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McCrae’s Battalion Memorial Cairn:     

In August 1914 Great Britain went to war with Germany. As eager young men flocked to join Lord Kitchener’s volunteer army, professional football became the target of a vitriolic campaign of unfounded abuse. Footballers, said the critics, were shirkers and cowards, content to hide at home while better men risked their lives at the front. The game was on the point of being ‘stopped’ by the government, until its reputation was saved by the enlistment of thirteen Heart of Midlothian players in a new battalion being promoted in Edinburgh by Lieutenant-Colonel Sir George McCrae.

The ‘Football Sensation’ captured the country’s imagination: McCrae’s Battalion (the 16th Royal Scots) was raised in record time. The example of the Tynecastle men was followed at once by around 500 of their supporters and ticket-holders – along with 150 followers of Hibernian. Other professionals volunteered from Raith Rovers, Falkirk and Dunfermline. In total, around 75 local clubs (of all levels) were represented – along with rugby players, hockey players, strongmen, golfers, bowlers and athletes of all persuasions.

McCrae’s crossed to France in 1916; on 1 July they took part in the infamous opening day of the Battle of the Somme. They were selected to assault the most dangerous part of the enemy position, a fearsome network of barbed wire and entrenchments, bristling with machine-guns. In spite of this, they took every objective and achieved the deepest penetration of the German line anywhere on the front that dreadful morning. In the process they lost three-quarters of their strength. After the war, battalion survivors proposed the erection of a memorial on the field where their comrades sacrificed their lives. The scheme foundered through lack of funds. Since then, they had been thoroughly forgotten.

In November 2003 I published McCrae’s Battalion, a definitive history of this wonderful unit. The research took me twelve years and involved the tracing of more than a thousand families of Sir George’s original volunteers. The book was therefore carved from a self-assembled mountain of letters, diaries, photographs and personal recollection – what I am told is now the world’s largest single battalion archive of the Great War. One element of the story which I ‘rescued’ (from a biscuit tin!) was the plan for the abandoned memorial: a fourteen-foot-high Scottish cairn in the rebuilt village of Contalmaison, complete with a large bronze-relief plaque which was intended to record the battalion’s sacrifice for generations to come.

Just as the book was about to appear, I was invited by Tom Purdie, security manager of Heart of Midlothian, to a meeting at Tynecastle. Tom said that a supporter, Jimmy Paris, had visited the Western Front and noticed that there was no memorial to the Hearts players who had died on the Somme. A small committee had just been formed (independently of the club) to explore the possibility of redressing this omission, and he wondered if I would be good enough to explain some of the historical background. I duly went along and subjected Tom and his pals to a bit of a history lesson. Before the meeting closed, they had torn up their plans for a dedicated Hearts memorial and committed themselves instead to helping me complete the original ‘McCrae’s’ scheme proposed by the battalion in 1919. 

The first thing I had to do was draw up plans for the principal plaque: I had no idea what the veterans were going to put on it. The design incorporates images of the period: a Royal Scots cap badge, the Edinburgh crest, the chequerboard sign of 34th Division, a portrait of Sir George. Adjustments were also made to add two smaller ‘supporting’ plaques – one to the players and supporters of Heart of Midlothian, the other to the 15th Royal Scots, who served beside McCrae’s that morning. The latter features the city crests of Edinburgh and Manchester: the 15th was unique in the New Army in that it was made up of volunteers from both these cities. These drawings were then converted into clay moulds by the Orkney sculptor, Gary Gibson, who passed them on to the Black Isle Bronze foundry in Nairn for casting.

