Edinburgh square to be named after McCrae’s men

The football team of McCrae's Battalion. Picture: McCrae Battalion Collection
The football team of McCrae's Battalion. Picture: McCrae Battalion Collection
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A FIRST World War army battalion which enlisted players from Heart of Midlothian Football Club is to be commemorated in Edinburgh, where a civic square is to be named in their honour.

The area in front of the Usher Hall is set to be renamed McCrae’s Place in memory of the 16th Royal Scots who fought at the Somme and who were better known as McCrae’s Battalion after Sir George McCrae, the former MP who formed and led the volunteer force into combat.The proposal by the Lord Provost Donald Wilson to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War is expected to be passed by the city council later this week.

The story of McCrae’s Battalion was recently featured on Britain’s Great War presented by Jeremy Paxman on BBC1.

McCrae’s Place will be made up of sections of Grindlay Street and Cambridge Street in front of the Usher Hall where Sir George McCrae made his famous speech on 27 November 1914. He had been tasked by Lord Kitchener with raising a new volunteer battalion in Edinburgh and at a meeting at the Usher Hall he declared: “This is not a night for titles: I stand before you humbly as a fellow Scot, nothing more and nothing less. You know I don’t speak easily of crisis. But that is what confronts us.

“I have received permission from the War Office to raise a new battalion for active service. It is my intention that this unit will be characterised by such a spirit of simple excellence that the rest of Lord Kitchener’s army will be judged by our standard.

“Furthermore, with the agreement of the authorities, I have undertaken to lead the battalion in the field. I would not – I could not – ask you to serve unless I share the danger at your side. In a moment I will walk down to Castle Street and set my name to the list of volunteers. Who will join me?”

Within seven days, more than 800 men had signed up to serve in the 16th Battalion of the Royal Scots, which was also known as ‘The Sportsman Battalion’ and had among its initial volunteers at least 30 professional footballers from various clubs including the majority of the Heart of Midlothian team. The battalion fought at Contalmaison in the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 and suffered heavy casualties.

Yesterday Lord Provost Donald Wilson said: “It is 100 years since the First World War so it seemed significant and appropriate to do it. It was in discussion with the McCrae’s Memorial Trust and we thought since that was the place where he made his famous speech, it was the best place to put it. It does not have a name so it seemed fortuitous.”

The Lord Provost said it was important to commemorate the First World War and to prompt the public to find out more about those who played an active part in the conflict.

He said: “McCrae is an important historical figure and his place in history is obvious. The army were desperate for volunteers and if they had not got the large numbers that joined up, the result would have been disastrous.

“But obviously we are talking about the commemorations of a very sad event. Particularly if you think of the Somme and the battle of Contalmaison which was their first engagement.

“We owe it to the memory of the ones that gave their lives and also what makes it significant and unique is they volunteered despite the fact that they were in reserve occupations. They didn’t have to go, but they went and the reasons why they went are beyond question and should be honoured.

“I think it is important that Edinburgh plays its part in the commemorations and a huge element of these commemorations is education. It is about remembering what happened.”