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A Battalion With a Difference

Monday September 29 2014

A service of commemoration will take place next month to mark the centenary of the raising of 'McCrae's Battalion' - a battalion made up of Heart of Midlothian players, other footballers, sportsmen and supporters. Most never returned from the trenches. Janice Todd tells the story.

It all started in 1914 with the tabloid press of the day targeting professional football.

The critics first attacked the men watching football on a Saturday before turning their venom on the players, calling them “shirkers and cowards, content to hide at home while better men risk their lives at the front”.

Indeed the game in Britain was on the point of being stopped by the Government until its reputation was saved by the enlistment of a group of Heart of Midlothian players in the 16th Royal Scots.

This Battalion is perhaps better known by its affectionate name, McCrae’s Battalion, after its charismatic Colonel, Sir George McCrae. It is also known as the Sporting Battalion because the example of the Tynecastle men was followed by 500 supporters and ticket holders - along with 150 followers of Hibernian.

Other professionals also volunteered from Falkirk, Dunfermline and Raith Rovers (who this year mark the centenary with a new away strip - pictured right is the launch, with Raith players, club chairman Turnbull Hutton and local MP Gordon Brown).

Around 75 clubs were represented in total along with rugby players, hockey players, strongmen, golfers, bowlers and athletes of all persuasions.

This “football sensation” captured the country’s imagination and led to the Battalion being raised in record time at a meeting in the Usher Hall on Friday November 27 1914. From the meeting in the Usher Hall the men made their way, on foot, down Lothian Road, past St Cuthbert’s Church (in whose parish the Usher Hall lies), to sign up in Castle Street.

The men left to go to war from the Waverley Station, the great majority of them never to return.

It is our intention to honour the memory of all the men from Edinburgh and beyond who joined McCrae’s Battalion and we warmly invite you to attend a service in commemoration of the centenary of the Raising of McCrae’s Battalion in St Cuthbert’s Church, Lothian Road on Thursday November 27 at 12.45pm.

There will be a retiring collection in aid of McCrae’s Battalion Trust.

Some readers may know that the Padre to the Battalion was The Revd James Black, later to become the Minister of what was then St George’s West, now St Andrew’s and St George’s West and who subsequently became Moderator of The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1938.

The day after the Service, Friday November 28, the area outside the Usher Hall will be renamed McCrae’s Place by the City of Edinburgh and in the evening McCrae’s Battalion Trust are holding a Commemorative Centenary Concert in the Usher Hall.

Janice Todd is an Elder in St Cuthbert’s Church. Her uncle, Jimmy Todd, was a member of the McCrae’s Football Team and, before joining up, he played for Raith Rovers. Read more in 'McCrae's Battalion' by Jack Alexander. This BBC documentary also tells the story: