Exiting Edinburgh’s Haymarket train station is like doing so in almost any city. You step out into a bustling street; people running and walking; cars, buses and taxis ferrying people all over the city. The street is littered with bars, coffee shops and restaurants. If you take a right when exiting this station, and walk for 30 seconds, you stumble upon a monument. This is where the similarities to other cities end. The monument is modest looking, perhaps 15-20 ft high, a clock face and carvings of lions on all sides. To many it is just an object in the middle of the road. Look closer and you see some words carved into the stone. Ypres. Jutland. Somme. Step closer. You will see a plaque embedded in the monument.
“ERECTED BY THE HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN FOOTBALL CLUB TO THE MEMORY OF THEIR PLAYERS AND MEMBERS WHO FELL IN THE GREAT WAR 1914-1918.”
It takes a stony person to not feel moved reading these words. The story behind this monument is one of the most heroic, heart-breaking tales I have ever heard. This is the story of how Heart of Midlothian Football Club swapped Tynecastle for the trenches, players giving up their shot at fame and fortune to make the ultimate sacrifice for king and country. This is the story of McCrae’s Battalion.
In 1914, with Europe fragmented on account of a great war, a force was developing in Scotland. This force had nothing to do with the military, however, but rather it was a footballing force.
Heart of Midlothian, of Hearts, as they are colloquially known, were ready to win. Four years prior to the declaration of war from Britain on Germany, a football manager by the name of John McCartney took charge of Hearts. He came to Gorgie with a reputation for being a squad builder, this reputation being garnered from his spells with Luton Town and St Mirren.
McCartney finished 12th in his first season. He assessed the squad, still primarily players from the previous managerial regime, and deemed only three current players up to standard.
The next season was no better as Hearts finished in 14th position, but the process was ongoing. Players were trialled, assessed and, after this season, tossed aside if they were deemed to be underperforming.
4th and 3rd place finishes were recorded in the 1912 and ’13 seasons. McCartney was unearthing gems. Patrick Crossan, Harry Wattie and Jimmy Speedie were just three of the young players that were drafted in and tasked with making Hearts title challengers.
While the rest of the world was transfixed on the war, McCartney’s boys had their mind fixed firmly on footballing affairs. They dominated a powerful Celtic side at a sold-out Tynecastle just over a week after it was announced that Great Britain was waging war on the Germans, following Germany’s occupation of Belgium.
Hearts were dominating the league over the course of the first half of the season. They were playing with a kind of style and swagger that was highly unusual for that time and it was generating results. Of their opening 21 matches, the Jambo’s won 19, building a healthy lead at the top of the table.
The fans were lavishing their players with praise, but not everybody was happy with the occurrences on the field. One of the great debates of the year was the place of football while a war was taking place. It was a hotly debated topic whereby the morality of the players, staff and supporters was questioned. How could anyone enjoy sport while soldiers were shipping off to war? It was a fair question to be asked.
A meeting was held at Hampden to discuss suspending the league until the war’s end, but this idea was quickly thrown out. The daughter of a soldier wrote to the Scotsman newspaper, suggesting that Hearts changed their name to “White feather of Midlothian”. This was in relation to a practice at this time whereby women would hand out white feathers to men abstaining from joining the military, an action meant to both embarrass and inspire the non-soldier in equal measure.
Sir George McCrae was a hugely influential man in Edinburgh during this period. After spending his younger years helping run his father’s textile company, he turned his hand to politics and government work. He owned 100 shares in Hearts from a young age and was heavily invested in the running of the club.
McCrae was a hugely popular figure in this part of Scotland, and on November 19th, 1914, Sir George McCrae issued a statement indicating his attention to go to war. He was forming a battalion and he needed his constituency to stand up and be counted. He asked, they answered.
Two Hearts players had already left the club to join battalions in their hometowns some months previous; Neil Moreland and George Sinclair. In November 1914 however, Sir George McCrae was tasked with amassing 1000 able-bodied men. Over the course of a week, he exceeded this target by over 100.
Many of these recruits were attained by pleading with fans in and around Tynecastle to do their bit for their country. A significant reason as to why McCrae got the numbers needed for his battalion was because so many members of the Heart of Midlothian team signed up to join his battalion. 11 Hearts players committed to joining his battalion in the first week
alone. Alfred Briggs, Duncan Currie, Ernie Ellis, Norman Findlay, Jimmy Frew, Tom Gracie, Jamie Low, Annan Ness, Bob Preston, Harry Wattie and Willie Wilson were the brave men who volunteered their services so early into the campaign.
