ALEX STEWART recounts the formation of the Edinburgh Pals Battalion and the recruitment of players from the great Hearts team, and others, of the time.
Down the close darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with their faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.
Dull porters stood watching them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.
So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent;
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.
Shall they return to beating of great bells
In wild train-loads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to village wells,
Up half-known roads
Owen’s poem traces the trajectory of sentiment felt by both the enlisted men who banded together to go to war and the applauding public who by turns encouraged and harried young men into uniform. The outbreak of World War One saw an enormous upsurge in patriotic sentiment and tens of thousands felt it their national duty to take up arms. Many others, who did not, were labelled shirkers and lily-livered and coerced into joining up to support an all-encompassing, national war effort. Lauded and garlanded as heroes, these “grimly gay”, newly-uniformed soldiers were packed off to the slaughterhouses of Europe, especially Flanders and France. As the scale and cost of the war dawned on the public and the horror-induced changes in the returning men became apparent, the overwhelming losses became a source of public and private misery. Celebration of heroism was gauche and insensitive and, like returning soldiers in any number of wars before or since, the men (and women, for there were female nurses and administrators involved too) found on their return an equally shell-shocked public. Owen’s poem is redolent of that sense of bathos and the uncomprehending sadness of those who made it back.
Of course, many never made it back at all. As Larkin’s poem ‘MCMXIV’ so beautifully captures, the crowds who joined up, “Standing as patiently/ As if they were stretched outside/ The Oval or Villa Park” had been fed a lie that everything would be over by the winter of 1914. When this did not happen, and the losses began to mount up, campaigns began over the British Isles to enlist more men to throw into the teeth of the German guns and drown in the blood-soaked mud of northern Europe. While the British Army had always had a tradition of professionalism and eschewed conscription or even significant sign-up drives, the losses incurred in the early months of the war left the War Ministry with no choice but to widen the scope of recruitment. Lord Kitchener was firmly behind this approach, and was aided by General Sir Henry Rawlinson and Lord Derby who advocated the formation of the so-called Pals Brigades, the premise of which was that men were more likely to enlist if they were able to fight alongside their friends and family. Rawlinson raised 1600 for the ‘Stockbrokers’ Battalion’ from the City of London, the newly formed 10th (Service) Battalion, Royal Fusiliers. Lord Derby repeated the success in Liverpool, and the concept of the Pals Battalion was made concrete. It only ceased in January 1916 with the introduction of conscription.
While the nationalist fervour and lustily encouraged pro-war sentiment grew, whipped up by the Government and Kitchener especially, the governing bodies of football in Great Britain were vacillating over what to do about the start of the new season. On 9th August 1914, a mere five days after German troops occupied Belgium and war was officially declared, the Scottish Football Association convened to draw the teams for the opening round of the Qualifying Cup. At the meeting, various members put forward ideas about whether to suspend national football competitions in light of the advent of hostilities, but the general feeling was that if football ceased, it would reflect badly on both the SFA and imply that things were more serious than perhaps anyone wanted to admit. Nonetheless, some figures in the SFA were angry, and Thomas Forsyth, Chairman of Airdrieonians, stated, “I am much disappointed that in this present crisis no step has been taken by the SFA to lend their help to the country…playing football while our men are fighting is repugnant and unless some action is forthcoming soon, I will feel compelled to resign my position and take no further part in the game”. This he duly did, though he was persuaded to return, figuring that he could do more to advance the effort from within. Nonetheless, early support for the war effort from the serried ranks of footballing administrators extended no further than collecting funds and footballs to send to the frontline. When the British Expeditionary Force was vanquished the clamour to raise more troops grew, and football found itself increasingly isolated on both sides of the border, associated with a reluctance to take up arms and defend the nation. A letter in The Scotsman at the time railed against the “crowds of callous, thoughtless fools [who] gather in their thousands to watch the awful farce of football. Has the country gone stark mad? Is the flag, under whose folds we enjoy glorious British freedom, of less importance now than a league flag or some other footballing trophy?” Something had to give.
The finest Scottish football team at the time was Heart of Midlothian, superb practitioners of the Scottish style of play that emphasised quick passing interchange and off-the-ball movement over the more English kick-and-rush style. It was felt that the Scottish game’s emphasis on teamwork and interplay would make the players fine soldiers, reliant as they were on one another for their game plan to succeed. Hearts were therefore held up as an example of the failure of football in general, and Scottish football in particular, to get behind the war effort. That such gifted footballers would make gifted soldiers was seen as an obvious corollary and their ‘refusal’ to get behind the war effort led to them being known as the White Feathers of Midlothian. This was, of course, as stupid as it was unfair, but as pressure grew, a local Edinburgh politician sought to redress the situation, using Kitchener’s Pals Battalion brainchild to stem to tide of criticism.
