Against All Odds: Walter Tull – The Black Lieutenant by Stephen Wynn

Pen and Sword, £16.99

hb, 8pp plate section, index. 

ISBN: 978–152–670–404–7 

[First reviewed in Stand To! No.112 June 2018] 

It should never be a bad thing when another book is published about Walter Tull. His inspiring story has been so long forgotten that each new recounting should be a cause for celebration. Yet, a reader looking for freshly–mined discoveries that add detail to his biographical mural will be very disappointed with this publication by Pen and Sword. Only five of the ten chapters are dedicated to examining Tull’s childhood, football and military careers. Indeed, Walter’s story is all over by p.47 of the book’s 128 pages – a little over a third of the content. The remaining chapters are surveys of other players and soldiers of colour who served in the Great War. Chapter eight, for example, consists of a series of names of the dead of the 23rd Battalion, Middlesex Regiment – which fill almost 15 pages – the first of which, Private Reginald Allgrove, was killed in June 1916, long, long before Walter Tull joined the battalion. It is difficult to see why the death of Private Allgrove, tragic though it was, has any bearing on the story of this extraordinary sportsman/ soldier.

Stephen Wynn’s book was published in January 2018, no doubt to be available to coincide with the centenary of Walter Tull’s death in action on 25 March. Originally from a police background, this is not the author’s first book in the military history genre. His steps in that terrain are much firmer and more secure than when he ventures into the relatively new territory of biography.

I found no fresh insights into Tull’s life here and in fact, this was the most error strewn dimension of the work. Numerous biographical and chronological details are incorrect: Walter’s sister Miriam he records as being born in November, 1897 rather October; similarly his brother Edward’s birth year is given as 1887 instead of 1886. Individually these mistakes are irritating but not serious but when compounded by frequent others, the knowledgeable reader might judge that there has been a distinct lack of attention to detail and thorough copy editing and fact checking.

Edward’s adoptive mother is referred to throughout as Helen rather than Jean, her real name; the site of the orphanage in which Walter and Edward were placed in 1898 becomes Bonner Street instead of Bonner Road; the ship on which Walter travels to South America with Spurs is named Uruguaya not Araguaya, its correct name; he writes that Tull was the third black professional footballer (p.17) while contradicting himself with information elsewhere in the same chapter. He has the crowd cheering Walter on from the terraces of Northampton Town’s home ground, Sixfields Stadium (p.34), which would be remarkable: the Cobblers played at the County Ground during Tull’s time with them and did not move to their new stadium at Sixfields until 1994! Fellow Northampton stalwart and another Great War casualty Fred Lessons variously appears as ‘Lessens’. Unfortunately, the book is riven with errors of this kind

In Wynn’s defence it could be argued that it is his over reliance on secondary source material that has led to this: p.125 credits all of Wynn’s sources – nine of them – as being from the internet, including several databases. While Wikipedia is listed he does not cite any primary archives such as the Finlayson Family Archive, which holds the Walter Tull Archive – surely a first stop for any Tull scholar? – the National Archives and the Action for Children Archive. The internet can be an extremely hostile friend for unwary – or rushed – researchers in that it amplifies Chinese whispers. Wynn has not attempted to corroborate his evidence and it shows.

He makes a number of unqualified assertions based upon his findings which, because of their problematic provenance, cannot be accepted as anything more than opinion. One example is chapter 4: we are led to believe it is an exploration of newspaper reports relating to Tull. Few are mentioned. One of the most historically significant, from October 1909, entitled ‘Football and the Colour Prejudice’ in which racism in football is headlined for the first time is not referred to. Yet Wynn does feel able to assert that ‘it was noticeable that when the reports of Walter’s death started appearing in the newspapers, he was not afforded any special treatment or any additional coverage’ (p.59). He doesn’t define what he means by ‘special treatment’ and ‘additional coverage’. However, from the many obituaries I have seen I would argue his death did draw widespread attention from newspapers up and down the country; in London, Manchester, Glasgow, Sheffield, Folkestone, Northampton, Rushden and Tottenham (then in Middlesex). For military historians interested in names and casualty statistics of pre–war sports teams and battalions there may be something of interest in Wynn’s book. For those drawn to the work by its title, it may prove a let–down. 

Review by Phil Vasili