Officially the group were known as the 16th Royal Scots. This wasn’t just any old group though. They signed up because of the passion and pride that Sir George had instilled in them. This wasn’t the 16th Royal Scots – this was McCrae’s Battalion. They were proud to serve under such an honourable man and were not shy to show this.
Part of the idea to help recruit civilians in greater numbers was to set up a concept called Pals Battalions – allowing men from similar jobs, teams or households to join up together. The idea being that some would-be recruits may want to join but be fearful of ending up away from their friends and family. The Pals Battalion alleviated this worry and helped push
through large numbers of recruits.
McCrae’s Battalion was made up of several fragments, though there was a strong sporting cohort within the group. Heart of Midlothian receive many plaudits for their part in the 16th Royal Scots, and deservedly so. It is worth remembering, however, that this battalion was comprised of people from many teams, including Raith Rovers, Falkirk and Heart’s fierce
rivals, Hibernian, not to mention countless armature non-league clubs. This battalion was not limited just to football players. Rugby, hockey and athletics players joined the crusade, as did many fans, all united by one common bond. A desire to pay the ultimate sacrifice to their country.
The battalion was assembled, though they were a long way off being ready to join the action on the front line. The next few months involved rigorous training: marches, combat training and midnight runs. The players were stretched to their physical limit, an impressive feat given the nature of their day jobs!
Unfortunately for Hearts, their players were guilty of training too hard. The military was not in the business of giving the football players any leeway on account of their profession. If there was a 20-mile march or a midnight run the night before a match, they would be expected to participate. The players’ bodies were being pushed to their limits and after
enduring so much during the week, they would be expected to go and put in a shift for a title challenging team. Something had to give, these were men, not machines.
August 15th to December 26th, 1914
|Played||Won||Drawn||Lost||Goals scored||Goals conceded||Points|
January 2nd to April 17th, 1915
|Played||Won||Drawn||Lost||Goals scored||Goals conceded||Points|
|Played||Won||Drawn||Lost||Goals scored||Goals conceded||Points|
Hearts finished 2nd in the Scottish League Division One in 1914-15. This was a valiant effort considering the physical and mental demands being forced upon them during the national training. They lost out to Celtic by four points. This was a remarkably well-run race by McCartney’s Hearts, given that Celtic received much criticism over the course of the year on account of how few of their players gave up their profession to join the army. McCartney said of his team “They played at times so tired and sore that they could hardly stand; yet they took Celtic to the last day of the season and left Rangers floundering 11 points behind”.
The Evening News echoed best the voice of the public in their support of Heart of Midlothian Football Club. “Hearts have laboured these past weeks under a dreadful handicap, the likes of which our friends in the west cannot imagine. Between them, the two leading Glasgow clubs have sent not a single prominent player to the army.” They then finished up with a line so powerful and so true, loaded with pride and disgust to both parties in equal measure, that it still sends a shudder down the reader’s spine to this day. “There is only one football champion in Scotland, and its colours are maroon and khaki.”
This was the last season that the great majority of McCrae’s Battalion would play for Hearts. While they were not triumphant on the field, they had done themselves proud. They had done their coach proud. They had done their fans proud. They had done Edinburgh proud. Hearts had done Scotland proud.
On January 8th, 1916, the 1100 men making up the 16th Royal Scots boarded the Empress Queen in Southampton and set sail for France. Few made the journey back home.
Life in the trenches was tough and testing. Not every minute of every day was spent in the trenches, however. There were days where they were relieved of their duties, to which the players would play makeshift games of football, but it wasn’t the same.
The players were in communication with their loved ones back home, with letters and the occasional parcel being sent back and forth where time and resources permitted. One instance sticks out more than most though. Manager John McCartney had sent a letter to his players asking if he could send some sort of care package. The players responded asking for a few basics if it wasn’t too much trouble… Socks, chocolate, soap, a harmonica, tobacco, paper, envelopes and magazines, please and thank you sir.
John McCartney had done a huge amount for Hearts and their players, but his care package must have felt like the biggest result of his career to those of a maroon persuasion in McCrae’s Battalion. He sent: 240 pairs of socks, 141 lb of tobacco, 12 dozen pipes, 5000 cigarettes, 200 boxes of matches, 25 harmonicas, 2 fiddles, 100 boxes of Edinburgh rock, 400 bars of Fry’s milk chocolate, 300 candles, 20 cases of soap, 12 dozen writing pads, 3000 envelopes, 14 pairs of football boots, three balls, two pumps, an assortment of books and magazines, and the crème de le crème, a tin of his wife’s special homemade tablet. This care package was better than any victory the players had experienced before.
