Walter Tull, the son of joiner, was born in Folkestone in April 1888. Walter's father, the son of a slave, had arrived from Barbados in 1876 and had married a girl from Kent. Over the next few years the couple had six children.
In 1895, when Walter was seven, his mother died. Walter's father remarried but died two years later. The stepmother was unable to cope with all six children and Walter and his brother Edward were sent to a Methodist run orphanage in Bethnal Green, London.
After finishing his schooling Tull served an apprenticeship as a printer. Walter was a keen footballer and had a trial at Clapton, a East London amateur club. By the beginning of the 1908-09 season Tull was playing for the first-team. A talented inside-forward, he helped Clapton enjoy a successful season. They won the Amateur Cup, the London Senior Cup and the London County Amateur Cup. The Football Star praised Tull's "clever footwork" and described him as being the "catch of the season".
Walter Tull was invited to join Tottenham Hotspur and the club decided to sign this promising young footballer. It has been claimed that Tull was only the second black man to play professional football in Britain. The first was Arthur Wharton, who signed for Preston North End in 1886.
In May 1909 Tull went on a tour of South America with Tottenham Hotspur and played games in Argentina and Uruguay. In a letter he wrote to a friend he complained that he was suffering from "sunstroke and feeling very queer for a few days." He also complained that "none of the waiters spoke English".
On his return to England Tull joined Spurs for a £10 signing-on fee. It was agreed that he would be paid the maximum wage of £4 per week. Spurs had just been promoted to the First Division of the Football League. Tull made his debut against Sunderland. Spurs lost 3-1 and they suffered a second defeat against Everton the following week. They got their first point with a 2-2 draw against Manchester United.
Tull got considerable praise for these early performances. The Daily Chronicle claimed that "Tull's display on Saturday (against Manchester United) must have astounded everyone who saw it. Such perfect coolness, such judicious waiting for a fraction of a second in order to get a pass in not before a defender has worked to a false position, and such accuracy of strength in passing I have not seen for a long time. During the first half, Tull just compelled Curtis to play a good game, for the outside-right was plied with a series of passes that made it almost impossible for him to do anything other than well."
Tull scored his first goal against Bradford City a week later. The Daily Chronicle pointed out on the 4th October, 1909, that he was "a class superior to that shown by most of his colleagues". However, after playing just seven first-team games he was dropped and played the rest of the season in the reserves.
In the 1910-11 season he played in only three games. This included a goal against Manchester City. He also scored 10 goals in 27 league games with the reserves. Disillusioned by his lack of first-team appearances he was transferred for what was said to be a "heavy transfer fee" to Northampton Town in the Southern League. He was signed by Herbert Chapman who was later to become a highly successful manager of Huddersfield Town and Arsenal. Chapman had originally played under Britain's first black player Arthur Wharton, when he was the coach of Stalybridge Rovers.
Tull scored four in one match while playing as an inside forward for Northampton Town. However, he played most of his 110 games for Northampton as a wing-half. Tull became the club's most popular player. Tull did not always get a good response from the fans of the opposition. The Northampton Echo reported on 9th October 1909: "A section of the spectators made a cowardly attack upon him in language lower than Billingsgate... Let me tell these Bristol hooligans (there were but few of them in a crowd of nearly twenty thousand) that Tull is so clean in mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football whether they be amateur or professional. In point of ability, if not in actual achievement, Tull was the best forward on the field.''
Tull's ... display on Saturday must have astounded everyone who saw it. Such perfect coolness, such judicious waiting for a fraction of a second in order to get a pass in not before a defender has worked to a false position, and such accuracy of strength in passing I have not seen for a long time."
Other clubs wanted to sign Walter Tull and in 1914 Glasgow Rangers began negotiations with Northampton Town. However, before he could play for them the First World War was declared. Tull immediately abandoned his career and offered his services to the British Army. Walter, like many professional players, joined the Football Battalion. At the time it was commanded by Major Frank Buckley. The Army soon recognised Tull's leadership qualities and he was quickly promoted to the rank of sergeant.
In July 1916, Tull took part in the major Somme offensive. Tull survived this experience but in December 1916 he developed trench fever and was sent home to England to recover. Tull had impressed his senior officers and recommended that he should be considered for further promotion. When he recovered from his illness, instead of being sent back to France, he went to the officer training school at Gailes in Scotland. Despite military regulations forbidding "any negro or person of colour" being an officer, Tull received his commission in May, 1917.
Walter Tull became the first Black combat officer in the British Army. As Phil Vasili has pointed out in his book, Colouring Over the White Line: "According to The Manual of Military Law, Black soldiers of any rank were not desirable. During the First World War, military chiefs of staff, with government approval, argued that White soldiers would not accept orders issued by men of colour and on no account should Black soldiers serve on the front line."
Lieutenant Walter Tull was sent to the Italian front. This was an historic occasion because Tull was the first ever black officer in the British Army. He led his men at the Battle of Piave and was mentioned in dispatches for his "gallantry and coolness" under fire.
Tull stayed in Italy until 1918 when he was transferred to France to take part in the attempt to break through the German lines on the Western Front. On 25th March, 1918, 2nd Lieutenant Tull was ordered to lead his men on an attack on the German trenches at Favreuil. Soon after entering No Mans Land Tull was hit by a German bullet. Tull was such a popular officer that several of his men made valiant efforts under heavy fire from German machine-guns to bring him back to the British trenches. These efforts were in vain as Tull had died soon after being hit. One of the soldiers who tried to rescue him later told his commanding officer that Tull was "killed instantaneously with a bullet through his head." Tull's body was never found.