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Fri 7 August 2020
In 1914, soon after the First World War had begun, recruitment to join the services began in earnest. Thousands of patriot young and not so young men enlisted. Patriotism was at fever pitch. Any able bodied who had not joined up was dubbed unpatriotic and deserved a white feather. Anger was felt against footballers who were still playing matches and, in particular, Heart of Midlothian who was head of the Scottish League. In fact, a campaign was launched to have all football matches stopped for the duration of the war.

However, just that day, 11 members of Hearts had joined up in a new Battalion raised by Sir George McCrae who was by then 54 years old. By the end of the week, he had 1350 men from many football teams and their supporters; also rugby players, golfers and athletes, and they became known as McCrae's Battalion.

After training, consisting of route marches, drill and musketry firing, they were sent to Ripon in June 1915. In September they moved to Salisbury Plain where they became part of the 54 Division. In December, they were issued with tropical kit and told that they were going to Egypt. This proved to be an error and the kit was recalled. On 7th January 1916 they disembarked at Le Havre with the rest of the 34th Division.

They arrived on the 27th January at the front line where they faced the heaviest bombardment seen in that sector. During their time there, McCrae's lost 8 men and about 20 wounded.

An offensive was planned to start on July 1st. The place chosen to start was not a good one as the Germans were firmly entrenched on a ridge in a very strong position. There was heavy bombardment by the allies, but it didn't affect the Germans very much and, when the offensive started, their allies were mown down in their thousands. In fact, by the end of the day, almost 20 thousand soldiers were killed in that battle.

The Pals Battalion, as they were also called, had taken a year to train and they were destroyed in a matter minutes. Relatives in their home towns were devastated. Glasgow and Edinburgh each lost over 1000 men. McCrae's Battalion lost 12 officers and 573 men, more than three quarters of its attacking strength.

In 1920 survivors of McCrae's tried to raise the money to erect a memorial cairn at Contalmaison where the battalion lost so many men but were unable to get enough funding.

Eventually in 2003, a group of Heart of Midlothian supporters tried again to have a plaque placed somewhere in France to commemorate the soldiers who gave their lives in the Great War. With the help of Jock Alexander, the historian and author, who was about to publish a book called McCrae's Battalion, fund raising started and 4 bronze memorial plaques were made into clay moulds by Gary Gibson, an artist from Orkney, and cast in Nairn by Farquhar Oqilvie Laing in his foundry.

The unveiling took place 7th November 2004 at Contalmaison. Over 500 descendants of those in the Battalion came over for the occasion as did many football supporters. There were also two of Sir George McCrae's grandsons who performed the unveiling.

It is a fitting memorial for all those in McCrae's Battalion who gave their lives in 1916.

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