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Poignant 1914 Edinburgh derby to be commemorated on French soil

A DRAMATIC re-enactment of one of the most historic Edinburgh derbies in the history of the fixture is to take place this summer - in a French village.

Amateurs representing Hearts and Hibernian will wear First World War-era football strips for the match, which will be held in the small Somme settlement of Pozieres as part of its annual ceremony of Remembrance. The players and spectators will then re-create the mass enlistment in McCrae's Battalion, the 16th Royal Scots, which took place at half-time in the game between the two clubs at Tynecastle on 5 December 1914.

Pozieres was the scene of more than a month of fighting during the Battle of the Somme, which began on 1 July 1916 - a date which has become known as the blackest day in the history of the British Army. The 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions sustained more than 23,000 casualties before eventually capturing what little remained of the village and the ridge which had been a stronghold for the German defences.

Since 2006, the villagers of Pozieres have commemorated the events of that battle with a show on the night of 1 July. Each year has had a different theme, and this year the organisers have decided to recognise Scotland and the city of Edinburgh.

McCrae's Battalion, which was made up largely of footballers and supporters from the two Edinburgh clubs and many others, was stationed near Pozieres on the eve of the battle. Its target was the village of Contalmaison, which it reached only to be forced back at devastating cost.

In 2004 a memorial cairn was unveiled in Contalmaison by members of the McCrae's Battalion Trust, who have returned every year since for what they call a pilgrimage. This year up to 60 Scots will make the visit, which will include their participation in the Pozieres ceremony.

The decision by Pozieres to recognise Scots' contribution to the war effort is a recognition of the work which has been carried out by the trust, according to Jack Alexander, author of the book McCrae's Battalion. "It's a tremendous honour that they've chosen us," he said.

The Hearts team which kicked off the 1914-15 season just weeks after the outbreak of the First World War was one of the most talented in the club's history. They won their first eight league matches - a record not equalled until 2005 - and were on course to win the championship for the first time since the turn of the century. As autumn wore on, however, the war recruitment drive began in earnest. Sir George McCrae, a volunteer soldier, appealed to the men of Edinburgh to join him in a new battalion, and found a particularly receptive audience at Tynecastle. Eleven Hearts players became his first enlistments in late November; while McCrae's used George Heriot's School as their training base, the players were still allowed to turn out for the club.At half-time in the derby match itself, Sir George addressed the spectators, urging them to follow the example of the players and join his battalion. Many, Hearts and Hibs supporters alike, took him up on the offer and signed on there and then. Hundreds would die on active service, among them seven of the Hearts players. The sacrifice made by McCrae's Battalion went uncommemorated in France until Alexander and his colleagues in the Trust raised the funds to erect the cairn in Contalmaison nearly 90 years after the Battle of the Somme. Even in their own city, the circumstances in which the battalion was created had been forgotten

Thanks to Alexander and his book in particular, how those footballers lived and died is now known to a wide audience.

But, while recognising the contribution of those Hearts players, the Trust has also honoured the service of men from other clubs, and indeed from other sports. This year, for example, the Scots visitors to Contalmaison and Pozieres will also visit the field where Willie Angus, the captain of Wishaw Thistle and a former Celtic player, won the Victoria Cross by rescuing a wounded officer under heavy fire.

And they will pay their respects at the graves of James Pearson and Walter Sutherland, two of the Scottish rugby internationals who died during the war. Watsonians player Pearson died in 1915; Hawick man Sutherland just weeks before the Armistice in 1918.

 
 
 

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