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100 years after his death, Walter Tull remembered as a sand portrait

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The former Tottenham Hotspur player died in World War I.

Walter Tull (left), during World War I
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday was Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom, a day to honor those in the armed forces who died in the line of duty. If you were wondering, it’s why every Premier League match this past weekend featured a bugle solo and a wreath-laying ceremony ahead of kick-off and why everyone was wearing poppies. The closest American analogue is probably Veteran’s Day.

An organization titled 14-18 Now has been commissioning portraits of fallen soldiers, heroes and heroines that have been carefully raked into the sand of various beaches across the United Kingdom. The project was called “Pages of the Sea.” One of the portraits commissioned is of former Tottenham Hotspur player and British Army officer Walter Tull.

Tull signed for Tottenham as a young footballer in 1909, becoming the first black outfield player to play in English association football. He broke the color barrier in English football decades before Jackie Robinson did it in America for baseball. His career at Spurs wasn’t long — just 10 senior matches before getting demoted to the reserves, possibly to spare him from racist taunts from opposition fans — and he went on to play over 100 matches for Northampton Town and Rangers before the start of the first World War.

Tull was enlisted into the army, was commissioned as a second lieutenant, and became (according to reports) the first black officer in a British Army military regiment. On March 25, 1918, he led his men into battle at the 2nd Battle of the Somme, where he was killed in action. He was 29 years old. They never found his body.

I love the idea of commissioning portraits of fallen soldiers and heroes of all genders on beach sand. It is by definition impermanent. The portraits are lovingly and accurately created, but over time the tide, the waves, and the wind will wash or scour them away. The symbolism is not lost on me.

On an otherwise quiet Monday during an international break week, I wanted to share this with all of you, to remember Walter Tull for his accomplishments and his sacrifices. He’s an important part of Tottenham Hotspur lore, 100 years after his death.