The Great War was a horrifying affair. Originally broadcasted to the public as a skirmish that should be won by Christmas, it went on to last four years. The 1100 strong McCrae’s Battalion were beaten and bludgeoned. Fit, strong men were thrown about like rag dolls by the heavy machine gun artillery from the Germans and over the course of the two and a half years between the 16th Royal Scots sailing to France and Armistice Day, the battalion was decimated.
In May 1918 the battalion was disbanded, the majority either killed in action, dead through wounds or hospitalised. The Battle of the Somme took the lives of hundreds on its first day alone, while vicious shelling and gas attacks killed, maimed and ruined the lives of many.
While the bulk of Hearts 1914-15 side were fighting in France against the Germans, John McCartney stayed at home. He remained manager of Heart of Midlothian and took his job seriously. After long enough it was evident that every able-bodied man in the Edinburgh area was fulfilling their duty and conscribing to the war cause, leaving McCartney short on players. He relied on soldiers posted in the area to fill in a game at a time. It has been written that upon hard times he would go to games without a full XI, having to convince strangers in the street to ditch their daily activity and come and play for the famous Hearts!
McCartney did all this while also managing a picture house. This lead to him frequently working 18-hour days and regrettably saw him suffer two heart attacks during the period of the war. Naturally, he took time off to recuperate, and after his second heart scare, he found that he was losing the sole control of the club that had been his one demand upon joining. On October 17th, 1919, John McCartney resigned as manager of Hearts, citing that he was unable to continue while two minds were at work over the selection of the team. This was a heart-breaking way to end his spell at Tynecastle, having overcome so much adversity over the previous decade of service.
Hearts won their first competitive fixture in peacetime, a 3-0 win over Glasgow side Queens Park. The team as a long way off what they had created in the year that McCrae’s Battalion was formed, but a win was a start. For the 100 or so survivors of McRae’s Battalion, season tickets were provided, complimentarily, as a way of thanks. The following message was written on the inside, next to their name and regimental number: “Voluntarily these men went forth to fight for King and Country. The gloomiest hour in the Nation’s History found them ready. As Pioneers in the formation of a brilliant regiment, sportsmen the world over will ever remember them. Duty well and truly done, they are welcomed back to Tynecastle.”
The gesture was small, nothing could ever repay the horrors these men saw. Their comrades, friends and family members killed in the cruellest fashion; years of physical and mental torment. But they were home. They were safe. They were beginning to get their way of life back, as normal as it could be under such harrowing circumstances.
Sir George McCrae survived the war, though certainly did not walk away unscathed. There were calls for Edinburgh’s famous Princes Street to be renamed McCrae’s March, though this idea was laughed off by those in power. McCrae fought tooth and nail for the city to honour the fallen members of his battalion. A large stone monument, with a large clock face, and carved lions was put up outside Haymarket. It was funded by the Hearts supporters and is a moving tribute to every person in connection with McCrae’s Battalion who fought and died for their King and Country.
This is, of course, the monument that I mentioned at the start. The monument with the notable battlegrounds from the war. With “ERECTED BY THE HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN FOOTBALL CLUB TO THE MEMORY OF THEIR PLAYERS AND MEMBERS WHO FELL IN THE GREAT WAR 1914-1918.” Written on the plaque, as well as a similar message on the opposite side of the monument, giving a similarly heartfelt thank you to those who gave their lives during the World War II.
While the monument stands, relatively unnoticed, for most of the year, it is the focal point of an annual tradition every November. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the UK comes to a standstill to honour and remember those who sacrificed everything to protect our country during what was the most frightful war imaginable. A minute’s silence is observed, services are given in churches up and down the country, and at Haymarket, the players, coaches and board of Heart of Midlothian Football Club walk from the monument at Haymarket to their stadium, Tynecastle. It is an honoured tradition
by the football club that sees the team hold strong to their rich history.
It is right that the brave souls of McCrae’s Battalion are honoured in such a way. The whole battalion fought valiantly and did their country proud. The Hearts team gave up their shot at winning a famous league title to help aid the war effort. Each and every member of McCrae’s Battalion, each and every individual that joined any battalion, or helped out in any way, great or small, are a true hero. On this 100-year anniversary of Armistice Day, we honour each person that gave themselves to their country. To the memory of every brave soul who gave up their life for the sake of The Great War, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.
I owe much of the research to this article to the incredibly well written and thorough Jack Alexander book, entitled “McCrae’s Battalion – the story of the 16th Royal Scots”.