The incredible George McCrae and his sporting battalion

House maid’s son Sir George McCrae was a self-made MP and Scotland’s top civil servant. He was also a football fan and a soldier. And in 1915, as a crisis threatened to tear apart his beloved game, Colonel McCrae raised a battalion of footballers and sportsmen who fought and died at the Somme. This is the incredible story of the 16th Royal Scots, McCrae’s Own.

Second Lieutenant Cecil Lewis was flying his French-made Morane-Saulnier fighter aeroplane high above the scarred battlefields of the Western front. It was just after 7am on July 1, 1916. And as Lewis passed over the village of La Boisselle in the valley of the Somme River, he knew something was about to happen. But what he saw could barely be believed.

'A magnificent overture to failure'

The 18-year-old Royal Flying Corps officer, who as a writer and producer would become one of the five men who founded the BBC, was on a dawn mission to observe the detonation of two gigantic mines. Lewis later described the apocalyptic moment which heralded the Somme offensive as a "magnificent overture to failure".

"The whole earth heaved and flared," he wrote. "A tremendous and magnificent column rose up into the sky. [The columns were] hanging there a moment as monumental and unbelievable as the Pillars of Hercules. Then came a gigantic roar, drowning the sound of the engine and the thundering guns. My machine was flung over like a scrap of paper in a gale."

Joining up... the flower of east Scotland

In the trenches below, the men of McCrae’s Own watched the 100,000lbs of ammonal explosive in the Lochnagar and Y Sap mines fling the earth of the German defences 4,000ft into the sky. It was 7:28am, two minutes to Zero Hour.

Lieutenant Colonel Sir George McCrae’s men, the 16th Battalion Royal Scots, had a remarkable story of their own. In their number were scores of sportsmen; footballers, athletes, golfers, rugby and hockey players, bowlers, cyclists, swimmers... and the strongest man in Scotland.

Alongside them were bank managers, students, lawyers, sports club officials, tradesmen, factory workers and fans, the flower of east Scotland. All had joined up in a frenzy of patriotism amid a controversy that had threatened to tear down their national game.

McCrae’s Own also included many players one of Scotland’s top footballing sides, Heart of Midlothian. By the end of the war seven of them would be dead, including four at the Somme.

"If a footballer has strength of limb, let them serve in the field of battle" Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s appeal for footballing recruits

Football was plunged into bitter crisis when, despite the war, it was decided to continue with the 1914-15 season. Many people were incredulous that the game went on while men were dying in France. The fury was fuelled by a campaign by Arthur Charrington, brewing heir turned social reformer, and appeals by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who thundered: “If a footballer has strength of limb, let them serve and march in the field of battle.”

The English FA argued football relieved people’s “sorrow, strain, panic and depression” and was proving an effective recruitment tool. Players were concerned about breaking their contracts and club directors about breaking promises they had made to their banks, opening them both up to the consequences of the law. But attendances plummeted, the government withdrew their tacit support for the football authorities and, with several clubs facing financial ruin, a bail-out fund was launched.

Hearts came in for particularly heavy criticism. They were thought by many to be the finest team in Scotland and in 1914 they looked ready to break the stranglehold of Rangers and Celtic for the first time in 10 years. Hearts had won their first eight games with a “dainty, dazzling football”, a modern style of intelligent moves and quick passing. But despite their allure on the pitch, the players began to receive letters accusing them of cowardice.

Sir George McCrae decided to do something. McCrae, son of a housemaid from Aberdeen, was a self-made politician and public official who had earned a fortune in the hat and drapery business. He promised to raise a battalion in a week.

"Hearts should call themselves The White Feathers of Midlothian" A letter urging footballers to join up

McCrae, born in 1860, had grown up in the slums of Edinburgh, leaving school at nine to become a messenger boy then apprentice hatter. By 21 he had his own business. A father of nine and Hearts supporter, he was Liberal MP for Edinburgh East before, in 1909, leaving parliament to become the country’s top civil servant. As boss of the Scottish Local Government Board he was charged with implementing the ambitious reforms of the Asquith government.

McCrae also commanded a battalion, the 6th Royal Scots, after rising through the ranks from private to colonel. The strictly teetotal unit was known as McCrae’s Water Rats. A year before the war McCrae quit his command to look after wife Lizzie, who was dying of cancer. When she succumbed in December 1913, he consumed himself with work.

