold. He was the first black man to lead white troops in the whole history of the British army. And he did so with a cool head and a keen eye for battlefield strategy, returning from raiding parties more than once without the loss of a single man under his command.
We wonder what would have become of Tull’s military career had he remained in the army after the armistice was declared. Sadly, we can only speculate because Walter Tull never made it to November 11th 1918. A victim of shell-shock he left the front for a time but returned to be with his men and share in the execution of their duty to King and country. He died of wounds in the final year of the war amid the horror and carnage of the Western front.
Regularly mentioned in despatches, Walter Tull was recommended for the Military Cross for his gallantry and coolness under fire. However he never received it. A black junior officer was one thing. A decorated black junior officer may have been too much for the military establishment of the day to accept.
Happily, the British army has travelled far on the road to equality since Walter Tull broke the glass ceiling to become an officer despite the colour of his skin. Today colour and race are of no importance to most of us.
Let’s keep it that way!
When you buy your poppy this year, wear it with pride in remembrance of Walter Tull.
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