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Archive Anecdotes

Snippets from the city's archives


Nov 11, 2014

McCrae's Battalion.

One hundred years ago, in November 1914, Lothian Road and Castle Street were the venues for a remarkable Great War recruiting campaign, which was given a boost by Heart of Midlothian footballers who volunteered to join the Royal Scots en masse.

Sir George McCrae, a leading Edinburgh citizen, was seeking to raise a volunteer 2nd Edinburgh City Battalion and had organised a recruitment rally to be held on Friday 27th November in the recently opened Usher Hall. Two days before the rally, on the 25th November, sixteen Hearts players volunteered to join the battalion. Five were medically unfit for service, but the remaining eleven signed up at the Heart of Midlothian stadium at Tynecastle.

The press gave this event major coverage and congratulatory messages were sent to McCrae from Prime Minister Asquith, Lord Kitchener, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and many others. There is little doubt that this high profile event, and the attendance of Hearts players at the Usher Hall rally, helped ensure that the hall was packed on the evening of the 27th.


The rally was very successful. Speaker after speaker received thunderous applause. McCrae concluded the event with the words:

“I would not – I could not – ask you to serve unless I share the danger at your side. In a moment I will walk down to Castle Street and set my name to the list of volunteers. Who will join me?"

Crowds followed him down Lothian Road to Mackay's Palace Hotel at the corner of Castle Street and Princes Street. By midnight over 300 men had enlisted and by Saturday morning, with over 500 volunteers, the battalion was already half full.


Recruitment was further boosted when Hearts offered recruits free admission to their next match with local rivals Hibernian on Saturday 5 December. Hearts won the match but a more significant result was that more than 200 men, including many Hibs supporters, joined the battalion that weekend. By the end of November, a total of sixteen Hearts players had enlisted in the battalion or other units of the armed services. Others followed later.

The footballing outcome was negative for the Hearts team. Up to Christmas 1914, before mobilisation, the club had amassed, in 21 games, 39 points from a possible 44 and were favourites to win the league championship. The Hearts manager, John McCartney, however told the press:

'we would rather lose the League through this action we have taken, than win the flag with no honour.'

Following mobilisation, in 17 games, Hearts amassed only 22 points from a possible 34 and lost the title to Celtic on the last day of the season. For decades thereafter, Hearts did not challenge seriously for honours.

The footballing cost however fades into insignificance when the human outcome of this brave act is remembered. Seven Hearts players died during the war and another dozen were wounded in action, six of them with injuries so severe that they had to be invalided out of service.

As part of the Usher Hall centenary programme, a special event is to be held on Friday 28 November to commemorate the recruitment rally held there 100 years before. Click here for details.

Acknowledgements:

• Main source: ‘McCrae’s Battalion’ by Jack Alexander. Mainstream Publishers, 2003.

• Photo of the Usher Hall interior 1914: Capital Collections.

• Photo of the Palace Hotel circa 1914: City of Edinburgh Libraries.

• Photo of the 1914 Hearts Team: Heart of Midlothian F.C. Archive.

 

 

 



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