by Stuart Moriarty-Patten
On 25 November 1914, even though professional footballers were exempt from enlistment, eleven players from Heart of Midlothian signed up for service in World War I, becoming the first British team to provide players in such large numbers. Two others were to sign up on the following day, bringing the number of Hearts players having enlisted to 16. Two others, George Sinclair and Neil Moreland, had already been called up as army reservists, and another, James Speedie, had already signed up to the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders after they had called for volunteers during the half-time break in a game against Falkirk.
According to Jack Alexander, author of McCrae’s Battalion: The Story of the 16th Royal Scots, and many others, the team of 1914 was the best in Heart’s history, and they were on the verge of becoming a side strong enough to dominate Scottish football for the rest of the decade. In fact, if there had there been no war, there are those who argue that the team was good enough to have established a dynasty in Scottish football to match the might of Rangers and Celtic.
Hearts began the 1914-15 season in fine style winning their first eight successive matches, including an opening day 2-0 victory over reigning champions Celtic. By the end of November they had only lost once, to Dumbarton, in 16 games. At the same time, however, as Hearts were flying high there was an increasing concern in Britain at large that the numbers volunteering to fight was not great enough. In response to this Edinburgh politician Sir George McCrae decided to raise his own battalion of volunteers, the 16th Royal Scots and he convinced the 13 hearts’ players to join him. Another 5 who attempted to enlist were rejected on medical grounds.
This was a great publicity coup for McCrae, and, 600 supporters followed suit with the encouragement of the Heart’s manager John McCartney who proclaimed, “Now then, young men, as you have followed the old club through adverse and pleasant times, through sunshine and rain, roll up in your hundreds for King and Country, for right and freedom. Don’t let it be said that footballers are shirkers and cowards. As the club has borne an honoured name on the football field, let it go down in history that it also won its spurs on the field of battle.”
The battalion became known as the footballers’ battalion, and soon fans and players from Hibs, Raith, Falkirk, and Dunfermiline quickly joined up too, allowing McCrae to meet his boast that he would be able to raise a battalion within a month. The members of one local junior team, Mossend Burnvale, marched into the recruiting office to join en masse. Sadly, at the end of the war only one of their number was to return.
The disruption for Hearts at first proved minimal and they remained undefeated until February 1915. However, military demands, including 10 mile night marches just hours before games, began to take its toll, and, with players also regularly missing games due to military duties, Heart’s form suffered. Having led the League for 35 weeks out of 37 they fell away and ended up finishing in second place, four points behind Celtic. The Evening News cried foul stating that, “Between them the two leading Glasgow clubs have not sent a single prominent player to the Army. There is only one football champion in Scotland, and its colours are maroon and khaki.”
Having completed their military training the 16th Royal Scots were deployed to France on 8 January 1916 and saw their first action on 1 July, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, near a French village called Contalmaison. On this day the British army lost nearly 20,000 men with a further 40,000 wounded. The 16th Royal Scots itself saw 347 of its men wounded on this one day, and a further 229 men killed, including 3 of the Hearts’ players. It was possibly some small consolation to the families of those who lost their lives that the battalion was recorded has having made the greatest advance against enemy lines of all the battalions in action on that first day of the Battle of the Somme.
By the end of the war in 1918 Hearts were to lose a total of seven players, including five from McRae’s battalion. These five were:
Tom Gracie who Hearts had bought from Liverpool in 1912 for £400. He had scored a club record 29 goals in his first season and had been selected for a Scottish League XI against the Irish League in 1915. He died of Leukemia at the age of 26 while in hospital before he could see any military action, and is the only one of the Heart’s war dead to have a known grave.
Henry Wattie died at the Somme on 1 July 1916, aged 23. He had been predicted to become a footballing great.
Duncan Currie died at the Somme 1 July 1916, aged 23 after being shot in the shoulder. He played for Kilwinning Rangers before moving to Heart of Midlothian FC for a transfer fee of two guineas. His officer wrote to his father: “he was universally popular and admired for his skill at football.”
Ernest Ellis also was killed on that first day at the Somme. Aged 30, he was hit by machine gun fire just in front of the German’s barbed wire fortifications.
James Boyd died 3 August 1916, aged 21. He was the last Heart’s man to die on the Somme. He had been transferred to hospital after being wounded, but the hospital was hit by artillery fire killing all inside
The two other Heart’s players who died in action were,
James Speedie, who died 25 September 1915, aged 21. He sadly was the first to volunteer and was the first Heart’s player to be killed in action.
John Allan, died 22 April 1917, aged 30, after being shot while carrying out orders to reconnoiter a wood. He was the last Heart’s player to be killed.
Of the other 8 players who signed up-to the 16th battalion two returned to play again for Hearts. Pat Crossnan, who was nicknamed the ‘most handsome man in football’ and of whom it was said that he could pass a ball, but not a mirror, played a few more seasons for Hearts. However having been wounded twice and gassed he never truly recovered his health and died prematurely in 1933 before his fortieth birthday. The other was Willie Wilson, he too had been wounded in action and was consistently troubled with an injured shoulder. Two other players picked up their careers with English teams, Jimmy Frew signed for Leeds, and Jamie Low, having been turned down by Hearts, went on to be successful at Newcastle.
Of the remaining four only Norman Findlay escaped injury having been discharged early to work in the shipyards. Annan Ness, Bob Preston and Alfie Briggs all received injuries that effected them throughout the rest of their lives, with Briggs still having two machine gun bullets lodged in his back when he died in 1950.
In recognition of the war effort Hearts received many plaudits including a letter from the King of Belgium. On 9 April 1922 the club’s war memorial at Haymarket, near where the offices where the players would have enlisted would have been, was unveiled in tribute to those player’s who had lost their lives. It is still an integral part of the Hearts football club that on every Remembrance Sunday players, officials and supporters of the club gather at the monument to pay their respects. An annual pilgrimage is also held by the club’s supporters to Contalmaison every year where, in 2004 a monument made from Scottish stone was erected in remembrance to McRae’s battalion, with a special plaque recognising the contribution of Heart of Midlothian.