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Author Michael Morpurgo joins call for first black officer to get medal

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 14, 2012

Walter Tull, the first black officer in the British Army, was killed in action in 1918

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A Westcountry author famous for his books about the First World War is championing a campaign to gain official recognition for the bravery of the British Army's first black officer.

Michael Morpurgo, who has written a number of books based on the 1914-18 conflict, including War Horse and Private Peaceful, recently published A Medal For Leroy, which is dedicated to Lieutenant Walter Tull and draws heavily on his story.

The author, who lives at Iddesleigh in North Devon, believes a recommendation for Tull to receive the Military Cross in 1918 was ignored or "lost" by Army top brass specifically because of the soldier's colour. He is now backing a campaign, led by Tory MP Brian Binley, for the medal to be awarded posthumously.

"We have no idea why he did not receive this medal," said the writer, who explained that Lieutenant Tull should not even have been an officer because of an official military ruling banning coloured men from leading white troops.

"The fact is there shouldn't have been any black officers in the British officers," he said. "But somehow Tull was promoted. His medal commendation got misplaced – we don't know how or why – but now is the time to put this right."

Walter Tull, who was born in Kent in 1888, first came to prominence as only the second man of mixed race to play in the first division of the Football League, turning out for Tottenham Hotspur – where he suffered racial abuse – and Northampton Town, making 111 first-team appearances.

At the outbreak of the First World War, he volunteered for the Footballers' Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, first seeing action in the first Battle of the Somme in 1916. The following year he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, despite the Manual Of Military Law specifically excluding "negroes and mulattos" from exercising command as officers.

While fighting in Italy, he was mentioned in dispatches for "gallantry and coolness" by Major General Sydney Lawford, commander of the 41st division, for leading his company of 26 men on a raiding party into enemy territory. Soon after he was recommended for a Military Cross – but did not receive the medal. In all, he fought in six major battles, including Messines and Ypres. He was killed in action on March 25, 1918, during the Spring Offensive and is remembered at the Arras Memorial for those who have no known grave.

After his death, aged 29, a fellow officer wrote to his family, stating: "Walter was brave and conscientious. He was recommended for the Military Cross and had earned it. The commanding officer had every confidence in him and he was liked by the men."

Michael Morpurgo, whose book A Medal For Leroy was published last month, said a number of channels were being pursued.

Brian Binley MP has launched an e-petition on the Downing Street website and the Ministry of Defence has agreed to investigate the claim. However an MoD spokesman pointed out that as the MC was not authorised to be awarded posthumously until 1979, and the change did not include any provision for retrospective awards, it would not be possible without a complete change in the rules.

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