Brave Hearts: Scots footballers who died at the Somme

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The Independent Online

Far from the terraces of Tynecastle, the maroon scarves of Heart of Midlothian Football Club marked the memorial to a team that played the "greatest game of all'' and paid the ultimate price.

On 25 November 1914, 11 Hearts players enlisted for a new Edinburgh unit being formed by Lieutenant Colonel Sir George McCrae.

They were the first professional sportsmen to join up and their bravery caused a national sensation.

But by July 1916, seven of them were dead - many dying in the Battle of the Somme. As one survivor wrote later: "The lads fell like corn before the scythe."

Their bravery in battle belied the media storm that erupted two years earlier when war broke out.

Thousands of men had rushed to volunteer but among the ranks of Britain's professional sportsmen there appeared little hurry to swap the playing field for the trenches. Critics accused the players of being cowards and the government was on the verge of stopping football altogether.

The Hearts players answered Sir George's call for recruits after he boasted that he would form a new battalion within a week.

Players including Alfie Briggs, Duncan Currie, Tom Gracie, Jamie Low, Harry Wattie, Willie Wilson,Pat Crossan and Jimmy Boyd all joined up.

At the time Hearts were leaders of the Scottish League and news of the players' actions caused a nation-wide sensation. They were soon joined by professionals from Raith Rovers, Dunfermline and Falkirk, hundreds of Hearts supporters and many other sportsmen and fans.

Within six days McCrae had obtained 1,347 men to form the 16th Royal Scots, known locally as either "The Sportsmen Battalion" or "McCrae's Battalion". In January 1916, the men were sent to France .

On the morning of 1 July, the sportsmen climbed out of their trenches and advanced towards the German line. It was the first day of the Battle of the Somme and although the battalion achieved the most advanced penetration of the German line anywhere on the front that day, it cost them dearly.

Four officers and 225 other ranks were killed while six officers and 341 men were wounded - 27 of whom died from wounds soon after.

It was the blackest day in the history of the British Army. A total of 60,000 men were killed or wounded in just a few hours.

Letters between players and John McCartney, their manager, detail what happened. "Teddy McGuire [inside forward] was struck in the arm by flying shrapnel. As he fell, a machine gun round grazed his head. Ernie Ellis [midfield] and Jimmy Hawthorn [midfield, retired] went down in front of the wire. Jimmy Hazeldean [youth team] took a bullet in the thigh. Annan Ness [full back] saw Duncan Currie [left back] hit in the right shoulder. He also noticed Harry Wattie [forward] fall. Crossan [right back] was racing forward ... when a shell exploded in front of them.''

Three years ago, club supporters rallied together to fund a monument in the Picardy village of Contalmaison, which marked the furthest point of the battalion's advance. Now, a 14ft high Scottish cairn made of Elgin granite stands there as a lasting memorial to the sportsmen who made the ultimate sacrifice.

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