Edinburgh, Fife & East Scotland

Square named after McCrae's Battalion

Plaque commemorating McCrae's Battalion unveiled
Image caption A plaque commemorating McCrae's Battalion was unveiled earlier

An Edinburgh square has been named in honour of footballers and supporters who served in the first of the so-called Sporting Battalions of WW1.

The area outside the Usher Hall is where Sir George McCrae, Scotland's most senior civil servant, inspired hundreds of men from the east coast to join his battalion 100 years ago.

The naming ceremony is one of a number of events in the capital to commemorate those who served in the 16th Royal Scots.

Janice Todd's uncle, Jimmy Todd, a winger with Raith Rovers, was one of those who enlisted in what became known as McCrae's Battalion.

She said: "The family story is that Hearts had their eye on him as a possible. He may well have transferred to them if he hadn't gone into McCrae's Battalion, but he did join McCrae's Battalion and he was the first footballer to get killed."

But while Jimmy did not get to join Hearts players on the football pitch, he served alongside them with McCrae.

Just months into World War One Sir George McCrae secured permission to form his own unit - the 16th Royal Scots.

He persuaded players from Heart of Midlothian, who were top of the league, to sign up - a major coup that helped silence those who called for football to be suspended during the war.

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Image caption Sir George McCrae was responsible for signing up hundreds of men from across the east of Scotland

Jack Alexander, a historian with the McCrae's Battalion Trust said: "A campaign was started down in London to vilify professional sport, particularly football, on the basis that young men were playing football when other young men were being killed in action in France.

"It completely ignored the fact that areas where football was strong were also areas with a high level of recruitment."

McCrae's unit became known as the Sporting Battalion as players from Raith Rovers, Hibs, Falkirk and Dunfermline enlisted, along with other sportsmen from across the east coast.

And at the Usher Hall on 27 November many of their supporters decided to sign up too.

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Image caption Several Hearts players were persuaded to enlist by McCrae

Sir George McCrae had called a public meeting and was joined on stage by the Hearts players who had already volunteered.

He urged the hundreds of people who had packed into the Usher Hall to join him on the battlefield.

It was an appeal that resonated more with the young men of Edinburgh than previous attempts by the establishment to get them to enlist, according to Jack Alexander.

He said: "Here was one of the most important men in Scotland who was by that time quite elderly by the standards of the day, standing on a platform in his uniform saying 'I'm going - are you going to come with me?'

"Now that's much more compelling than the kind of didactic, that instructive attitude that other people were taking.

"And I think that's one of the things that created the esprit de corps, the loyalty within the battalion. The old men that I knew that served in McCrae's, even in their 80s, were just so full of admiration for him, they loved him."

Image caption The area outside the Usher Hall has been named McCrae Place

The Usher Hall was so packed, the men spilled onto the area outside, which until now has gone unnamed. Edinburgh's Lord Provost Donald Wilson explained that was why naming it McCrae's Place seemed such a fitting tribute.

"There's a parallel with a place that didn't have a name being given a name and the McCrae's Battalion which had been largely forgotten until a few years ago being brought back into the public recognition," he said.

About 800 volunteers followed McCrae from the Usher Hall, down Lothian Road to Castle Street, where a recruitment centre had been set up.

The unit went on to suffer devastating losses during the Battle of Somme - more than 200 men died, and many more were injured.

A cairn in the French hamlet of Contalmaison commemorates the fallen. It is hoped the naming of McCrae's Place will also help people to remember those who gave their lives closer to home.

Janice Todd, who has organised a memorial service at St Cuthbert's Church to remember her uncle and the rest of McCrae's men, said: "People have got to be remembered and, quite honestly, when our generation go the memories will fade."

The naming of McCrae's Place will be followed by a special concert at the Usher Hall later.

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