OUTSIDE Tynecastle yesterday, the ghosts of legends doubtless hovered in the damp air. Not just footballing legends, but legends of World War I.
Spirits of those whose bodies never returned from battle, but whose heroism lives on forever. The boys of the 16th Royal Scots battalion, better known as McCrae’s Battalion, must have been there.
The plaque being unveiled was in their honour. It was deliberately placed at the very spot where their last team photograph was taken. Bagpipes played, speeches relayed thanks for their sacrifice and a performance of Hearts of Glory by Craig Herbertson truly sent a shiver down the spine.
Thirteen players from the greatest team in Hearts’ history enlisted for duty in the Great War and seven did not come home. The iconic team photograph taken outside Tynecastle on November 25, 1914, has been transformed into an impressive plaque which was revealed yesterday.
Harry Wattie, Duncan Currie, Ernie Ellis, Jimmy Speedie, Jimmy Body, Tom Gracie and John Allan perished in World War I. Paddy Crossan and Robert Mercer eventually suffered wartime gassing, while Alfie Briggs was crippled in action and unable to play football again. All of them enlisted for duty as Hearts players.
Politicians and dignitaries, the McCrae’s Battalion Trust and representatives from other clubs like Hibs, Raith Rovers and Falkirk – who also had members in the battalion – all gathered for a short but moving ceremony outside Tynecastle. Everyone present knew the significance of the event and no-one doubted that the young men in question would also have been around.
“I’m very familiar with McCrae’s Battalion [and have been] from a young age,” said Gary Locke, the Hearts manager. “I realise the importance of it, the tradition and the history and it’s great they’re now getting the recognition they probably should have got a long time ago.
“I think it makes Hearts special as a club, but that’s a biased opinion. The whole team attends the memorial service at Haymarket every year and that’s something we’ve always done. It’s vitally important they attend that. We have a really young side and most of them are Hearts supporters, so they know about it.”
Hearts were leading the Scottish League as their players left for war having won their first eight games of the season. With their team decimated, they could not sustain the challenge and Celtic eventually took the title. Locke was asked whether the Glasgow club could recognise that as the 100th anniversary of World War I approaches.
“That’s a long, long time ago,” he replied. “When you look at the sacrifices they made, possibly but that’s a question you would have to ask someone at Celtic. It’s not as if we have won loads of league titles. Certainly, if they had all these players available, they probably would have won the league that year.”
For the current squad, one of the youngest in Tynecastle history, there now is a clear image outside the stadium’s main entrance of what the club’s past means. “It’s fantastic that the players will walk past that bronze every time they play here – it shows you what this club means,” continued Locke. “You have teams that win trophies and what have you, but there will be no team here that has made the sacrifices that these boys did. That was the greatest ever Hearts team to pull on a maroon jersey.
“I think it’s important they take a moment to look at the plaque. There are people out there saying it would be great for the players to touch it before the game – maybe the superstitious ones might do that. It’s certainly something that I will stand and reflect on for a time when I come here. These men mean so much to the football club.
“The plaque could become as iconic as the Liverpool sign. That means as much to me as probably the Anfield sign means to the most dedicated Liverpudlian. It’s great that everyone can see it.”
Indeed, Hearts’ current captain is a former Liverpool player. “Probably like most people my age, I don’t know the full story,” admitted Danny Wilson, who helped unveil the plaque. “I know about the battalion and I know some of the general stuff, but yesterday was a great opportunity to hear more about it and I think this is a fitting tribute.
“At school, we did World War II, rather than World War I, so I found yesterday really interesting and it was great to be part of it. It has always been a great privilege for anyone to pull on a Hearts jersey and this can only emphasise that, because it shows what they sacrificed so we could still be here today. This is just a small tribute for a massive, massive deed.
“It’s not something I’ll talk about in the dressing room this weekend, I won’t go down that route, but the boys can take inspiration from seeing what people have been willing to give up. They gave up their lives. We’re at the smaller end of the scale – it’s just football – but it is important to us so hopefully we can be inspired to get a result.
“It was very moving, the song, the speeches, the whole story. It’s something I would like to know more about, something I will go away and learn about now. I feel that I should have a better knowledge of it. I feel that, being a part of this club, you should know the history of it. It’s part of this club.”