EXACTLY a century ago this Friday, a group of concerned Edinburgh citizens held a public meeting in the Usher Hall “to address the emergency”. On that night late in 1914, the emergency in question was, of course, the First World War. Their response to it was to raise a battalion – McCrae’s, as it would become known, the 16th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Scots.
In the face of the vast catastrophe that was then unfolding, it was in itself a minor occasion. But the events to which it led, and the fates of the men who joined the battalion, have an enduring place in the history of the capital.
This week, 100 years ago to the night, that meeting will be remembered, in the same venue used then, in a centenary concert. Earlier that day, the area outside the Usher Hall will be renamed McCrae’s Place in a ceremony conducted by the City of Edinburgh Council. That ceremony will constitute an official – and some would say long overdue – recognition by the city of the men who volunteered to join Sir George McCrae, a former Edinburgh councillor and member of parliament, in the 16th.
McCrae’s was known as the Sporting Battalion because of the number of footballers who joined up, from Heart of Midlothian, Hibernian, Falkirk, Raith Rovers and Dunfermline among other clubs. Many never returned from the trenches, and of those who did, few were in any state to resume their old profession.
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Some families have passed down memories of those who served, and generations of supporters have grown up with perhaps no more than a general understanding of what happened. Over the past decade, with publication of the book McCrae’s Battalion by Jack Alexander, the sketchy picture passed down in folk memory has been replaced by one that is pin-sharp.
It is therefore entirely fitting that Alexander himself should be playing a central if typically self-deprecating role in the concert – and revealing a hitherto unknown side of his character. The concert, billed as “an evening of music, drama, original songs and previously unseen contemporary images from the McCrae’s Battalion collection” will tell the story of one of the soldiers and his wife back home, through the letters they exchanged. The actor Ken Stott will narrate, while the songs have been written, and will be performed, by Alexander, who at one time was close to taking up an entirely different career as a professional songwriter in Nashville.
“That was many years ago – maybe 25 years or more – and I narrowly avoided it,” Alexander told The Scotsman. “I decided against it because I didn’t want to become an American citizen, and anyway I’m a historian, not a songwriter.
“I’ve written the script, and the songs themselves were written in piecemeal fashion over the last ten years. Ken will narrate the story, and two young actors will play the parts of one of the footballers, Harry Smith, and his wife, Annie Pleasants.”
Smith, a clerk with an Edinburgh law firm, lived in Leith and played for St Bernard’s, Hibs and Queen’s Park, as well as being treasurer of Leith Amateur FC. He and Pleasants, the daughter of Leith’s firemaster, married in November 1915, shortly before he and the battalion departed for France.
The newlyweds exchanged letters until Smith’s death near Contalmaison – where a memorial cairn to McCrae’s now stands – on 1 July, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
“He was one of 20,000 men killed that morning,” Alexander added. “He has no known grave, so his name is carved alongside most of his mates on the Thiepval Memorial.”
Smith was one of around 1,000 men of McCrae’s to die in the war, and many of them shared his fate of having no known grave. Although serious pressure had been brought on young men to enlist, at least at first most of them appeared to share the general public’s enthusiasm for the war effort, which was evident in the original decision to hold a meeting in the Usher Hall.
“There was a naivety about that decision to ‘address the emergency’, and to raise a battalion as the solution to the problem, that is so charming, but also tragic,” Alexander said. By the midnight of the meeting, 300 men had signed up for the 16th Royal Scots, including 13 Hearts players. With so many other footballers and supporters encouraged by that example, the battalion complement was filled within five days.
“It’s going to be an emotional evening, and I’m hoping it will be a fitting tribute to Sir George and his lads. I want to convey some of the emotion felt when I was talking to the battalion families.
“I decided something had to be done to commemorate the centenary, and I’m delighted that the council are going to rename the area outside the hall. It’s a huge honour for the battalion to be recognised officially like that in their own city.”
Proceeds from the concert will be shared between Help For Heroes and Poppy Scotland. “In effect, the lads of 1914 will be helping their counterparts in today’s armed forces cope with the injuries sustained on active service in Afghanistan and other theatres - the same dreadful injuries as those sustained on the Western Front, and at the same age. The life of a soldier has not changed much these past hundred years. McCrae’s legacy lies not in the history books, but in a living and breathing form of remembrance with which everyone can engage.”
• Tickets for the concert, which begins at 7:30pm on Friday 28 November, are available from the Usher Hall Box Office. More information on McCrae’s Battalion can be found at www.mccraesbattaliontrust.org.uk. Alexander’s book McCrae’s Battalion, the product of more than a decade’s exhaustive research, is also widely available.
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