From the outset we decided that finance for the project would have to come from families of the battalion, the people of Edinburgh, members of the regiment, and supporters of Hearts and Hibs. Lottery funding was considered to be too impersonal. This has proved to be an enormous undertaking. As it turned out, we needed more than £70,000 – most of which has now been raised from individual donations, fundraising dinners, bucket collections and the like. Parallel to this effort, the process of actually building the cairn turned out to be less difficult. With the assistance of Julian Hutchings of Orleans (président of Alliance France-Ecosse) and Bernard Senéchal (maire of Contalmaison), I secured planning permission from the French authorities in only five months; before they could change their minds, we then sent a trio of stonemasons over from Watson Stonecraft (of West Calder, near Edinburgh) with a huge articulated lorry-load of Elgin sandstone, Caithness slate and other assorted materials. Foundations had been laid in advance by local builders: the ground was so corrupted by war-time shelling that they were forced to go down an unlikely sixteen feet to find a solid base. Moreover the eventual hole was fourteen feet square – which is a fair old load of concrete. 

Construction got underway towards the end of June, supervised by David Turner. Most of the building work was carried out by father and son team, Atholl and Nicky McPhee. The three of them did a superb job. Mr Turner, a master of understatement, dislikes hyperbole: he maintains (quite volubly at times) that their craftsmanship is simply very, very ‘good’! On 1 July – the eighty-eighth anniversary of the assault on Contalmaison – David and I lowered a sealed lead ‘time capsule’ into the heart of the cairn. It contains (among other items) a list of Royal Scots dead, a copy of McCrae’s Battalion and a ‘Princess Mary’ tobacco-tin full of soil from the Colonel’s Edinburgh grave. Two weeks later the structural phase was complete.

The final stage of construction involved the installation of the plaques just one week before the unveiling ceremony was due to take place. I travelled out to France by the Rosyth ferry on Friday 29 October of last year with Farquhar Ogilvie-Laing (owner of Black Isle Bronze) and Alvin Scott (whose grandfather was killed while serving with McCrae’s). We arrived in Contalmaison late on the Saturday afternoon; by dusk, with the sun setting over the fields where the battalion sheltered from the Quadrangle machine-guns, we had mounted the principal plaque and drilled precise fixing holes for the remaining three. On Sunday morning none of these holes seemed to be in the right place. Our drill then died and I had to borrow a replacement from Jean-Luc, the deputy maire of the village. The return ferry trip was booked for that evening: we got back to Zeebrugge by the skin of our teeth. 

Having returned to Edinburgh on Monday afternoon, I set off for the Somme again two days later in order to prepare the ground for the main party, who were scheduled to join me on the Friday. They arrived in two large coaches and were distributed around five hotels in or around Albert. ‘Headquarters’ were located at the de la Paix, where Isabelle and her family did us proud. We had the best beds, the best cooking and (by far) the best chocolate mousse. A sixth ‘unofficial’ venue – the Royal Picardie – was filled by independent travellers: demand for rooms was so great that many had to settle for accommodation in the nearby cities of Amiens and Arras.

Friday afternoon was spent in the galleries of Albert’s underground museum; on Saturday morning we set out on a coach tour of the battlefields – beginning with Newfoundland Park and the 51st (Highland) Division memorial at Beaumont Hamel. We then moved on to Thiepval, where Sir Edward Lutyen’s colossal monument includes the names of many members of the two Edinburgh battalions. After lunch at Le Poppy we visited the great crater at la Boisselle, followed by a sobering visit to Gordon Dump Cemetery. For most of the ‘pilgrims’ – including our very own major-general – this was the first time they had set foot in a burial ground of the Great War. As I picked out the lads of the 16th and 15th Royal Scots, my companions became noticeably quiet.

