Players Who Gave All For Country And Much To Their Clubs
When you get that call up to represent your country your heart must surge with pride. Football players have a passion and pride in all they do. In 1914, this took on another meaning. Those who took the King’s shilling did so for more than duty and I want to honour the millions of soldiers who lost their lives in the Great War.
From Scotland To Manchester
There is a huge emphasis on loyalty and the clash it has with professionalism in the story of Alexander “Sandy” Turnbull. Those who played on the pitch with him at both Manchester City and Manchester United marvelled at his goal-scoring prowess and his ability to influence play. Those who fought with Lance Sergeant 28427 Alexander Turnbull of the 8th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment saw the man who worked with his team and shared their fears and anxieties.
Born into a mining community in Ayrshire, Scotland, he would have followed his father into the mines if he had not had a local club where he shone. His talent was recognised south of the border and with the massive weekly wage of £3 per week, he joined Bolton Wanderers.
In signing for Manchester City he became the right-sided partner to a Billy Meredith making his debut against Bristol City at St John’s Gate on November 15th 1902. He scored on his debut and this continued until City were promoted to the first division. That season, City were FA Cup winners. With his semi-final goal teammate, Billy Meredith saying:
“I never saw anything like it. I had centred square, and ‘Sandy’ took the ball first time when it was well off the ground and drove it into the net with marvellous force.
“The amazing thing was that the ball kept low all the way. You will understand the pace of the shot when I say the ball hit the net at Goodison Park and came out while the goalkeeper was still tumbling.”.
High praise, indeed. And the goals kept coming, scoring 53 goals in some 110 appearances.
Early Impact At Manchester City
Passions run high in football and so do controversies. If we think the dramatic way Aguero’s goal won City the Premier League, the events of 29th April 1905 were even more shocking.
City had to beat Villa and hope Middlesbrough would trip up Newcastle to snatch the league championship. An on-pitch scuffle with the Villa Captain Alec Leake led to Turnbull being banned for a month. In the ensuing investigation, it was suggested that Billy Meredith had offered a bribe to the Villa captain to throw the game.
He was banned from football from August 4th 1905 until April 1906. Billy Meredith was left without the support of his club and he decided to blow the whistle and expose the corruption.
Judas Or Journeyman?
When it was found that City were overpaying players, 17 of them were banned for a year. When that ban was lifted Turnbull amongst others signed for Manchester United. Scoring 90 goals in 220 appearances, Turnbull was integral to Manchester United winning the first Division in 1908 and 1911, as well as the FA Cup in 1909.
As the war broke out, a tax was imposed on players’ wages to offset a relief fund. Some players refused to pay and Manchester United were under scrutiny. Turnbull was suspended and this resulted in the rest of the team going on strike until he was reinstated.
His career at United came to a close in a similarly controversial way with allegations of corruption and match-fixing. United were struggling at the bottom of the league and should have lost to Liverpool on April 2nd but against expectations, they won 2-0. A missed penalty seemed suspicious but an article in the Sporting Chronicle by the ‘Football King’ implied that the match was fixed.
The subsequent inquiry found Turnbull and eight other players guilty and he was banned again, but this time permanently. But it didn’t matter as the football league was suspended in 1915. Turnbull signed up to the Footballers Battalion in November 1915.
The details of his service were unfortunately destroyed during the Blitz. As part of the Middlesex Battalion, he would have been in the Somme on the heaviest day of fighting. Having survived that, he joined the East Surreys 8th Battalion. We are unclear why he was transferred, but this unit also had a football team. The ban had an effect on him. He did play a match but his letter home indicated he hadn’t slept since because he forgot to ask permission from the FA to play.
On May 3rd 1917 his unit marched towards the village of Chèrisy, ten miles east of Arras. It was thought that he survived the terrible fighting but a letter to his family home revealed that he was injured and taken by the Germans as a prisoner of war. His body was never recovered and he is recorded as missing in two places, one in the cemetery at Arras and the other in a memorial near Old Trafford. He should be remembered for his prowess on the pitch and bravery in battle.
We Must Remember The Pioneers
It’s not just the passage of time that means we forget these legends, it is their omission from history. Walter Tull was a remarkable player, soldier, and pioneer, yet few have heard of him as the service records of black soldiers went largely ignored as were the careers of black players.
His tale is one of triumph over adversity. Born in Folkestone on 28 April 1888 to the son of a former slave and Alice, a local lass, he was one of six boys. When his mother died his father married her niece, Clara, and they had a daughter. Sadly, his father died shortly after leaving this young woman overwhelmed. Clara took the decision to send Walter and his brother to an orphanage in Bethnal Green.
With his brother being adopted by a Scottish dentist, Walter remained in the orphanage until he secured himself an apprenticeship as a printer. At this orphanage, he excelled at sport and after playing for amateur club Clapton FC he was scouted by Tottenham. He was offered the maximum wage for the time of £4, such were his abilities. He became the second black player in the professional game.
Racism Rears Its Ugly Head
His career at Tottenham was cut short due to the intolerable racist abuse he had to endure. One such match against Bristol City made the press as they described the ugly scenes as “a section of the crowd made a cowardly attack on him in language lower than Billingsgate”. It was noted by the reporter:
“Let me tell those Bristol hooligans that Tull is so clean in mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football. In point of ability, if not actual achievement, Tull was the best forward on the field.”
Despite the acknowledgment of his skill, he transferred to Northampton Town in 1911 where he played over 100 games. He proved himself as a player and was popular with the fans. A pioneer on the pitch, he decided to enlist in the Football Batallion on December 21 1914.
Natural Born Leader
By the time he saw active duty, he had been promoted to Sergeant. He was sent back to England, suffering from “shellshock” or post-traumatic stress after tasting trench warfare in Loos. He took part in the Somme campaign in 1916 and witnessed the heavy losses of life. He was returned to England having contracted trench fever but quickly recovered.
On his recovery, he was sent to officer training school in Scotland. His presence met with protests from both students and tutors, but he was commissioned to the rank of Second Lieutenant, making him the first black combat officer. Whilst in Scotland, Rangers approached him and he signed to play for them after the war finished.
As an officer, he himself acquitted himself admirably. During the Italian campaign, he became the first black officer to lead white soldiers in battle. He was a good leader and for his role in leading his men to safety across the River Piave. No lives were lost during this manoeuvre and he was recommended for a Military Cross which was never granted. His troops went to the trenches near Beugny.
At 0800 on 25 March 1918, he found himself under heavy fire. Walter Tull was recorded among the casualties. His body was never recovered even though Private Billingham tried to bring it back to British lines.
We Shall Not Sleep
His name is etched on the Arras Memorial. There is a remembrance garden dedicated to him outside Northampton Town football club with a lasting memorial. There have been repeated campaigns for him to receive a posthumous Military Cross. I hope that one day this will be granted to the family of Walter Tull, an officer, and a gentleman.
On his memorial it reads:
“Through his actions, W. D. J. Tull ridiculed the barriers of ignorance that tried to deny people of colour equality with their contemporaries. His life stands testament to a determination to confront those people and those obstacles that sought to diminish him and the world in which he lived. It reveals a man, though rendered breathless in his prime, whose strong heart still beats loudly”.
Lest we forget.