New research uncovers possible burial site of Britain’s first black Army officer

Walter Tull
Walter Tull (PA Wire)
14:54pm, Sat 07 Nov 2020
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New research has provided some clues as to where Britain’s first black Army officer may have been laid to rest, after it was initially thought his body was lost in a field in the Somme.

Walter Tull served in the First World War as a second lieutenant, leading men into battle at a time when the Army forbade a person of non-European descent becoming an officer.

As well as being one of the most celebrated British black soldiers of the Great War, Mr Tull was also one of the first black professional football players in England, playing for Tottenham Hotspur while overcoming racial discrimination.

Remembrance Sunday (PA Archive)

He died aged 29 while leading an attack on the Western Front during the second Battle of the Somme on March 25, 1918.

Historic accounts of the event describe how Mr Tull’s friend Private Thomas Billingham, a fellow footballer and goalkeeper of Leicester Fosse, saw him killed and tried to retrieve his body so he could have a proper burial.

Despite the best efforts of his men, Mr Tull’s body was never recovered and his family believed he lay somewhere in a field in the Somme.

However, new research by military historian Andy Robertshaw points to unmarked graves at Heninel-Croisilles Road Cemetery in northern France where Mr Tull may have been buried.

Edward Finlayson, grand-nephew of army officer Walter Tull (PA Media)

Mr Tull’s grand-nephew, Edward Finlayson, from Edinburgh, said it is possible he was buried, among others, by the Germans when the ground was lost to enemy forces.

“Andy’s research and his knowledge of events of that day is extraordinary for us as a family,” he told the PA news agency.

“What’s striking me is how Andy’s research is able to reconstruct what happened that day, to me it’s remarkable and very interesting.

“What we know from newspaper accounts is Tom Billingham, in Walter’s group of men, tried to carry his body but because of the intensity of the onslaught he couldn’t.

“This German offence we know was hugely intense.”

Mr Finlayson said the family could not be absolutely certain that his body is buried at the site as the graves cannot be exhumed, but added: “Up until this recent information we had no reason to believe his body was identified or buried.”

Just under 10 miles away from Heninel-Croisilles Road Cemetery is the Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery in Arras, where Mr Tull is remembered on the Memorial Wall along with 35,000 fallen comrades whose bodies were never recovered from the battlefields.

Edward’s brother, Duncan Finlayson, from Inverness, told PA: “Just seeing his name inscribed on the wall, I was surprised by what an emotional experience that was.

“It’s nice to think he has an actual headstone and was given a resting place and not left rotting in a field.

“We’ll never know for sure but I’d like to take a trip at some point on the off-chance it’s Walter.

“We’ll never know conclusively but, at the end of the day, it’s about Walter’s story and his legacy.”

In his research, Mr Robertshaw, who has worked with big names in film as a military adviser including in Sam Mendes’ 1917 and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, cross-referenced the War Graves Commission’s work and the regimental war diaries.

He believes Mr Tull’s body was buried and not left in a field, and his findings are highlighted in the podcast Amazing War Stories with Bruce Crompton.

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