Hearts of courage - The legendary McCrae’s Own

It was a moment for all manner of emotions. As the young stars of Heart of Midlothian gathered for this photograph, they were on top of the world. They were Scotland’s top side, they were tipped for their first title in 18 years, and they were off to war, but only three players in this picture would escape it unscathed.

Hours before they lined up for the camera the Hearts players had walked on to the stage at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall to the raucous acclaim of 4,000 men. It was 27 November 1914, and they were the first to join the 16th Royal Scots, a battalion formed after weeks of bitter controversy that threatened to destroy football.

They simply did the right thing for club and country

Sir George McCrae, colonel, businessman, ex-MP and Scotland’s top civil servant, led 16 Hearts players from the hall to the Castle Street recruiting office.

Thousands followed – and the epic story of McCrae’s Own had begun. Surprisingly, five of the footballers were rejected as unfit for service, including the imposing club captain Bob Mercer, who had a nasty knee injury. But later that day, ten Heart of Midlothian men pulled on their maroon kits and tried to compose themselves for the photo.

Heart of Midlothian posing for a team photo.

They were all conscious of the significance of the moment and a few remained stern, wondering, possibly, what was to come. But most were glimmering with expectation, suppressing outright smiles.

They were not types for self-glorification; they had simply done the right thing by club and country. Not so manager John McCartney, who, in gold watch-chain and bowler hat, glowed with pride.

The other player, Jamie Low, missed the photo because he had to go to a university class. Club mouser Blackie the cat took his place, held by right-back Annan Ness.

“The city’s manhood gave up everything for the precious opportunity of fighting for the greatest of causes – the freedom of the universe.” Hearts manager John McCartney, writing in 1918

Only three of the players in the picture would escape the war unscathed. Less than a year later, striker Henry Wattie, full-back Duncan Currie and reserve right-back Ernie Ellis were killed on the first day of the Somme. Centre-forward Tom Gracie died of leukaemia during army training after spending months trying bravely to hide the illness. One the Somme, striker Willie Wilson was invalided home with an injured shoulder and defenders Annan Ness and Alfie Briggs were wounded, the latter incredibly lucky to be alive. Only left-back and Staff Sergeant Jimmy Frew, who played for Leeds and Bradford City after the war, reserve keeper Norman Findlay, who was transferred as a shipyard carpenter, and centre-back Bobby Preston came through the war safely. 

Next day, Jimmy Boyd and Paddy Crossan joined up. Boyd was killed a month into the Somme and Crossan, “the handsomest man in the world” died after the war as a result of a gassing he had suffered in 1918. Another Hearts star, the supremely talented captain Bob Mercer, was gassed and died before his time too. Reserve centre-half John Allan, who had already enlisted with the 9th Royal Scots, survived the Somme only to be killed the next year. The first Hearts player to die in action had been inside ­left James Hodge Speedie, an insurance clerk, killed at Arras in September 1915. Of the 31 professionals at the club who went to war, seven of them lost their lives and 10 were wounded.

Manager McCartney, writing in 1918, said: “Every grade of the city’s manhood gave up everything for the precious opportunity of engaging in the fight for the greatest of causes – the freedom of the universe. They have given their lives with a readiness and an abandon in account with the required needs of the hour. It may with truth be said that ‘kings for such a tomb might wish to die’."

"They weren’t just interested in using their wages to buy fast cars and smoke cigars. They were young men of substance." Historian Jack Alexander on the Hearts players who joined McCrae’s

It had been a different mood weeks earlier when the Hearts players were accused of cowardice for carrying on playing in the 1914-­15 season. They had won their first eight matches and were flying, with a chance of breaking the dominance of Rangers and Celtic by winning their first league title since 1897. 

But amid the fury at football playing on, a letter in the Edinburgh Evening News from “Soldier’s Daughter” suggested they changed the club’s name to the “The White Feathers of Midlothian”. Writer and historian Jack Alexander said the incident “had a profound effect” on the players.

