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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Contalmaison Cairn

Guest heiland laddie

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Guest heiland laddie

Hello chaps and chapesses

Has anyone been to the Somme lately in the Contalmaison sector ? A memorial cairn has been unveiled recently, with monies donated by private donation, to remember the soldiers of the 16th Royal Scots (part of the New Army's 34th Division) who died there on 1st July 1916. An unusual thing about this memorial is that it has been built to fulfil a promise undertaken just after the end of WW1 to built 2 monuments, one in Edinburgh and one at Contalmaison. The other unusual thing is the battallion itself. It went under different names:- 2nd Edinburgh City, McCrae's Battalion, 16th Royal Scots, 'The Sixteen'. It was raised in December 1914 by patriotic gesture of Sir George McCrae MP, an active powerhouse of a man in his 50's, who would later lead his men into battle on the Somme. Following a lull in army recruiting throughout Britain in the Autumn of 1914, the tragedy of Ypres provided a push for more volunteering and McCrae's enthusiastic recruitment drive, with pipe bands marching down Princes Street and public speechmaking, brought in the recruits.

Among those who flooded in were the prfeesional players of Heart of Midlothian Football Club. Hearts had embarked on a sensational start to the new season and by early December, were firmly on top of the Scottish league, comfortably ahead of Celtic and Rangers. However, the fact that Britain still continued to play football nationwide, with big crowd attendances, whilst a war was being fought, rankled with the powers that be, especially parliament, who debated the issue. Professional footballers were well paid and under firm contracts, so the vast majority of Britain's players stayed at their clubs after the war started. Mounting criticism caused much unpleasantness, often a bit unfairly.

So, in December 1914, virtually the whole of Hearts FC playing staff, followed by back-room staff etc, went to a recruitment centre in Edinburgh's West End and joined up en masse. Most of them went into McCrae's Battalion. Many fans, not yet joined up, joined soon after this. As news spread of the Hearts actions, footballers of other professional clubs such as Raith Rovers and Falkirk and even Hearts arch-rivals Hibs, joined too. Soon, McCrae's battalion was over-subscribed and could form a reserve unit. Designated 2nd Edinburgh City Battalion, it was adopted by the Army as 16th (Service) Batt, Royal Scots.

Meanwhile in Parliament, these events did not go un-noticed. It was of gobsmacking proportions when our Westminster elders and betters learned that not only had some footballers enlisted at last - but an entire top-flight football club with a real chance of winning all that season's top honours !

Winston Churchill, in a speech in the House, publically thanked Heart of Midlothian for their actions. Not long after, other clubs in Britain started to see groups of players donning khaki.

The 16th Royal Scots took on the mantle of the 'Scottish Sportsmen's Battalion' and indeed were very fit enthusiastic soldiers. Not surpisingly, they lifted all the army football trophies going. Their fitness, enthusiasm, smartness and martial bearing attracted praise from many sources and the top-brass. Ironically, back home, the sorely depleted Hearts team, now filled with low-key players and amateurs, hung on at the top of the league, but was losing ground. They would go on to narrowly lose the league title at the very end of the season.

The 16th would first go into the line in early 1916, brigaded in 101 Bde, 34th Division with the 10th Lincolns (Grimsby Chums), 11th Suffolks (Cambridge Pals) and 15th Royal Scots (1st Edinburgh City). The other two brigades were 102 Bde (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th Tyneside Scottish) and 103 Bde (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th Tyneside Irish).

The 34th Div went into action on 1st July 1916 in the areas of Sausage and Mash Valleys and the heavily-fortified ruins in the heights beyond. The 'Sixteen' was led by their CO - George McCrae MP. The 34th Division ended the day with 2 statistics - they suffered the most casualties of any attacking division that day and they reached the furthest into enemy lines that day. The 16th Royal Scots lost over 500 of their 800 men. Lt Col Sir George McCrae was badly wounded, but organised defences behind German lines. After evacuation, he would take no further part in the war. The Hearts lost 3 of their best players dead that day and others wounded. By war's end, Hearts lost 7 players dead and more injured, some permanently who would never kick a ball again.

The Contalmaison Cairn was erected by the efforts of Heart of Midlothian Football Club and donations by fans. However, the cairn doesn't only remember Hearts' losses. but those of the other clubs who died with their Hearts colleagues, plus supporters and the others from many walks of life, who sacrificed themselves in McCrae's battalion.

