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Remembering McCrae’s Battalion

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It’s a story that has been oft-told but nonetheless deserves to be repeated, particularly at this time of the year.

One hundred years ago when the Great War broke out, Heart of Midlothian FC sat proudly at the top of the First Division. Not just having their noses in front – the Maroons had won their first eight league games in succession. Game number eight was a 2-0 win over Aberdeen at Tynecastle and Hearts had established a seven point lead at the top of the table – this at the end of September and in an era when just two points were awarded for a win.

There were, however, more important matters in the world in the autumn of 1914 and the Great War had been raging since the end of July. Britain became involved in early August and by the end of the autumn the need for men to go and fight for their country increased as ever-mounting losses on the battlefields took their toll. In stark contrast with the attitude of many people today, support for the war against Germany was huge. Those who didn’t want to fight were immediately condemned as cowards; conscientious objectors were ridiculed and abused both verbally and physically.

There were many who questioned why footballers should be exempt from what was seen as a duty to King and country. Why, many people asked, should physically fit men be protected in order to play a sport?

Naturally, the more successful the football club, the more criticism would be hurled their way. A daughter of a solder fighting on the front felt so strongly on this issue she wrote a letter to the Edinburgh Evening News criticising the Hearts team for playing on and suggested the club be renamed ‘The White Feathers of Midlothian’.

Hence, in November 1914, 16 players from the table-topping Heart of Midlothian enlisted for service with the armed forces along with 500 Hearts supporters including season-ticket holders. They were among the first footballers in Britain to do so. Their actions impressed others, notably from Raith Rovers, Falkirk, Dunfermline Athletic and city rivals Hibernian.

Thus, the 16th Battalion of the Royal Scots – affectionately named McCrae’s Battalion after its colonel Sir George McCrae – was formed and more than 1,300 new recruits headed to a foreign land to fight for their country. Some gave the ultimate sacrifice.

The horror and futility of war was never better illustrated than at the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916, where the British army lost 20,000 men – and this on the first day of battle. Among them were three Hearts players. By the time the war ended four years later, seven Hearts players had given their lives for their King and country. They were:

Sergeant Duncan Currie
Sergeant John Allan
Lance Corporal James Boyd
Corporal Tom Gracie
Private Ernest Ellis
Private James Speedie
Private Henry Wattie

It can be argued that what these men did for their country is worth more than all the trophies, games and points won by the famous Heart of Midlothian in 140 years.

In recognition of these men and the many others who fought in conflicts, a memorial was erected in Edinburgh’s Haymarket in 1922. This location was chosen as it was close to the workplace of some of the first players who signed up to fight. At the unveiling of the memorial, at which more than 35,000 people attended, the Secretary of State for Scotland said ‘Hearts had shown on the battlefield the courage, resource, skill, endurance, dash and dare that had made them famous on the football field.’

Today, as on every Remembrance Sunday, officials, players and supporters of Heart of Midlothian Football Club gather to pay their respects. Wreaths are laid. Poppies are worn. With pride. As part of this recognition of those who gave their lives, a Great War Committee was formed and this has raised funds to finance a commemorative cairn at Contalmaison in France.

In 2003, a book detailing an historical account of McCrae’s Battalion was written the author by Jack Alexander. In 2014, the players from McCrae’s Battalion were inducted into Scottish football’s Hall of Fame.

Those who gave their lives for their country will never be forgotten. As a club, Heart of Midlothian are rightly proud of those who signed up for McCrae’s Battalion. It’s an important part of this famous club’s history, perhaps the most important part.

We shall never forget them.

Written by Mike Smith | Follow Mike on Twitter via @Mike1874

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