While the rest of the party were bussed off to Rancourt for our ‘ceilidh’ evening, I remained behind on my own to complete preparations for the following day. By ten o’ clock I still hadn’t done anything about the Saltires and Union flags that we had brought over for the unveiling. These had to be fastened to the cairn, covering the plaques, before folk started arriving in Contalmaison at nine. Moreover, two of the flags had to be ‘stitched’ together in order to fully conceal the principal plaque. I discovered I had forgotten to bring the necessary pins, and was left with the only available option on a Saturday night in Albert – namely to visit every one of the town’s 36 pubs in search of a stapler. It tells you a lot about the warmth of the locals (not to mention the goodwill that we have built up) that no one – not even the drunks – mocked me. I was offered nothing but sympathy: eventually, around midnight, a suitable device materialised in the Kingston bar. Six in the morning found me in Contalmaison village hall, stapling together two large drapeaux with the help of maire Bernard. Bernard then left me to fix them to the cairn myself. It was an eerie moment: as the cocks crowed and the dawn broke through the mist, I thought I could hear the old battalion assembling for the ceremony. I got back to the hotel in time to find the pilgrims guzzling their coffee and croissants. They were eager to be off.

I had decided to stop our coach at the German cemetery, north of Fricourt. We disembarked there. Had the fields been dry, we would have attempted to ‘advance’ on Contalmaison along the original 1916 line of approach. In the event, the morning was damp and overcast, so for the remaining two miles up to the village we kept to the road. We were led by pipers Kenny McBride of Lothian and Borders Police and Alan McIntyre of the Royal Scots. Kenny was there in memory of Sergeant David Anderson of the 15th Battalion, who piped 101st Brigade over the top 89 years ago. Captain Gary Tait of the Royal Scots Regimental Recruiting Team, marched behind with the 16th Battalion Colour, which was on the Somme that day – reputedly the only Colour carried on active service during the Great War. The following group included descendants of many of the men who fought and died with McCrae’s on the village approaches in 1916. A crowd of nearly 500 was waiting for us. The cairn, draped in its flags, looked magnificent.

The service of dedication got underway at eleven – led by the Reverend Fiona Douglas, chaplain of Dundee University, whose grandfather served in McCrae’s. The unveiling was performed by Sir George’s grandsons, George McCrae and Ken Hall; George had come all the way from western Canada in order to do his bit. Major-General Mark Strudwick, Colonel of the Royal Scots, gave the main address and there were readings from Gary Tait, Alan Owenson and Bernard Senéchal. The principal wreaths were laid by families of the battalion, followed by tributes from (among many others) the Great War Memorial Committee, Heart of Midlothian F.C., Hibernian F.C., Edinburgh City Council and the Scottish Executive. Julian Hutchings laid a wreath with his daughter, Charlotte, and his Scottie, Stuart. Stuart was attending on behalf of the battalion’s Great Dane mascot, Jock, who died near the village in 1916. Without Julian’s tireless help on the French side, the weekend would never have been organised in time. He deserves a medal for his efforts.

Sir George McCrae made his small contribution, too: at the very moment of unveiling, the clouds parted to reveal a rectangle of blue sky. Somewhere, up high, two crisp white vapour trails bisected each other in a perfect saltire.

This was a profoundly moving occasion, characterised by a wonderful sense of comradeship – epitomised by the two official representatives of Hibs cheerfully pushing the ninety-year-old niece of a dead Hearts player two miles uphill in a borrowed wheelchair. The Australians used to call it ‘mateship’ and it’s what made the trenches bearable. It was a weekend of banter, abiding friendships and stunning achievement. We have succeeded in creating one of the finest battalion memorials on the entire Western Front: everyone who is interested in the Great War is now talking about us in admiration and in awe. Moreover, the whole of 34th Division is finally getting the credit it has always deserved for its astonishing tenacity on the first day of the Somme. Contalmaison was unreachable, but they reached it. Inky Bill’s battalions had good reason to believe they were the best.

The locals are apparently very fond us. We intend to return to the village every year on 1 July in order to keep alive the memory of McCrae’s. We will attend the ceremony at Lochnagar and then march up to the cairn. In time we hope that Albert, la Boisselle and Contalmaison will become familiar names to everyone in Scotland and that all of Scotland will share our pride in the deeds and sacrifice of this unique battalion. 

Anyone who wishes to join us will be welcome.

Jack Alexander, author McCrae’s Battalion
March 2005


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