Mystery of grave of one of Britain’s first black officers Walter Tull may have been solved

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A historian has claimed he has identified the grave of Walter Tull – one of the British Army’s first black officers. 

Tull was killed fighting in the Great War in 1918 and expert Andy Robertshaw has said he believes he is now buried at the Héninel-Croisilles Road cemetery near Lille in northern France.

Speaking on the Amazing War Stories podcast, the historian said that Tull – who was an ex-Tottenham Hotspur footballer – was probably originally buried alongside other casualties from his unit in a shell hole made by the Germans. 

A historian has claimed he has identified the grave of Walter Tull (pictured) - one of the British Army's first black officers

A historian has claimed he has identified the grave of Walter Tull (pictured) – one of the British Army’s first black officers

The headstone in the cemetery carries the badge of his regiment.   

It comes as last month the discovery of a war plaque revealed Tull was not the first black British Army officer as many had believed but it was in fact Lieutenant Euan Lucie-Smith who had joined up three years before. 

Mr Robertshaw studied the war diary of Tull’s unit, eyewitness accounts, historic maps and records of the Imperial War Graves Commission to make his assessment of where his grave might be.

Ex-Tottenham Hotspur footballer Tull was killed fighting in the Great War in 1918 and now expert Andy Robertshaw has said he believes he is now buried at the Héninel-Croisilles Road cemetery near Lille in northern France

Ex-Tottenham Hotspur footballer Tull was killed fighting in the Great War in 1918 and now expert Andy Robertshaw has said he believes he is now buried at the Héninel-Croisilles Road cemetery near Lille in northern France

He said that, in the spring of 1920, 14 bodies of men of the 23rd Middlesex were recovered together in a location after it withdrew on the day of Tull’s death. 

The site is half a mile east of where the battalion’s headquarters at Biefvillers-lès-Bapaume had been overrun and its commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Alan Haig-Brown, another former Spurs player, was killed earlier in the day. 

Attempts by Tull’s men to recover his body failed and the men who saw him fall said he was in the open and they had to retreat to cover. 

Mr Robertshaw added that the sunken lanes close to where the bodies were found would have been ideal for this purpose.

He said the bodies appeared to be those of most of the men of Tull’s battalion who were killed after the headquarters were overrun.  

He said: ‘It is probable that Tull lies with his comrades in the cemetery at Croisilles with a headstone that states ‘Known unto God’ and is identified by his regiment – that would be key to him and to any soldier.’  

Despite the racist abuse Tull had suffered as a footballer, he quickly rose through the ranks to become an officer, dying a hero's death on the battlefields before being remembered on a First World War centenary stamp (pictured) in 2018

Despite the racist abuse Tull had suffered as a footballer, he quickly rose through the ranks to become an officer, dying a hero’s death on the battlefields before being remembered on a First World War centenary stamp (pictured) in 2018 

Tull – who was born in Kent to a Barbadian father and an English mother – spent part of his childhood in an orphanage and signed for Tottenham Hotspur, aged 21 in 1909. 

But his career was cut short when war started in 1914 and he joined the newly formed 17th (Football) Battalion, Middlesex Regiment – known as the Pal’s Battalion. 

Despite the racist abuse he had suffered as a footballer, he quickly rose through the ranks to become an officer, dying a hero’s death on the battlefields before being remembered on a First World War centenary stamp in 2018. 

Duncan Finlayson, a retired teacher in Ross-shire and Tull’s great-nephew, said that he was ‘immensely proud’ of what Tull achieved and plans to visit the cemetery.

‘He’s commemorated on a memorial wall in Arras with 35,000 others, so we just accepted that. It’s a nice thought he might have a headstone even if it doesn’t name him,’ he told The Times

Hero who won his Spurs in No Man’s Land: The amazing life of football star Walter Tull

Walter Tull’s father, Daniel, was from Barbados but emigrated to Britain as a 20-year-old in 1876.

He found work as a carpenter and married a local girl, Alice Palmer, four years later, before having Walter and his brother Edward.

His mother tragically died of cancer when Walter was just seven years old and his father died of heart disease in 1897.

Aged nine, Walter was placed in Bonner Road Children’s Home in the East End of London with his brother Edward.

Walter Tull overcame adversity early on in life - he was orphaned as a child and grew up in a children's home - to make his name as a professional footballer and then dying a hero leading out troops in the Great War. Pictured left with fellow officers

Walter Tull overcame adversity early on in life – he was orphaned as a child and grew up in a children’s home – to make his name as a professional footballer and then dying a hero leading out troops in the Great War. Pictured left with fellow officers

Two years after entering the home, Walter and Edward were split up when Edward was adopted and went to live in Glasgow.

Despite the adversity he faced early on, Walter impressed scouts while playing football for his children’s home and signed for top local amateur side, Clapton, in 1908.

The following year, he signed as a professional for Tottenham, making his first team debut against Manchester United. During his short career he endured racist abuse from crowds during matches. 

He was transferred to Northampton Town in October 1911 and played over 100 first team games before the war started.

He joined the newly-formed 17th (Football) Battalion, Middlesex Regiment,  part of the army’s ‘Pals Battalion’ that was made up of more than 120 professional footballers.

Walter signed as a professional for Tottenham (pictured, in white), making his first team debut playing against Manchester United during the 1909/10 season

Walter signed as a professional for Tottenham (pictured, in white), making his first team debut playing against Manchester United during the 1909/10 season

At the time there was a military rule excluding ‘negroes’ from exercising command as it was believed white soldiers would not wish to fight alongside black soldiers.

But Walter bucked this trend and became a black combat officer in the British Army. He was promoted through the ranks and became a second lieutenant on May 29, 1917.

He fought at the Somme, Passchendaele and during the Italian campaign of the winter of 1917 where was cited for ‘gallantry and coolness’ for leading his company of 26 men to safety during two night missions. 

In November 1917, Walter’s battalion was sent to northern Italy to help in the fight against both Austrian and German forces along the River Piave, north-west of Treviso.

On the centenary of the end of the Great War, Walter was remembered on a First World War stamp for his contribution to the war effort

On the centenary of the end of the Great War, Walter was remembered on a First World War stamp for his contribution to the war effort

While there, Walter volunteered on more than one occasion to cross over the River Piave, under cover of darkness, where elements of the German Army were based.

These dangerous night-time sorties involved both evidence gathering and carrying out an attack.

On both occasions, not only did Walter return unscathed, but he did so without incurring a single casualty among his men, feats which greatly impressed his commanding officer, Major General (later Sir) Sydney Lawford.

Mjr Gen Lawford mentioned him in despatches and recommended him for the award of the Military Cross, which he never received.

His incredible story was also memorialised on a specially-designed post box to mark Black History Month in September

His incredible story was also memorialised on a specially-designed post box to mark Black History Month in September

Walter died a hero aged 30 while leading his men in a counter attack against German defensive positions near the village of Favreuil in the Pas-de-Calais region on March 25, 1918. 

His men tried to recover his body from the battlefield but were unable to reach him due to the sheer volume of enemy fire.

His body was never found. He is commemorated on the Arras Memorial.

Years on from the conflict, historians have revealed his significant contribution to the war effort, which has been recognised in several ways.

On the centenary of the end of the war, Walter was remembered on a First World War stamp, and last month was memorialised on a specially-designed post box to mark Black History Month.

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