HEARTS AND MINDS
The tragedy that befell Heart of Midlothian football club in WW1
On Wednesday 25 November 1914, John McCartney got ambushed by history, in the form of an Edinburgh city councillor named Sir James Leishman.
There was little chance the manager of Heart of Midlothian FC was unaware of Leishman’s intentions when he entered his George Street shop: for days the
Edinburgh Evening News and The Scotsman had carried news of the battalion Leishman and fellow local businessman and politician Sir George McCrae hoped to raise in Scotland’s capital.
‘Under the auspices of the Heart of Midlothian Club half a battalion of excellent soldiers could be raised with ease,’ the Evening News opined four days earlier. That morning The Scotsman reported that Leishman and McCrae planned to make an appeal to Hearts and other clubs so ‘a sportsman’s company may be made up’. Such a battalion would help solve two problems that were very much in the public eye that autumn.
The first was that Britain desperately needed men to fight the war against Germany and its allies that it had entered that August.
The second was that football itself was threatened by growing sentiment that too many young men were playing and watching the game instead of signing up. The answer to the first problem was to allow men to serve in ‘pals battalions’ that would allow them to go to war with people from the same profession, town, or class. The answer to the second followed the same logic.
‘Might I suggest that while the “Heart of Midlothian” 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”,’ someone calling themselves ‘A Soldier’s Daughter’ wrote in a letter in the Evening News published on 16 November 2014. ‘By this simple device the taint of rottenness imputed to the “Heart of Midlothian” by their use of this classic title would be removed, and at the same time they would secure a peculiarly appropriate badge for an ornamental body of athletes and their followers.’
McCartney, a seasoned player and coach with little patience for those he considered ‘humbugs’, had anticipated a call might come. That August he’d arranged for Hearts players to take part in weekly drill sessions on grounds behind Usher Hall on Grindlay Street.
Annan Ness, a member of the club’s reserve team who’d had some military experience before he joined, ran the
Main image: Sir George McCrae and the 16 Hearts players who joined his battalion.Left: McCrae, a former MP and prominent Edinburgh businessman, was 54 when war broke out. Below: A poster extolling Edinburgh’s young men to join McCrae’s Battalion.