THEY were the men who made McCrae’s battalion. Alongside the footballers from Heart of Midlothian there were rugby players, sprinters, even a hockey goalkeeper.
Not for nothing was it known as the “sporting battalion”.
It was also the company which 18-year-old Ned Barnie was keen to keep. A successful amateur swimmer from Portobello, it would be after the war that his feats in the water would become legend. During it however, it was his brains rather than his brawn that mattered.
While Ned’s life story includes becoming the first Scot to swim the English Channel – and also the first man to swim it in both directions in one season and, much later, the oldest person to swim it – his capacity for chemistry saw him win the Military Medal after he’d moved from the Royal Scots to the Royal Engineers.
But just what it was he did to win the honour is still shrouded in some mystery – despite painstaking research by pupils at Portobello High school.
Thirteen youngsters – from first to sixth year – embarked on a major project to try and tell the stories of some of the former pupils who signed up to fight in the Great War.
Their hard work, including visits to the National Archives and Calton Gaol, what they uncovered and how they now feel about the First World War has all been recorded by BBC Radio Scotland, and The School That Went to War, narrated by Edith Bowman, will be broadcast over five weeks starting this Monday.
Over the course of six months, the students used archive materials, interviewed historians and visited the battlefields of France and Flanders, piecing together how their community was changed forever by WW1.
They uncovered stories such as that of a 15 year-old recruit who lied about his age, the brothers who signed up together and never returned and the conscientious objector who was sentenced to seven days in prison and spent almost three years doing time and hard labour.
It was school librarian Lauren Thow who decided which men should be researched, the majority from the school’s roll of honour – which, despite its flowing calligraphy and carved wooden surround, seems rather intimidated by the anti- bullying posters and other school information which battle for space on the wall outside the library doors.
Ned Barnie, one of the most famous alumni, isn’t on the roll as he survived the war. However Katya Bacica, who was given his name to research, says the whole project has affected her deeply. “I had family, two great-great-uncles who died in the war, so I knew their stories,” the 17-year-old says. “They were Jack and Elliot Charters from Hawick and my gran used to tell me about them, and when I was about ten my family visited one of their graves in an obscure field in France. But I discovered the other’s grave when I went on the school’s trip to the trenches in Belgium. That was really emotional. It hit me like a brick, what they had been through. It made the war, everything, very personal.”
She was, however, one of the few lucky enough not to have to track down a grave for her research project – Ned Barnie became a chemistry teacher, working in a number of Edinburgh schools, and in fact lived until he was 87.
“He’s a bit famous, a bit of a celebrity in Portobello so it was great to be able to try and find out more about him, rather than just his swimming,” says Katya.
“We were given all sorts of access to historical websites and we got to meet Jack Alexander, the historian who has written all about McCrae’s Battalion so he was able to tell us more about Ned. Apparently he was very good at chemistry and so because the army needed scientists to develop bombs and other weaponry he was moved into that kind of work.
“He won a Military Medal but it seems to be all very secret, we just couldn’t find out why.
“And I discovered he lived just round the corner from my house. There’s a plaque to him in Straiton Road, and that was pretty amazing. I hadn’t even seen it before.”
What 13-year-old Abbi Taylor admits to not noticing before was the school’s roll of honour itself. “I was just in my first year and so I hadn’t really seen it,” she says. “When I did and knew what it was it was really shocking how many of the school’s pupils went off to fight.
“I helped two other girls Ruth and Aimee to research a family called the Mabens, brothers who all went off to fight. I had to find out about Charles, who was the first of the four brothers who came home. They all survived thankfully. He was in the Medical Corps.”
Ruth Clark and Aimee Combe, both 15, got involved after signing up for the school’s annual trenches visit. “We were asked if we wanted to do more,” says Aimee. “It’s been really interesting – and we’re quite excited about being on the radio. Our parents can’t wait to hear it.”
Ruth adds: “We researched the Mabens and the Macdonald families. James Maben died in the last year of the war, just a month before. He was wounded in battle. He almost made it, it was so sad. The Macdonalds were in McCrae’s Battalion
“It has made me feel different about the war, knowing what we do now. I think it’s really made it very real for us, knowing they were from Portobello.”
One of the resources the pupils were able to use was the school’s own headmaster log books written at the time. “They were just in a box,” says Lauren. “So we’ve made good use of them. We also have registers going back to that time. The log book shows people signing up for different regiments and charity collections – in fact, the first mention of the war was teachers collecting for the national relief fund.”
It was Eilidh Fleming, 16, who had the three Hay brothers – Alex, John and William – to investigate. “They were from a large family and they all died. They were just 25, 23 and 18. It turned out they lived in a house not far from mine - I’ve been to see it, and it made it feel a lot more real as Portobello hasn’t really changed that much. I could imagine them going about their everyday lives.”
Sixth year student Rachel Walker looked into the lives of brothers Walter and Christopher Bolt. “It’s really amazing that these documents have all been kept and are accessible. It turned out that Walter was already in the reserves when war broke out. But he never came back.
“It’s odd to think they weren’t that much older than we are now. I can’t imagine young people now all rushing off to go to war.”
Stuart Graham, 17, knows for sure he wouldn’t go. “I’m a pacifist. If I had been alive then I’d have ended up in Calton gaol with the conscientious objectors.
“I had to look into Richard Fraser who was 17 when he signed up. He joined along with two of his friends and they died on the same day, and the three of them are buried within five plots of each other at the Helles Memorial at Gallilpoli. It’s incredibly sad.”
• The School That Went to War is on Radio Scotland at 1.30pm on Monday, and the following four Mondays.