Footballers United - the players who fought in World War One

Footballers United
'Footballers United' is about the Scottish players who fought in World War One

Jack and Gib are characters in a drama but in many ways they're as real as can be.

They're Hearts boys in a time of war; promising young footballers at Tynecastle with a decision to make. Do they stay and play or do they go and fight? It's the early years of the Great War and they're torn.

Nelly and Jessie are fictional characters, too. But like Jack and Gib their stories are true to life as it was back then. The hopes, the fears, the uncertainties.

Their journey is told in Footballers United, launched today by BBC Learning as part of its World War One season.

Footballers United is a unique interactive online drama - a narrative with an accompanying archive of images, text and video - set in Edinburgh and revolving around two young men and two young women as they cope with their new reality.

Jack and Gib do what the real life Hearts men of 1914 did - they joined McCrae's Battalion and went to war.

Eleven Hearts players enlisted at first and were soon joined by five more. They were men of potential brilliance on the football field, thought of at the time as the pre-eminent side not just in Scotland but possibly in all of Britain.

Footballers United
The Footballers United drama is available from Thursday, 27 November

Three died in action in 1915. Three more died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916. Others died later of injuries sustained in battle. Eleven Hearts players and three from Raith Rovers - footballers united in death.

If you were around Tynecastle earlier in the month you would have seen them remembered on the day Hearts hosted Raith Rovers, who also had players in McCrae's.

Hearts, Raith Rovers, Dunfermline, Hibs, St Bernard's, East Fife - all have a part to play in this story. Footballers United in the same storied Battalion.

This BBC drama would not be possible if it wasn't for Jack Alexander, the writer and historian who brought it to life through his painstaking research that led to his book, McCrae's Battalion.

The story behind the story is quite something.

"When I was about 11, my mum bought me a season ticket for Tynecastle," says Alexander, who is now in his 50s.

"I ended up sitting beside a man who was in McCrae's Battalion and he was sitting beside other old men. I listened to them talking about campaigns in the Great War and even that early in my life I was fascinated by history.

They were John Beitch, a printer from Edinburgh, and he was sitting in the stand talking to a man called Gerry Mowatt, a fire grate builder whose real name was James, but was known as Gerry because he'd served in the German war.

The Band of the Royal Scots Association played at Tynecastle when Hearts played Raith Rovers
The Band of the Royal Scots Association played at Tynecastle when Hearts played Raith Rovers

"They were talking about the Somme and about somebody who had been killed in action, and it was clear that they were exceptionally friendly with that person. This was in the stand at Tynecastle. I was ear-wigging.

"When I was about 12 or 13 I got the confidence to speak to them. I got to know them quite well and was invited into the inner circle. They told me the story of the battalion and I began to wonder why nobody else knew this story.

"At the time it was an urban legend. The story went that all the Hearts players had joined up and that they'd all been killed. In those days football clubs didn't have historians.

"Out of respect and restraint, the club had not pushed the story but that turned into a benevolent neglect over time, the kind of thing where suddenly you look around one day and there's nobody left to tell you the story."

Jack and Gib are part of the McCrae's - so-called because of its founder, Sir George McCrae, an Aberdonian raised in the slums of Edinburgh, a bootmaker's message boy who left school at nine but who rose to prominence in later life and became the nation's most powerful civil servant.

McCrae had connections with Hearts. He knew people there. He'd invested in the club in times of trouble.

When the pressure on footballers to enlist became a cacophony in late 1914, McCrae told the War Office he would raise a battalion on the understanding that he was allowed to go with them. He was 54 years old - too old by far. Such was the desperation for men, the War Office agreed.

"Sir George comes across as a shy man who worked hard all his life," says Alexander. "He loved his family, loved his city, loved his country and loved his battalion.

Footballers United tells the story of the Hearts players who enlisted to fight in World War One
Footballers United tells the story of the Hearts players who enlisted to fight in World War One

"When I started researching the story many years ago I went everywhere looking for material and there was nothing. I had to reconstruct the nominal role of the battalion and that took me the best part of a decade. Then I had to start tracing the families and that was another seven years. There were 1,350 men in McCrae's Battalion and I now have names of all but 50 of them.

"The first family member I went to see - and I was shaking - was Paddy Crossan's son. He had a pub called the Tilted Wig in Cumberland Street in Edinburgh.

"Paddy Snr was a phenomenal footballer. He survived the first day of the Somme. Then he was wounded badly in the foot a while later and his leg was labelled for amputation, but a German prisoner, a doctor, said he could save it and he did.

"And Paddy was sent back into the mincing machine, where he was gassed and the gassing resulted in him dying in 1933.

Jack Alexander
"I've thought about this very deeply over the years and if I had the chance to go back in time, I'd go with them, just to know what happened and how it happened, even if it meant being killed."

"I went to see a lady and she said 'I'm going to show you something' and she pulled out a glass box that was given to all soldiers as a Christmas present in 1914, and she said 'there's something in the box that might be able to help you with your research'.

"It belonged to her uncle, who was in McCrae's, and she could never bring herself to look at it. Inside was a bundle of letters. The boy had been killed on the first day of the Somme.

"He was wounded at about 8.30 in the morning and he was lying in a depression in the ground and he was dying.

"Initially he didn't know he was dying and he was writing what started off as a description of what was happening around him and ended up with his last testament when he knows he's about to die. And the pencil goes down the page and he's dead.

"A long letter with blood stains. Harrowing."

That ill-fated Hearts side was managed by John McCartney, a former captain of Rangers, whose own part in the war story would be forgotten if it was not for Alexander.

"John McCartney was a great man. He set up a private charity to gather money for footballs to send to the Western Front.

He was in his office in Tynecastle and he was getting footballs sent to soldiers all over the world. He got the most incredible letters of thanks back from these boys. An amazing man."

The story of McCrae's Battalion is an extraordinary one. For Alexander, it's been a life's work.

Fans remembered McCrae's Battalion when Hearts took on Raith Rovers in November
Fans remembered McCrae's Battalion when Hearts took on Raith Rovers in November

"I had the honour of meeting people who trusted me to tell the story," he says. "I remember hearing them tell me of the finality of death, of seeing people dying in front of them.

"I had a conversation with John Beitch who was trying to explain to me what it was like. He said that in Hollywood films all the characters before they die in the battle field make some sort of speech, but in real life there's no speech.

"You're going over the top with your mate and he gets killed and the conversation stops immediately.

"There is nothing more. You're talking to somebody and then the next second he's gone, his head blown apart before your eyes.

"I've thought about this very deeply over the years and if I had the chance to go back in time, I'd go with them, just to know what happened and how it happened, even if it meant being killed.

"This is the historian talking. Just to know if I'm right, if the book is right. I don't say that easily, believe me. But I would go."

The boys went and nothing was ever the same again. A century on, they're remembered in different ways, as they should be. The Footballers United project is a drama, but it's also a history lesson, lest we forget.

The interactive drama is available at footballersunited.co.uk

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