“It’s a very public and rather pointed dig at them,” he added. “They weren’t just interested in using their wages to buy fast cars and smoke cigars. They were young men of substance, the kind of men who would think about these things and that a letter like that would affect.”

When George McCrae privately approached the players with assurances from the War Office that they would go to France together, they took little time in agreeing to join up.

On the first day of the Somme, 1 July 1916, the 16th Royal Scots went over the top behind their sister battalion the 15th. Like so many others that day, they were cut down in droves. Over the next few days McCrae’s Own would lose 12 officers and 460 soldiers, three-quarters of its fighting force.

Seen to fall... never seen again

Inside-­forward Henry “Harry” Wattie, born in 1893, dry­-humoured son of an Edinburgh coachman and one of the best strikers in Scotland, was best friends with teammate Pat Crossan, who went out with Wattie’s sister.

Wattie, 23, survived the first couple of hours of the July 1 attack and his company was taking cover in a sunken road around 1,000 yards from their objective, the village of Contalmaison. But when they emerged they were cut to pieces by three machine guns and field artillery. Wattie was seen to fall by teammate Annan Ness and never seen again.

In 1918, manager McCartney compared the 16th Royal Scots private with Hearts great Robert Walker: “In character, disposition, and play, the similarity was peculiarly manifest. Feinting, swerving, and drawing were striking replicas one of the other. Each carried the ‘old head’ with an eye to the main chance. On many momentous and thrilling occasions each by sheer artfulness has secured the goal that carried victory.”

Buried in a shell hole in no­ man’s land

Full­-back Duncan Currie, born in Ayrshire in 1892, worked as a hairdresser’s assistant before he was bought by Hearts for two guineas from Kilwinning Rangers as a big, resolute defender. He had talent in his blood; his father was a goalkeeper and his two brothers played for Bury and Leicester Fosse.

Sergeant Currie, 23, was hit as he led his C Company platoon from the sunken road. Shot in the shoulder, he was buried in a battlefield cemetery beside a road but the spot was later lost.

An officer wrote to Currie’s father: “In addition to being a good soldier he had a most lovable nature; his death has been a heavy blow to the battalion, for he was universally popular and admired for his skill at football. The grave is a shell-hole in no man’s land.”

Went to war instead of his brother

Inside-­forward Jimmy Boyd was just 21 when he died – but might never have been on the Somme in the first place. Jimmy, born in Seafield, West Lothian in 1895, had been a shale miner and a printer. His brother Archie was a Hearts keeper and when the players volunteered en masse, the family had a difficult decision to make: Which brother should go to war?

Jimmy decided for them, saying he would go because Archie was about to be married and could provide better for the family. The family accepted his brave choice with heavy hearts. August 3, 1916, was “a quiet day” but Lance Corporal Boyd was badly wounded, hit in the side by a piece of shell casing, and was carried off by stretcher bearers.

The three men never made it to the dressing station, killed by artillery fire. Boyd was buried near Bazentin but his grave was later lost.

He never saw his baby daughter

Big, powerful defender Ernie Ellis played for Norwich and Barnsley before joining Hearts, where he was always “scrupulously fair” in his play. Born in Norwich in 1885, he was a boot clicker by trade, cutting the leather for the uppers of shoes.

Ellis, a 30-­year-­old private, who married an Edinburgh girl with whom he had a daughter he would never see, was the third Hearts player killed in the charge from the sunken road. He fell in front of some wire and his body was found and buried but later lost.

‘He could tackle like train’

Full-back Alfie Briggs should have died on the first day of the Somme.

Born in Glasgow in 1888 and a riveter by trade, he had joined Hearts in 1913, locked in a dressing room by manager John McCartney until he agreed to sign. Briggs, according to historian Jack Alexander, was “the bravest man in the team who could tackle like a train”.

As the McCrae’s men went forward at La Boisselle he was hit by four machine gun bullets; one in his leg, another in his left foot and through his arm, another in his right ankle, coming out above the knee and another winging his forehead, knocking him out.

