ON the first day of July, 1916, six footballers from Edinburgh were among the thousands sent to slaughter on the frontline of the Battle of the Somme.
Those brave souls were members of the 16th Battalion of the Royal Scots, known affectionately as the famous McCrae’s Battalion by the people of Edinburgh. Only three of them made it back home.
The story of 16 Heart of Midlothian players who walked away from the chance of becoming Scottish league champions to sign up to fight for their country is coming to Tynecastle in the form of a new play. Written by Paul Beeson and Tim Barrow and directed by Bruce Strachan, A War of Two Halves memorialises the bravery, camaraderie and loyalty of the men who turned their backs on almost certain football glory in 1914.
Bruce told the Evening News: “There are so many reasons why this story is important. The team were on the verge of becoming league champions and breaking the dominance of the Old Firm. Hearts players got a lot of flack for not joining up – and then 16 did. How did those footballers at the top of the league have that conversation?”
As well as the Hearts players and 500 of their supporters, players from Hibs, Dunfermline, Raith Rovers and Falkirk enlisted in the Battalion, led by Colonel Sir George McCrae. Of the 34 professional players who went to war, half of them died as a result of the conflict.
Bruce said: “It’s an incredible story. We feel a total responsibility to get the tone right and pay due respect to all the men who lost their lives.” The writers worked closely with club historian David Speed to ensure their depiction did just that.
The play centres on one player, Alfie Briggs, played by life-long Jambos fan, Brian Low. He said: “Working on the play is really special. My grandad used to tell me the story when I was young. I feel as though the 1914 team are watching us.”
Audiences will watch his story as it unfolds with Tynecastle as its backdrop, starting in the new supporter stands and taking in the dressing rooms, the main stand and the memorial garden. A First World War trench has been recreated in the grounds.
Rehearsing in the memorial garden was “moving” for director Bruce, who said: “It’s really powerful because the story is true. These were real people who chose to go to war. I can’t imagine what that was like.”
During the four-day run in August, nine performers play various parts. Although focusing on Hearts, the play has a universal message; one of friendship, support, love and loss. Bruce said: “It’s about friendships under extreme circumstances and wanting to do the right thing by your friends. You don’t need to be a Hearts fan to appreciate the story.”
Lianne Parry, head of heritage at Hearts FC, said: “A War of Two Halves pays homage to the footballers who volunteered to go to the front in 1914. Many paid the ultimate price for their country. Their memory will never be forgotten and is honoured throughout Tynecastle Park.”