THE December chill swept over the scarred battlefields of the Western Front, suddenly peaceful and quiet, the artillery blasts silenced in favour of the thud of a leather ball and the shouts of a handful of men.
The famous 1914 Christmas truce football match – when soldiers from both sides of the trenches are said to have laid down their arms in favour of good hearted kickabout – is one of the enduring and most poignant images from the Great War.
Precisely what happened, who was actually playing and, indeed, what the score might have been, is long lost in the mists of time.
And now a new element has been added to the mix: the possibility that the leather ball they used for the legendary match may well have arrived on the Western Front thanks to the generosity and thoughtfulness of Evening News readers.
It’s emerged that hundreds of footballs were sent from the heart of the city throughout the conflict, destined for soldiers and sailors battling on all fronts. Some, incredibly, even went to prisoners of war.
Each one was paid for by locals who responded in their masses to an Evening News appeal inspired by Heart of Midlothian. The balls were then packaged up and posted across Europe and beyond, to Egypt, Palestine and Mesopotamia and to sailors on board naval vessels.
The remarkable idea to send volley after volley of footballs had its roots in the famous story of McCrae’s Battalion, the first footballers’ battalion which had its ranks swelled by professional and amateur players, many linked to Hearts.
As news of their response to the war spread, their brothers in arms wrote to the Tynecastle club to appeal for a small gesture of support, a football to play with.
The appeal touched a nerve with the club’s manager at the time, Glaswegian John McCartney. And in tandem with the Evening News, a major fundraising drive was launched to answer the plea.
Fascinating details of the amazing effort to send footballs from Edinburgh right to the front line are contained in a booklet unearthed by sports historian Andy Mitchell, which describes the city wide response and the incredible gratitude of the men who found joy and comfort in the beautiful game.
Indeed, their delight in having the most basic of playthings – a football – is recorded in a series of touching letters sent to the committee charged with coordinating the scheme, many of which paint a vivid picture of the impact a simple kickabout had on servicemen’s morale.
“When postie brought your parcel into the billet you might have heard the shout in Edinburgh,” wrote one. “Only two obstacles trouble us – a blessed old apple tree in the middle of the pitch and the mud.”
Another wrote from Egypt: “Cannot purchase footballs here. Nearest shop is in far-off Bombay. Am proud to belong to Edinburgh because of its goodness to service men and the action of the Hearts players. My battery is the fittest here thanks to your footballs.”
The scheme was dreamed up after the Battle of Mons, the first major action of the Great War, when a handful of letters arrived at Tynecastle appealing for footballs.
“Hearts got letters from soldiers saying ‘please can you send me a football?’,” explains historian Andy, who has copied the entire booklet The Sport in War, written by the former Hearts manager himself, John McCartney, on to his blog, www.scottish sporthistory.com.
“I suppose nowadays it would be like a charity writing to ask for a signed jersey. Then a trickle became a flood.”
In the booklet, former manager McCartney describes how two “applications” for a ball were followed by eight. As the numbers grew, details were kept of where the balls were being sent and of donations – which flooded in from the likes of the North British Rubber Works, trams employees, collections at Tynecastle and individuals such as Private RCF Hyslop of the Canadian Infantry, who alone raised £182 18s 5d for the charity.
“Applications began to pour in to such an extent that it was quite impossible for Heart of Midlothian to comply,” the manager wrote.
“A way had to be found whereby the ‘lads over the water’ should have their orders attended to.”
During a chat with Evening News sports journalist William Reid – who wrote under the pen name Diogenes – a plan was hatched to make an appeal to the city folk for help raising funds to buy and send footballs to the front. The first contribution to the fund was made by workers from the newspaper.
“The story isn’t that well known,” says Andy, who collects sports documents and historic data for his website. “Obviously a lot of the focus has been on McCrae’s Battalion and the players who went to war – for good reason.
“As far as I know, the football charity was unique to the city of Edinburgh.”
The football charity committee was made up of Walter McPhail, the Evening News editor at the time, writer William ‘Diogenes’ Reid, Hearts’ manager Mr McCartney and chairman EH Furst.
As well as letters from servicemen expressing thanks for the gifts were others from military leaders and officials, including Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces Marshall Foch, the King of Belgium and General Joffre, Commander in Chief of the French Army.
“The responses from the soldiers show it was incredibly well received,” Andy adds. “Soldiers would have three or four days at the front on call pretty much day and night.
“Then they would have gone behind the lines for ‘R&R’. When lying around behind the lines waiting for the next call up, they’d want something to do in their spare time. They would be at risk of getting bored, so there was an important part in keeping up morale.”
Many of the footballs ended up at the heart of battle while others were delivered to prisoner of war camps. “It seems the First World War was more relaxed in terms of getting parcels out through the Red Cross and other charities,” adds Andy, “so they could get footballs to the prisoners.”
However the Hearts’ manager was left fuming at attempts to wrestle that part of the project off the Edinburgh committee.
“The only snag that interfered with the pleasurable work of speedily and spontaneously dealing with the wants of our servicemen was created by the Central Prisoners of War Committee,” he wrote.
“During the early years of the war, there was no difficulty in getting footballs through to the various prison camps of Germany.
“Towards the end of 1916, however, the committee names swooped down upon us and commanded that no more footballs were to be sent to German prison camps by means of any other agency than their good selves.”
The Edinburgh committee saw off the attempt to hijack their work. By the end of the conflict, 1700 balls costing around 12s each had been posted and £870 collected.
“The record of collections are worthy of a page in history as only by hard work on the part of the willing volunteers was the task made possible,” wrote Mr McCartney.
“Again let us reiterate the great assistance rendered by the News.”
Support from the sidelines
The arrival of footballs in the battle zones was welcomed by servicemen and military leaders.
A letter from the King of Belgium acknowledged the receipt of a dozen balls. “I am very sensible of the sentiments that have inspired the gifts and also for the sympathy towards Belgium.”
Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig’s letter spoke of “your generous contribution of 25 footballs.”
And the Rev Lauchlan McLean Watt, chaplain to the Gordons and Black Watch, wrote: “In the stress, discomfort and sorrow out there, they sorely need something to uplift them.”