Corporal Briggs was found next day in a shell-hole and taken to a dressing station and put in a tent reserved for those who were expected to die. But he did not die, falling asleep for several hours before an orderly clearing out the dead noticed he was breathing.

He recovered, but would never play football again. Briggs came back to Glasgow, where he would scout for Partick Thistle and occasionally suffer from “black days”, especially around 1 July.

When he died in his early 60s in 1950 he still had two German bullets in his back.

‘A whole hearted player’

Sergeant John Allan, a joiner by trade, enlisted with the 9th Royal Scots when war broke out. They were the “shock troops” of the army and the only battalion in the regiment to wear kilts. Born in Greenlaw, Berwickshire, in 1887, Allan was “a whole-hearted player” whose family moved to Edinburgh looking for work.

He survived The Somme but was caught in crossfire while moving through a wood at Roeux, near Arras, in April 1917. The 30­-yea-r­old’s body was never found and his name is on the memorial at Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery.

The Handsomest Man In The World

Gregarious Pat Crossan was loved by Hearts fans and liked to be known by his nickname, 'The Handsomest Man In The World'. His best friend Harry Wattie joked that he “could pass a ball but couldn’t pass a mirror if he tried”.

Born in Addiewell, West Lothian, in 1893, Crossan was a tough defender reckoned to be “the fastest man in Scotland” over 100 yards. He would boost his earnings with the occasional appearance, always under an assumed name, on the professional athletics circuit.

In early 1916 Private Crossan wrote to manager John McCartney: “I think that instead of fighting we should take the Fritzes on at football. I am certain we would do them.”

On August 9 near Bazentin Crossan was hit in the leg by shrapnel. At the hospital he was listed for an amputation but a German doctor, a PoW, managed to save his leg.

He was sent home to recover and wrote to McCartney that be expected to be playing again “quite soon”. He was posted to Palestine with the 4th Royal Scots and in December 1917 was at the fall of Jerusalem.

Back in France in April 1918, he was gassed and sent home to an Edinburgh hospital to recover. Crossan’s window looked out on Arthur’s Seat, the distinctive hill by the city. “First I’m going to run up yon wee hill,” he told a visitor, “then I’m going back to play for Hearts.”

Crossan was true to his word, turning out in a 3-1 win against Queen’s Park in August 1919. But his lungs were no longer up to playing football and he never fully recovered from his gassing.

He ran the Paddy’s Bar pub in the city’s Rose Street but in 1933 died from tuberculosis aged just 39.

Died after heart attack on pitch

Hearts captain Bob Mercer should maybe never have gone to war after he was turned down as unfit on the famous first day of recruiting because of his knee ligament injury. The Hearts team revolved around this brilliant centre-back, who was a century ahead of his time, with all the passing and vision of today’s top defenders. Mercer, born in 1889, and the team’s figurehead before McCrae’s was formed, received many letters urging him to join up. 

By 1916 he had recovered enough to be conscripted and two years later was gassed at the front with the Royal Garrison Artillery. Gunner Mercer returned to Hearts after the war but was never the same player; found to have a weakened heart, he played for Dunfermline for two years before retiring in 1924.

Two years later, invited to appear for Hearts in a friendly at Selkirk, he collapsed with heart failure on the pitch and died soon afterwards. He was 37. 

The Hearts men whose bodies and graves were lost at the Somme are named on the memorial at Thiepval. They, and all who fought and died with The 16th Royal Scots, are commemorated by the McCrae’s Battalion Memorial, a traditional Scottish cairn at Contalmaison.

Remember the Somme

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The Royal British Legion is calling on communities across the UK to take the time out from their daily lives to honour those who fell. We have created a Somme 100 toolkit which contains everything you need to organise a Remembrance event in your community.

Make your own commemoration to one of the casualties of the First World War by simply placing a virtual poppy in their memory on our Every Man Remembered website.

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