'An example of overcoming adversity': Walter Tull, the first black British infantry officer who led troops in WW1

  • By ITV News Multimedia Producer Nitya Rajan

The arduous life of one of Britain's first black officers was all about "equality" and "overcoming adversity" his family have said, as they commemorate the centenary of the First World War.

Walter Tull died during battle in France, aged 29.

He was the first black British infantry officer to lead men into battle and despite facing racial abuse, his descendants say he won the respect of his troops.

Describing his strength of character, Mr Tull's grand-nephew Duncan Finlayson told ITV News: "Regardless of how he was treated, he treated people with the respect, otherwise he wouldn't have achieved what he did."

His time in the army was preceded by a footballing career which, according to his family, would have been frowned upon at the time.

Walter Tull playing for Tottenham Hotspur. Credit: Finlayson Family Archive

During his time as an outfield player for Tottenham Hotspur he suffered racial discrimination. One particular match against Bristol City saw the racism escalate to levels that even the local paper was "appalled," Mr Finlayson said.

His grand-nephew added that despite the abuse he faced, he "maintained his calm and he really was the only gentleman in that situation."

Local coverage of a Tottenham Hotspur vs Bristol City game during which Walter Tull suffered an 'appalling' level of abuse. Credit: Finlayson Family Archive

Walter's determination to succeed appears to have been shaped by a childhood marked by personal loss.

Born in Folkestone, where the council have marked his memory with an exhibition, he became known as a "single-minded" individual.

"He was one of the first black officers to lead white men in battle", Exhibition Officer Sally Hough told ITV News.

She explained, he had "tremendous hardships he had to contend with," including losing both his parents before the age of 12.

Following their deaths, Walter was sent to an orphanage in Bethnal Green, London, along with his brother Edward.

A class photo with Walter Tull (middle, top row) and his brother Edward Tull (far right, middle row). Credit: Finlayson Family Archive

But the boys were later separated when Edward was adopted by a family in Glasgow.

"Walter would have felt extremely isolated once Edward had left the children's home," Ms Hough explained.

"But then he throws himself into sport. He becomes an accomplished cricketer and footballer and that becomes his way of dealing with all of those hardships."

Walter Tull, 14, in the orphanage's football team. Credit: Finlayson Family Archive

His resilience was evident even at a young age. A medical report penned while he was at the orphanage described him as "honest, truthful" and "generally dutiful".

According to his relatives, his sense of duty was shaped by his Methodist upbringing, a belief system instilled in him by his dad, Daniel Tull.

Remarking on what this generation can learn from Mr Tull, his grand-nephew said: "I think his story appears to be one that gives some potential encouragement about what perhaps any of us might be able to achieve even in difficult circumstances."