Brave Hearts of the Somme

Far from the terraces of Tynecastle lies a corner of a foreign field that will be forever linked with the Heart of Midlothian.

A 14ft cairn of Elgin Granite stands as a poignant reminder of the gallant sacrifice made by a team that played the “greatest game of all” and paid the ultimate price.

The story began on 25 November 1914 when 11 Hearts players enlisted for a new Edinburgh unit being formed by Lieutenant Colonel Sir George McCrae, an Aberdonian by birth, who had become a stalwart of the Edinburgh establishment.The self made business man turned politician had set himself a mission of forming a new battalion within a week to answer the UK government’s desperate call for volunteers for the war against Germany.

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Thousands of men had already rushed to enlist but among the ranks of Britain’s professional sportsmen there appeared little hurry to swap the playing field for the trenches. Critics accused the players of cowardice and the government was on the verge of stopping football altogether until the Hearts players answered Sir George’s call.

They were the first professional sportsmen to join up and their bravery caused a national sensation. At the time they were leaders of the Scottish League and their example soon resulted in professionals from Raith Rovers, Dunfermline and Falkirk following suit along with hundreds of Hearts supporters.

Within six days McCrae had obtained 1,347 men to form the 16th Royal Scots, known locally as either “The Sportsmen Battalion” or “McCrae’s Battalion” and, in January 1916, the men were sent to France.

Just months after arriving on the Western Front the sportsmen climbed out of their trenches on the morning of 1 July and advanced towards the German line. It was the first day of the Battle of the Somme and although the battalion achieved the most advanced penetration of the German line anywhere on the front that day, it cost them dearly. As one survivor wrote later: “The lads fell like corn before the scythe.”

A total of 12 officers and 573 men were lost. It was more than three-quarters of the battalion’s attacking strength.Among the dead were three Hearts footballers – Harry Wattie, Duncan Currie and Ernie Ellis; a fourth, Jimmy Boyd, would join them within the month.

Bobby Walker in action for Hearts

Bobby Walker in action for Hearts

Letters between players and John McCartney, their manager, detail what happened. “Teddy McGuire [inside forward] was struck in the arm by flying shrapnel. As he fell, a machine gun round grazed his head. Ernie Ellis [midfield] and Jimmy Hawthorn [midfield, retired] went down in front of the wire. Jimmy Hazeldean [youth team] took a bullet in the thigh. Annan Ness [full back] saw Duncan Currie [left back] hit in the right shoulder. He also noticed Harry Wattie [forward] fall. Crossan [right back] was racing forward … when a shell exploded in front of them.’’

Other Scottish regiments fared just as badly. The 15th (Cranstons) Royal Scots lost 18 officers and 610 soldiers wounded, killed or missing. The 16th Highland Light Infantry lost 20 officers and 534 men while the 51st Highland division suffered 3500 casualties following two attacks on an objective called High Wood.

It had been the blackest day in the history of the British Army. A total of 60,000 men were killed or wounded in just a few hours. Whole communities were devastated by the slaughter as the celebrated pals battalions went over the top to their fate against an almost impregnable network of German barbed wire and machine guns.

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In 2002, Hearts club supporters rallied together to fund a monument in the Picardy village of Contalmaison, which marked the furthest point of the battalion’s advance. The cairn has since become an important part of the local fabric and has become the focal point of an annual pilgrimage by fans to honour the sportsmen who made the ultimate sacrifice.

“Among our many hundreds of pilgrims, we include Scottish Government Ministers, Provosts from East of Scotland Councils, representatives of the Football Clubs who provided men to the 16th battalion Royal Scots, recovering service personnel from the British Army and school pupils on an educational basis, along with family descendent’s and good folk with a kind heart,” said John Dalgleish, Secretary of the McCrae’s Battalion Trust, the world’s first registered charity to be inspired by the sacrifice of an infantry battalion of the Great War.

This year’s pilgrimage was all the more poignant as it it is exactly 100 years since the five-month-long Battle of the Somme began.

A number of Scottish sixth-year students from West Calder High School, along with students from Falkirk and by a group of young soldiers from the Personnel Recovery Unit at Craigiehall recovering from a variety of injuries sustained on recent active service, took part in the trip.

“The establishment of the Contalmaison site and our annual pilgrimage has firmly cemented Scotland’s links with France and the Somme. We have established a new tradition of Franco- Scottish remembrance, reviving the ancient friendship of Europe’s oldest alliance,” said Mr Dalgleish.