Reflections on Tottenham’s war and football connections

Walter Tull (left) with British army comrades Credit: Wikicommons

By Liam Davis

This year more than ever, has given us more opportunities to reflect.

With Coronavirus being such a dominant force in our lives at the moment, I’ve turned my attention, this November, to those who were born, lived or worked in Tottenham and who served in conflicts on behalf of Great Britain, in the First and Second World Wars.

Tottenham has a scattering of war memorials, the main one at Town Hall Approach Road, N15 and a smaller memorial at the junction of West Green Road and Phillip Lane, N15. There are also memorials or plaques commemorating those who fell, in Tottenham Cemetery and various local churches.

Tottenham Hotspur had a lot of players that served in the services during the First World War (1914-18), namely, Harry Bagge, George Bowler, John Fleming (killed), John Hebdon (killed), Alf Hobday (killed), Ed Lightfoot (killed), Billy Minter, William Oliver, John Pearson, Fanny Walden and Findlay Weir (killed).

One player who had moved on from Spurs by the time the war broke out was Walter Tull, the first black outfield footballer to play in England’s First Division (the modern-day Premier League).

Tull was born in Folkestone, Kent in 1888 but was raised an orphan in Bethnal Green after his father died not long after his mother in 1897. He made his debut for Tottenham in 1910 but suffered a huge degree of racial prejudice and discrimination, which led to him only making ten appearances in total for the club, before transferring to Northampton Town in 1911.

Tull joined the 17th Battalion of the Middlesex regiment in December 1914. By the end of 1915 and having arrived in France, he had been promoted to the rank of sergeant. He saw service right through 1916, taking part in the Somme offensive, before returning to Britain for officer training, subsequently becoming a second-lieutenant.

Upon returning to the battle front in 1917, Tull joined the 23rd Battalion also known as ‘2nd footballers.’ He served at the third battle of Ypres becoming the first black officer to lead white troops into battle. Tull went on to be mentioned in dispatches in 1918, being recommended for the
military cross, which was not granted.

The 23rd Battalion came under heavy fire, west of the Arras-Bapaume Road, suffering heavy casualties. Second-Lieutenant Tull was killed on 25th March 1918 in machine gun fire as he attempted to rally his troops. His body was never recovered.

Tull is one of the 35,000 names on the Arras memorial to those who were missing in action. His legacy has been fully acknowledged in more recent times, with a plaque installed at 77 Northumberland Park, the site of a house Tull lived in before the war. In 2015, a steel statue of Tull was installed in Downhills Park.

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