Hearts, the club that went to war, remember 1914-1918 sacrifices

AFP| Last Updated: Aug 09, 2014, 17:04 PM IST

Edinburgh: Hearts start their quest to return to the Scottish Premiership on Sunday, but a poignant anniversary will cast a long shadow over the Tynecastle team`s day.

The Edinburgh-based outfit, who face promotion rivals Rangers at Ibrox this weekend, are desperate for a successful campaign after being relegated to the Scottish second tier following an acrimonious season that almost saw the club go bankrupt.

However, Hearts have faced far more testing times in their 140-year history, with a memorial plaque that is situated on a stand at their Tynecastle home proving an enduring reminder of the sacrifice the club`s playing staff and supporters made during the First World War.

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War and no British football club lost more than Hearts during the conflict.

The football season was already underway when war was declared in August 1914 and questions were immediately asked as to why it was allowed to continue.

By November, Hearts topped the Scottish top flight and were on track for the title following eight straight victories, including a 2-0 defeat of reigning champions Celtic.

However, pressure was growing on footballers to volunteer for the wartime effort and a motion was placed before the Scottish Football Association to postpone the season.

A rallying call was issued by Sir George McCrae, a well-known figure in Edinburgh, to join the 16th Royal Scots -- later to be known as McCrae`s Battalion.

On Wednesday, 25 November, 1914, Hearts players led the way as 11 of them signed up en masse.

A total of 16 enlisted with a further five declared unfit to serve.

This then became the catalyst for others to join from clubs including city rivals Hibernian, Raith Rovers, Falkirk, Dunfermline and East Fife.

Within eight days of the squad signing up, around 500 Hearts shareholders and ticket holders had followed suit and joined the regiment along with 150 Hibs supporters.

The war was eventually to claim the lives of seven Hearts players.

Duncan Currie, John Allan, James Boyd, Tom Gracie, Ernest Ellis, James Speedie and Harry Wattie were all killed in action.

Few of the survivors ever went on to play for the club again.

A club who looked on the verge of breaking the duopoly of Celtic and Rangers and having a period of dominance of their own then had to wait until 1954 until it was to win a major trophy.

"The bravery of these men is something we have always been proud of," Hearts historian David Speed said.

"Seven first-team players died during the war, including centre-forward Tom Gracie who hid a diagnosis of leukaemia so he could continue training for battle.

"The team took over two decades to recover, both emotionally and in terms of strength."

Jack Alexander, author of McCrae`s Battalion: The Story of the 16th Royal Scots agrees.

"I don`t think there can be any doubt that it was the best team in Hearts` history," Alexander said.

"It was on the verge of becoming a side strong enough to win several championships."