Colonel Sir George McCrae was an illegitimate child, born to a housemaid and raised by his uncle, who became an influential Liberal politician. He made his money in textiles in Edinburgh and became an MP before resigning in 1909 to become the Vice-President of the Scottish Local Government Board. Fiercely patriotic, he too felt moved to assist the war effort and, using his influence and renown in the Edinburgh areas which he had served with distinction as an MP, in December 1914 he founded the Edinburgh Pals Battalion, officially the 16th (Service) Battalion, Royal Scots, 2nd Edinburgh City Pals, unofficially McCrae’s Battalion or the Scottish Sportsmen’s Battalion. The second of these nicknames derived largely from C Company, who comprised the whole first team squad of the Heart of Midlothian Football Club, as well as several of its board members and large swathes of its supporters’ club, as well as players from Falkirk, Raith Rovers, and Dunfermline. Sporting differences were put aside to shoulder arms for a common cause and the prevailing feeling was one of togetherness and pride. Private George Blaney summed up the optimistic sense of brotherhood with his couplet, quoted in Jack Alexander’s book on the battalion:
“Do not ask where Hearts are playing and then look at me askance.
If it’s football that you’re wanting, you must come with me to France!”
Football continued while the battalion trained, and getting ready for war took its toll on the players. Hearts were top of the table having notched up eight straight victories before the team enlisted, but eventually the physical exertion of military training led to a drop in performance and Celtic were eventually able to overhaul a more talented Hearts team and take the division by four points.
The battalion landed in France in January 1916 and were attached to the 101st Brigade, 34th Division. Their first action was the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, with the brave McCrae at its head. McCrae was a popular commander with his men, but not with the upper echelons of the British military establishment. In keeping with the notion of “lions led by donkeys”, McCrae was criticised by the High Command for, according to G. D. Sheffield, being too keen to avoid losses among his men. He was removed from command in August 1916. Nonetheless, in the enormous offensive of July 1916, which culminated in the grotesque Battle of the Somme, the Edinburgh Pals moved from La Boiselle east, heroically taking the village of Contalmaison and suffering extraordinary losses in the process. All told, the British Army lost almost 420,000 in the Battle of the Somme. The 34th Division, of which the Pals Battalion was part, lost over half its fighting strength on July 1st alone, 6,380 casualties of 12,000 men. It is little wonder that historian John Keegan said of the offensive, “The Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered”.
The ravages of the Somme hit the Pals Battalions harder than most, which, in turn, wrought awful damage on the areas from where they came. The recruitment campaign that led to the creation of the Pals meant that whole villages and towns joined up, served together, and died together, stripping vast areas of the country of its generation of young men. Families were ripped apart. In the words of John Keegan: “Whatever harm Kitchener’s volunteers wished the Germans, it is the harm they thereby suffered that remains in British memory, collectively but also among the families of those who did not return”. The effect on the football teams involved was equally severe. Hearts lost seven of the beautiful, brilliant team that had taken the Scottish top tier by storm before the advent of war. Duncan Currie, John Allan, James Boyd, Tom Gracie, Ernest Ellis, James Speedie, and Harry Wattie all perished, as did large numbers of supporters. Gracie actually continued to play and then went to further military training despite having been diagnosed with leukaemia in March 1915. Worried about the effect the diagnosis would have on the morale of his team and, now, his battalion, he only told manager John McCartney. He was sent home to Scotland via Leeds from advanced training before the battalion even saw action, and died in October 1915. The other six players all died in action, most in the Somme. In May 1918, like several other Royal Scots Battalions, it was subsumed into the 39th Division due to its catastrophic losses before being disbanded in August 1918.
Heart of Midlothian did not win another honour until 1954. Today, memorials exist to the Edinburgh Pals battalion in the village of Contalmaison in northern France, where so many died, and on the Haymarket in Edinburgh, where annual observance is held to remember this brave fraternity, who played and died side-by-side.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
From For the Fallen, Laurence Binyon
McCrae’s Battalion, Jack Alexander (Mainstream Publishing: Edinburgh, 2004)
Tommy, Richard Holmes (Harper Perennial: London, 2004)
The First World War, John Keegan (The Bodley Head: London, 2014)
Leadership in the Trenches, G. D. Sheffield (Palgrave MacMillan: London, 2000)
ALEX STEWART – @AFHStewart