The image portrays an already broken land. To the left is a farm building, its tiles blown off from shelling. In the foreground, on the lip of a dug-out, a coat lies discarded on the ground.
In the background, naked thin tree trunks extend upwards into the sky like the pillars of an Archibald Leitch-designed main stand. The football allusion is appropriate. To the right of the photograph, believed to date from between late 1914 and early 1915, near the start of the First World War, there is what looks to be the corner of a set of goalposts. But it can’t be, can it? Not here. Not in a landscape pockmarked with craters. Not somewhere that could be an approximation of hell.
“They were literally playing football just behind the lines,” confirms Ken Gibb, military expert for a new exhibition at the national football museum at Hampden, and someone whose own links with football include a passion for Third Lanark and a father who once scouted for Dundee. “Even given how horrendous it was, they were still playing football throughout the war.”
We know about the Christmas Day truce of 1914, when soldiers from both sides clambered out of dug-outs along the front line and played football, the sound of the guns having momentarily ceased. But this photograph underlines how the game’s association with the war is about more than one day.
“We know it is in France,” adds Gibb, with reference to the image, so far unsourced. Another one, depicting six Cameronian [Scottish Rifles] soldiers booting a ball about, again just behind the lines, proves beyond doubt how troops liked to let off steam.
“We know it is after [the battles of] Mons and Marne and before Loos, which was early 1915.” It was in terrain such as this in the northern French village of Givenchy, on 12 June 1915, that Lance Corporal Willie Angus crawled over the top of a dug-out to rescue a young lieutenant lying wounded close to German lines.
“He was warned against going since it was, to all intents and purposes, a suicide mission. But Angus insisted. Why? The stricken man, Lt. James Martin, was a fellow native of Carluke.
“I have to go back to Carluke,” explained Angus. “I cannot return if I left someone from Carluke to die here.”
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Angus tied a rope around himself so if he was injured or, more likely, killed, his body could be dragged back again. But he managed to reach Martin without detection. He tied the rope around his colleague, before carrying him back to the trenches, 70 yards away. He was detected this time and suffered several wounds as he sought to shelter Martin from the fire.
He lost an eye and badly damaged a leg. Reflecting on the act of valour, Lt. Col. Gemmill, the Officer Commanding at Givenchy, said: “no braver deed was ever done in the history of the British Army”.
There is an apocryphal story that when he was presented with a Victoria Cross by King George V – becoming the first Scottish Territorial soldier to earn this distinction – the king said: “Angus, I have read your citation and I find it almost impossible that you are standing here in front of me.” He replied: “Aye sir, but only 14 of the wounds were serious.”
Angus is included in the exhibition because he was a Celtic player. Although he never appeared in a competitive match for the club, he played for the reserves between 1911 and 1914. A photograph of him standing proudly in his hooped green and white shirt is s centre-piece of an exhibition entitled Football on Parade – The Story of Football in Scottish Regiments, which opened at Hampden Park on Monday.
Although spanning from as early as 1851 – on display is what museum curator Richard McBrearty believes is the world’s oldest football trophy, which is a medallion awarded to the winners of a match played between the 93rd Highlanders and the Edinburgh University football club – to the present day, a main focus falls on the Great War.
The opening of this section of an already much-admired museum is timed to coincide with Remembrance Sunday, and the 100-year anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Thousands of footballers across the land will this weekend bow their head and remember the millions lost in conflicts, including huge numbers from their own profession.
Football was a morale-booster for soldiers, something to take the mind off the horrors, if only for a brief time. There was, Gibb explains, some criticism leveled at the professional game, which tried to carry on as if as normal after war was declared in 1914. But then came the inspiring intervention of Sir George McCrae, who raised the 16th (Service) Battalion Royal Scots (McCrae’s Own), the first so-called “footballers’ battalion”. The image of footballers changed almost overnight.
Due to the committed efforts of the McCrae’s Battalion Trust, we are now becoming more familiar with this story. The battalion was recently inducted in Scottish football’s Hall of Fame. Gibb is particularly pleased to have McCrae’s colour, presented in 1921, on display. “The Royal Scots have been good enough to give us it on more or less permanent loan,” he explained. “We had it conserved [for around £3,000] after being given a grant – it was in quite a state to put it mildly.”
“Some of them, as we know, were Hearts players,” he added. “But this is the thing. There were up to 20 different football teams represented by players in his battalion, which was over 1000-strong.” Raith Rovers are one of them, the Stark’s Park club playing Hearts in what is sure to be a poignant Championship fixture this afternoon. Both sides will wear specially-designed commemorative kits, with Hearts having reverted to the club crest worn in 1914.
Gibb hopes to have the shirts on display at the museum in the coming weeks. But there is already enough to make this an essential visit, including a letter from Hearts in reply to a request from a soldier for a football to be sent out to the front. “I trust it proves a real good pal to you all”, notes the Hearts secretary/manager, John McCartney. It was he who had assembled a Hearts side that looked set to win the league title before war intervened. “The finest men I ever knew had gone,” lamented McCartney, after the players left from Edinburgh’s Waverley station, bound for France. Seven of the side never returned.
Football didn’t matter much when the harsh reality impacted. But even amid the barbed wire and the mud, the game had its place. Perhaps the finest item on display is a “football trophy” – a 1915 spent German shell casing picked up on the battlefield and then turned into an inter company football cup by the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders. It was played for in 1915, 1916 and 1917, when the battalion was based at the Western Front in France.
Little has survived to provide concrete evidence of football being played at the Christmas Day truce, but this is a genuine artifact, one that thrills Gibb. “It is an absolute one-off where someone has decided more or less instantly to make a football trophy out of something collected from the battlefield,” he says.
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