In the midst of the football storm, on November 16, 1914, the Edinburgh Evening News printed a letter from "Soldier’s Daughter", saying "...that while Hearts continue to play football, enabled thus to pursue their peaceful play by the sacrifice of the lives of thousands of their countrymen, they might adopt, temporarily, a nom de plume, say 'The White Feathers of Midlothian'..."

Hearts manager John McCartney was raging but he held his tongue. After the war, he finally let rip, describing the football critics as "virulent, vitriolic, and irrelevant". "[The players'] class was anathema to lords, bishops, curates, and all grades of professional teachers," he wrote in a 1918 booklet marking Hearts’ contribution to the war. "Fireside soldiers and critics exhausted their vocabulary of invective. The entire cosmopolitan crew of kill-joys and motley parasites were beside themselves. They are neither fitted for fighting nor willing to fight, but their rudimentary, fragmentary, and hearsay knowledge of things has the unfortunate tendency to further distort their limited powers of observation."

'The handsomest man in the world'

Three days later it was announced that McCrae, at the age of 54, had volunteered for active service and would lead the battalion. Next day, when the War Office approved his request to raise the unit, Edinburgh’s George Street was thronged with volunteers. 

Less than a week later McCrae pulled off his masterstroke. He recruited 11 players from Hearts, a mix from the first team and reserves, and unveiled them at a rousing meeting attended by 4,000 at the city’s Usher Hall. Men from all over east Scotland flocked to join up with them. 

The Hearts contingent grew into a "Historic Sixteen" and included Harry Wattie, ace striker, Duncan Currie, defender and one of three pro footballing brothers, Ernie Ellis, former Norwich and Barnsley star and Jimmy Boyd, inside forward and shale miner. All four would die at the Somme.

Inside left and insurance clerk Jimmy Speedie and meat salesman Tom Gracie did not even make it to the terrible day; Speedie was killed at Loos in September 1915 and a month later, in a Glasgow hospital, Gracie died of leukaemia he had bravely spent months trying to hide. Scotland international Bob Mercer and tough defender Paddy Crossan, the "handsomest man in the world", survived the Somme and the war but were to die before their time from their wounds.

Pontius Pilate's bodyguard

McCrae failed to create his battalion in a week. It took him 16 days. Some 1,350 men were recruited into four companies. A Company was students and white-collar workers from finance, insurance and legal professions, B and D were for tradesmen and men from the areas around Edinburgh and C was the "Sportsmen's" or "Hearts" Company. It comprised footballers, officials and fans of 75 clubs, including Dunfermline, Raith Rovers, Falkirk, East Fife and Hibernian, as well as men from many other sports. Among them were 10 players from Mossend Burnvale FC, known as The Cow-Punchers because their pitch resembled a pasture.

McCrae's efforts caused a national sensation, helped rescue the reputation of football and inspired the creation of the English footballers' battalion a month later. Hearts finished second to Celtic that controversial season, their army commitments taking their toll on their beautiful football. The Evening News was bitterly blunt: "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." McCrae's Own was officially titled the 16th (Service) Battalion (2nd Edinburgh) The Royal Scots. The regiment they were part of was an illustrious one; first raised in 1633, it was the oldest regiment of the line in Britain and known as "Pontius Pilate's Bodyguard".

In December, sun helmets were issued and the men were told they were off to Egypt. Then the orders changed: They were going to France.

The gigantic mines at La Boisselle that bright July morning had been meant to make it easy. Some Somme battalions had even been ordered to walk into no man's land. After the week's bombardment, the wire would be blown away and there would be little resistance. It turned out very differently.

In the second wave, behind their sister battalion the 15th Royal Scots, McCrae's Own went over the top "with great heart and in grand form" into a horrendous mix of artillery and machine gun fire. To their left, men from Tyneside, Lincolnshire and Suffolk were cut down in droves.

Somehow, some of the 16th managed to fight through, capturing the strong-point which became known as the Scots Redoubt. Fewer McCrae's men even made it to the village of Contalmaison, the deepest penetration of the German front lines that morning, but few of them lived to tell the tale. They were forced to withdraw to the Redoubt, 2,000 metres from La Boiselle, where they held for 72 hours, before McCrae himself managed to reach the survivors. There was one officer and 150 men from the 16th and 150 from other regiments. They were thirsty, hungry and brutalised.

