James Boyd, 1894-1916: Hearts footballer, killed on the Somme, one of seven players the club lost in the Great War
The last original memorial of the Great War can be found in the French village of Contalmaison and, every year after it was finally unveiled in 2004 until her death just a few years ago, a woman called Jeanie Heron would lay a wreath.
She wanted to honour her uncle, James Boyd, who died on the Somme in August 1916. “I remember sitting on his knee and him telling me that he would come home – but he never did.”
It is a story she would tell those who annually honour what has become known as Mccrae’s Battalion, a group who became notable for their high proportion of sportsmen. Boyd was a footballer for Heart of Midlothian, a club whose immediate fate and perhaps entire history became defined by the First World War. Hearts had begun the 1914-15 season with eight straight wins, including a 2-0 victory against Celtic, but 15 of their players would enlist for an Edinburgh unit that was formed by Sir George Mccrae, a 54-year-old who was himself volunteering for active service.
It was a time when football itself was under attack and, according to the historian Jack Alexander, their mass enlistment – which inspired hundreds of others – may just have saved the national game.
“It was timed with a question in Parliament to have professional football suspended; there were people trying to crush football completely,” he says.
Alexander would ultimately write the book Mccrae’s Battalion, detailing stories which are often, at once, “too horrible and too inspiring to contemplate”. Such as Tommy Philp, who lost his life and whose childhood sweetheart would never marry and always slept with his photograph beside her bed.
Seven Hearts players did not survive the war and the team would ultimately lose the Scottish league to Celtic in the final moments of the 1914-15 season. “I don’t think the club really recovered,” says Alexander. “It was potentially one of the biggest in the UK. But for the war, I suspect the obvious balance in Scottish football would have been east and west: a successful Hearts team and a successful Celtic team. I feel very proud of them, but I also feel it was a terrible tragedy.”
Mccrae himself lived until 1928 and, five weeks before his death, outlined an enduring hope that the sacrifices would never be forgotten.
“In the flames I still see the faces of my boys,” he said. “We must find some way to justify our own lives so when we meet our comrades in that better place we are able to say with a brave heart that we did not let them down.”