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Walter Tull


John Simkin
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By a wonderful coincidence, I happened to be filming a lesson for Teachers TV about the death of Walter Tull on March 25th and it was only when one of the boys pointed out that it was the 90th anniversary of his death that I realised. We finish filming tomorrow and I will post up details of the two films that we have made as soon as I know any more.

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According to several accounts on Walter Tull it has been claimed that despite military regulations forbidding "any negro or person of colour" being an officer, Tull received his commission in May, 1917.

I have had an email from the British Army legal department pointing out:

This was not the case. The only prohibition was against ‘an alien’ enjoying ‘any office or place of trust’ (Act of Settlement Sec. 3), although they could hold honorary rank in the British Army, whether or not accompanied by a formal commission. Aliens could enlist in the British Army, see s. 95 (2) of the Manual of Military Law of 1914:

‘any inhabitant of any British protectorate and any negro or person of colour, ALTHOUGH AN ALIEN [my stress], may voluntarily enlist in pursuance of this Part of this Act…’ (i.e. the Army Act)

But the point is that Tull was born in Folkestone of a father from Barbados and a mother from Kent, and was therefore not an alien but a British citizen, and as such perfectly entitled to hold a normal active commission. It makes a good story to say that the rules had to be broken to make him an officer, but it isn’t true. It is quite enough of a tribute that he rose from ranker to officer in 2 years. I’d be grateful if you could correct this misapprehension, as it is endlessly repeated on the Internet and arises in the first instance from a misreading of the Manual of Military Law for 1914, of which we have a copy here.

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That's very interesting John, I wonder if the army could suggest any reasons why there was no Black Officer in the Infantry before Tull (I believe there were 2 Black Officers in the Medical Corp during WW1). Surely it can't be because there were no other Black British soldiers before Tull who were capable of being in command of White soldiers.

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  • 4 weeks later...
That's very interesting John, I wonder if the army could suggest any reasons why there was no Black Officer in the Infantry before Tull (I believe there were 2 Black Officers in the Medical Corp during WW1). Surely it can't be because there were no other Black British soldiers before Tull who were capable of being in command of White soldiers.

Dear Mr. Simkin,

It seems I may unwittingly have led you astray (though not on the facts as I was given them). We have been contacted by the MP for a Mr. Vasili, who claims that what I told you re Walter Tull was wrong, as he was not a Regular Officer, but on the Special Reserve of Officers (which it is true to say would not be unusual given the circumstances). I have seen no proof of this assertion, but he has read the information he has (I think a copy of the Service Record provided by the family) over the phone to the US of S to back this up. The MML of 1914 does state at p. 198 that ‘Commissions in the Special Reserve of Officers are given to qualified candidates who are natural born or naturalised British subjects of pure European descent.’

That would logically rule out Lt. Tull as his father was from Barbados. I note that the wording being quoted before was from the part of the MML that dealt with the requirements for Regular Officers – I am a little suspicious that we have now shifted ground to where some racial prohibition did exist, and as I say I have not seen any proof myself – you would have to look at the Service Record in the PRO.

If you do find I have caused you to alter the website unneccessarily, I can only apologise. As you will appreciate, we do not have the time that Mr. Vasili has to comb the PRO!

Yours sincerely,

Robin Wheeler

Major

Army Legal Services.

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  • 2 weeks later...

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