The 34th Division had lost 7,000 men in the attack. McCrae’s had 12 officers and 460 soldiers killed wounded or missing, three-quarters of its combat troops. Wattie, Currie and Ellis were dead and Boyd would be killed three weeks later, hit by an artillery shell on the way to hospital on "a quiet day". A Distinguished Conduct Medal, three Military Crosses and seven Military Medals were awarded to the bravest of McCrae’s men. The 15th Royal Scots, who had led the attack, lost more than 610 soldiers and 18 officers.

The strongest man in Scotland

McCrae's had counted many rugby men among their number, including Scottish international John Dewar Dallas, who refereed the famous Wales victory over New Zealand in 1905; Jim Davie, of Daniel Stewart's College, who won one of the two MCs awarded on the first day of the Somme; and Arthur Flett of Edinburgh Wanderers, Secretary of the Scottish Rugby Football Union, who died at Arras.

Athlete Harry Harley, of Edinburgh Northern Harriers, Napier Armit, who played at the "Lord's" of Scotland, Grange Cricket Club, and bodybuilder Murdoch McLeod, "the strongest man in Scotland" all died at the Somme. Scotland's hockey keeper Finlay MacRae, reckoned to be "the best soldier in the battalion", won two Military Medals before he was killed at Hargicourt in 1917.

"The losses have been severe... but the glory shall never fade" Sir George McCrea writing after the war

McCrae was crushed by the Somme. Suffering from typhus, criticised by his superiors for being too keen to avoid casualties among his men, he was sent home to recover. He would never command the battalion again. Under new command and with constant reinforcements, the 16th went on to fight for the rest of the Somme offensive then at Arras, Roeux, Hargicourt, Poelcappelle in 1917 and Croisilles, Armentières and Bailleul in 1918.

In 1917, led by Annan Ness, McCrae’s Own won the divisional football championship. Only three of the XI who had originally turned out for the battalion team were available for selection. On May 16, 1918, the battalion was abruptly disbanded, along with the rest of the 34th Division, in a huge army reorganisation prompted by lack of manpower. Its soldiers were absorbed into the 2nd Royal Scots for the Advance to Victory.

Later that year McCrae wrote an "appreciation" for Hearts manager McCartney’s booklet: "The battalion has given a good account of itself in many a hard-fought engagement, and where danger has been greatest and the shells falling thickest – there has the "Hearts" been – all "Forwards" then. Their losses, like that of the Battalion, have been severe. But the glory of it shall never fade, and to those of us who are left, the comradeship and good feeling which pervaded all ranks will ever be a happy recollection. We are proud of our fallen heroes. They have made the supreme sacrifice willingly, gladly, for a great cause. Their memory shall be ever green. Their deeds a stimulus to like effort to all who follow in their train."

After the war McCrae worked to help survivors find jobs and widows get their pensions. Invalided out of the army and retired from public service, he tried to get back to Westminster, but with the Liberal Party’s star fading was beaten by Labour in the General Elections of 1922, 1923 and 1924.

"We must justify our own lives so when we meet our comrades in that better place we are able to say we did not let them down" Sir George McCrae five weeks before he died in 1928

On November 11, 1928, beside his fire at home in North Berwick, McCrea wrote to painter David Macbeth Sutherland, who had joined the 16th Royal Scots as a private in 1914 and won the Military Cross as a captain in 1917.

"In the flames I see the faces of my boys," he said. "So young and full of promise. The sorrow and the pride are overwhelming. Sorrow at the loss and pride in the manner of their dying. They never flinched. Faced by a veritable storm of shot and shell, they marched towards the guns beside their friends. In remembering them, we must acknowledge our debt and find some way to justify our own lives so that when we meet our comrades in that better place we are able to say with a brave heart that we did not let them down."

Five weeks later, 15 years to the day that his wife passed away, McCrae died. He is buried beside Lizzie in Grange Cemetery, Edinburgh. A year after the war, at the regiment’s first reunion dinner, David Sutherland proposed that a cairn be built to mark the sacrifice of the Somme. Over 80 years later in 2004, after a campaign led by historian Jack Alexander, author of the definitive book on McCrae’s Own, the cairn was finally built at Contalmaison. On it are the words of a song written in 1915 by "battalion bard" Private George Blaney:

Come pack up your footballs and scarves of maroon, Leave all your sweethearts in Auld Reekie toon. Fall in wi' the lads for they're aff and away, To take on the bold Hun with old Geordie McCrae

Remembering 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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