On Armistice Day, BBC Radio Northampton Sports Editor Graham McKechnie looks back on the careers of two extraoridnary men, who represented Northampton in different sporting codes but whose lives were intertwined.
No matter how many times I read about or tell the story of Walter Tull, I am always left in awe of the man.
You know his story by now I’m sure. It’s that time of year when we remember him and the other men from this football club who gave their lives in the service of our country. Tull has become the best known of them all, because of his extraordinary courage in overcoming everything that was thrown at him. His story seemed unique – a man of colour, the Cobblers’ first mixed-race footballer, serving in the British Army in the First World War.
But amazingly it seems that Tull was not alone.
We have two great clubs from different footballing codes in this town. While one ball may be round and the other oval, the Cobblers and the Saints have far more in common than things that may divide them. In times of need they have supported each other. Throughout the years the players have socialised. Their histories are intertwined.
Frank Anderson was Northampton Saints first mixed race player. He was only discovered recently, staring out of a reserve team photo from 1902. He made nine first team appearances, the first in 1900 against Coventry. Frank – like Walter – had a tough start in life. His father was a black American, his mother a white woman from Northampton. He was born and raised in the Victorian slum that was Spring Lane, where his father worked dying leather for the shoe industry. Frank, like so many young men in the town, worked in a shoe factory and lived in small terraced housing in various parts of the town.
Frank was ten years older than Walter, having been born in 1878. So when the First World War began he was quite old to join up. But Frank wanted to do his bit, even lying about his age to make sure the army took him.
There were hundreds of battalions in the British Army that Frank could have chosen to join, but he went for the 17th Middlesex Battalion. They paraded through Kingsway in London on 11 January 1915 and Frank joining the next day. The 17th Middlesex Battalion are known by another name: The Footballers Battalion. And their most famous soldier: Walter Tull.
It seems too much of a coincidence that Frank chose this battalion on a whim. It surely cannot be chance that Northampton’s first black footballer and Northampton’s first black rugby player served in the army together. And even if they didn’t know each other before the war, they certainly would have done once in the battalion together, for like Walter, Frank was soon promoted to be a non commissioned officer.
Walter missed the Battle of the Somme, leaving the battalion with what we’d now call shell shock in May 1916, but he and Frank had been together in the trenches for six months by then. Frank stayed and fought at the infamous Delville Wood in July 1916, where the Footballers Battalion was mauled in truly appalling conditions. Shells rained down on that terrible wood. They fought the Germans hand-to-hand at times. It was deadly chaos - one of the worst places to be in that dreadful summer.
Frank was wounded in Delville Wood, but it was only slight. He stayed in the line when they went over the top again in August at Guillemont. For his actions that summer, for his “bravery in the field”, he was awarded the Military Medal. Walter came back to a different battalion and was made an officer and probably should have been awarded a medal for a raiding-party he led in Italy.
Walter was killed in March 1918 as the Germans attacked for one last time in their Spring Offensive. He never made it home, but Frank did. His war came to an end in November 1917 when he was crushed by some timber he was moving. The broken ribs he received were enough to send him back to Blighty, back to his wife and three children in Northampton.
Frank returned to his old pre-war life, having to spend time down in London as he went looking for work. In July 1921 he died of tuberculosis and died in the London Temperance Hospital at the age of just 42.
Frank was a poor man and he ended up in an unmarked communal grave, in an unkempt and forgotten corner of the vast Islington and St Pancras Cemetery.
Frank has been totally forgotten, but the same had happened to his friend Walter until quite recently. Walter’s story is now taught in schools across Northamptonshire, there are several films and plays about his life, a statue, a road, a pub and a memorial all in his name. Last month he was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame.
I hope Frank Anderson is now remembered too. It really matters that he is. Ask his great-grandson Martin if you see him. He’s a season-ticket holder at the Cobblers, the club he’s supported all his life. But he’s spotted down at Saints too now, proudly wearing a Saints shirt with his great-grandfather’s name and number on the back.
We are very lucky to have the Cobblers and the Saints in this town with all the ups-and-downs they have brought us over the years. And we are lucky to have Walter and Frank. Two extraordinary men whose courage, determination and refusal to be beaten is still an inspiration after all this time.
We will remember them.