Hibs and World War I: The Easter Road players who fought for their country
As the world marks 105 years since the start of the Battle of the Somme, Patrick McPartlin looks at the Hibs players involved in the First World War
When war broke out in November 1914 football continued largely as normal, despite other sports such as cricket and rugby promptly cancelling all activities.
As the conflict raged on, there was growing public discontent at the continuation of football and a feeling that these young men could be fighting in France instead. Indeed, it was not uncommon for young men to be given white feathers by women of a similar age in the street; a symbol of perceived cowardice.
In November 1914, the Evening News published an anonymous letter from a “soldier’s daughter”, who made the suggestion that “...while Hearts continue to play football, enabled thus to pursue their peaceful play by the sacrifice of the lives of thousands of their countrymen, they might adopt, temporarily, a nom de plume, say, the ‘White Feathers of Midlothian’.”
Some Hearts players had already enlisted, and manager John McCartney invited members of the Hibs team to join the entire Hearts playing staff in participating in weekly drill sessions to prepare them for military involvement.
Mounting public anger was said to have prompted several members of the Hearts team to join McCrae’s Battalion. Five of them were killed on the first day of the Somme; others lost their lives during the conflict or in the following years from wounds sustained in action.
Only one Hibs player is recorded as serving in McCrae’s Battalion – Alexander ‘Sandy’ Grosert. The Leith-born right-half had joined Hibs in 1912 and like many soldiers, he was transferred from his original unit, serving in the Machine Gun Corps and Gordon Highlanders. He won the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry” while a Second Lieutenant in the latter.
Badly wounded and severely gassed during his service, Grosert nevertheless returned to Edinburgh and resumed playing for Hibs before spells with Aberdeen and Dunfermline. Post-football he took up dentistry and golfing.
Hibs during the war
As well as Grosert, several other current or former Hibs players served during the war.
A further 11 who had previously represented the Easter Road side were also called up, while another eight attached to Hibs were reported to have been involved in the Quintinshill rail disaster of 1915.
The club had already offered Easter Road to the military in order to train new recruits, while the recently-built Northfield ground – that Hibs never played in but of which the club retained the lease – was also made available for the forces. Around half the Hibs team saw action during the war or were involved in war-related roles.
James Hendren, great-uncle of Pat Stanton, joined Hibs from Cowdenbeath in 1915. Formerly a miner in Ayrshire, he emigrated to the USA before returning to Scotland. He joined the Army Service Corps as a transport driver but was allowed to postpone his enlistment as his wife had just given birth to their second child.
Sadly, Hendren died of pneumonia in June 1915.
John Aitken also served in the Gordon Highlanders. He was deployed to the Western Front in 1915 at the age of around 20 after playing 18 games for Hibs during the 1913/14 and 1914/15 seasons.
He was killed in action at Ypres in July 1917 and is buried in Belgium. Adam Miller had played for Hibs during the 1905/06 season and emigrated to Australia in 1912. He served as a private in the 9th Batallion, Royal Queensland Regiment and fought at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. He was killed at Messines in December 1917.
Bobby Wilson was born in Chicago in 1890 but ended up moving to Scotland. He was playing junior football with Kirkintilloch Rob Roy when Hibs brought him to the Capital and he played 20 games for the club including an appearance in the 1914 Scottish Cup final. He joined the British Army and although his date of death is recorded as November 1918 it is unclear if he was a casualty of war.
Bobby Atherton famously captained Hibs to Scottish Cup and league sucess in 1902 and 1903, before moving onto Middlesbrough and Chelsea. After hanging up his boots he returned to Edinburgh, joining the Merchant Navy as a steward. He is presumed to have died after his ship, the SS Britannia, disappeared without trace in the North Sea in October 1917 as a result of a mine or an enemy attack.
Matt Paterson, who made more than 440 appearances for Hibs between 1908 and 1923, served in the Royal Artillery during the war while Jack Borthwick, who had two spells at Hibs, served in the Football Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. He was shot in the head at Delville Wood in 1916, nearly losing an eye and being discharged on April 12, 1917. James Buchan won the league with Hibs in 1903 and later joined the Army Pay Corps before being tranferred to the Ayrshire Yeomanry in September 1917.
George Rae had played 74 games for Hibs between 1909 and 1913 and served in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He was awarded the Silver Medal of Military Valor.
Goalkeeper David Stevenson, and forwards Robert Reid and James Williamson hadn’t been at Hibs that long before enlisting in the British Army while John Sharp who had featured for the club in the 1909/10 season, won the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” while serving with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
Paddy Hagan, Bernard Donaghy, Robert Rollo, James Greechan, and John Frail were all killed in action or died from wounds. All had spells with Hibs prior to the outbreak of war.
After the war came to an end, a Hibs-Hearts select played a Celtic-Rangers combination to raise money for the construction of the Hearts War Memorial at Haymarket. At the unveiling, a wreath was laid by the Easter Road side; a tradition continued to this day.