Every 11 November, all the Hearts players, plus management and fans, pay homage and lay wreaths at the Hearts memorial at Haymarket in Edinburgh's West End.

The author Jack Alexander has written an excellent account of McCrae's Battalion (book of same name).

If you go to Hearts FC website (Google for 'Hearts' or 'Hearts FC' to reach the site) you will see the story of the Sixteen and also see how much Hearts spirit and that of its fans in 2005 is aimed toward the memory of these young talented players who died or were maimed in WW1. It makes you proud to see the sacrifice of a generation wasn't in vain and that not all football fans are thuggish hooligans.


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Yes I was there a couple of weeks ago.

Very nice monument. The only comment I would make is that the lettering on the front plaque, being bronze on bronze, and very small and close together, is difficult to read in bright light.


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Fund raising for the Cairn is still continuing. There was a collection at Hearts' last home game which raised £3,400, to be made up to £5,000 by the club. As a result of a greater than expected number of visitors the paved area round the Cairn is to be extended and a "orientation stone", displaying a bronze relief map of the area in 1916, is to erected. Money also has to be paid to the CWGC in order to have it added to their lsit of monitored monuments.

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if you follow the link to the pic on the first page

To the right of the Cairn you will see me taking my own photos

Fame at last


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I will be at La Boiselle in a couple of weeks; could you tell me the names of the three players who were killed on the 1st July and where they are commemorated.

Thank you

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Guest heiland laddie

Hello everyone

The 3 Hearts players who died on 1st July 1916 with 16th Royal Scots were:

19112 Pte Henry Wattie - Thiepval Memorial pier and face 6D and 7D

18999 Sjt Duncan Currie - Thiepval Memorial pier and face 6D and 7D

19009 Pte Edgar Ernest Ellis - Thiepval Memorial pier and face 6D and 7D

Another Hearts player of the 16th Royal Scots was killed a month later:

18976 L/Cpl James Boyd - died 3/8/16 - Thiepval Memorial pier and face 6D and 7D

But the first Hearts player of the 16th Royal Scots to die was 19024 Cpl Tom Gracie who took ill and died on 23/10/15 at Stobhill Hospital, Glasgow - amazingly all the time he had been scoring goals for Hearts to put them at the top of the Scottish League and then went soldiering with the Royal Scots - he was suffering from terminal leukaemia, unknown by all - and it eventually claimed him - he is remembered at Glasgow Craigton Cmty p107

The other two Hearts players who died in WW1 were:-

S/116102 Pte James Hodge Speedie (7th Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders) died Loos 25/9/15: remembered at Loos Memorial panel 119 to 124. He was especially mourned as he was the first Hearts player to be killed in the war.

The last Hearts player to be killed was 351268 L/Cpl John Allan 9th Royal Scots who was killed on 22nd April 1917 at Arras. He is remembered at the Arras Memorial bay 1 and 2.

Other Hearts players survived, a few were unscathed and resumed their football careers after the war, but most suffered the effects of wounds or gassing or mental trauma, which put an end to their top level careers forever. One player had two machine gun bullets lodged in his spine till the day he died in 1950. Another used to go into black depressions around 1st July and 11th November each year. One player. Paddy Crossan, a great Hearts favourite before the war, tried to resume his career but soon had to give up as his system couldn't cope anymore, having suffered the severe effects of gassing.

As I understand it, the Hearts-based fund-raising efforts are still continuing and now that the cairn was completed, their focus is on the village of Contalmaison itself, where sympathetic restoration is planned, in tune with the historic importance of the area. All donations will be gratefully received. I think the Hearts FC site has details of it and also of Jack Alexander's book "McCrae's Battalion"

A' the best


PS - I guess you all know by now that I'm a Jambos (Hearts) supporter :) Nevertheless, I think their story sums up a whole British generation and to see that they're not forgotten by todays's players and supporters is heartwarming.

You know, I realise this is a pipe-dream, but I have this special dream that the story of McCrae's Battalion and the Hearts involvement could be made into a very moving film. In my dream-world, Sir George McCrae is played by Mel Gibson (he can carry off the larger than life persona of McCrae and can act a Scotsman in his early 50's). Sean Connery would have been good too, but I guess he's beyond that age-wise now to be convincing.

If any film-industry people are on this site, how can I contact Mr Gibson (famous honorary Scot !) ?

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Thanks for the info; I'll put a cross down for them!


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