John Robertson: Huge honour for McCrae’s Battalion

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Hearts legend John Robertson has spoken of his pride at seeing the unit of troops recruited by Sir George McCrae from Edinburgh’s sporting community and beyond inducted in the Scottish football Hall of Fame.

The 93 inductees at Hampden are, for the most part, individuals who have made their name in the world of Scottish football. It was, then, a departure to learn that the First World War volunteers, many of whom – but by no means all – were drawn from Hearts, have been recognised for endeavours on fields far different from the pitches where the likes of Kenny Dalglish and Denis Law, fellow members of the pantheon, excelled. In the case of many, they made the ultimate sacrifice.

McCrae's battalion. Picture: Contributed

McCrae's battalion. Picture: Contributed

Robertson, who played for two spells at Hearts and is now back at Tynecastle as a coach, was unveiled as the first football ambassador for McCrae’s Battalion Trust last year. However, he made the point yesterday that the sense of pride should be shared among several clubs. “I’m delighted, it’s such a unique story,” he said. “But it’s not just about Hearts. There were other clubs, Falkirk, Raith, Dunfermline and Hibs. It’s wonderful they’ve been honoured.”

Robertson found his first visit this summer to the commemorative cairn that was erected ten years ago by the Battalion Trust to be a very moving experience, particularly in the centenary year of war being declared in 1914. “I was fortunate enough to go to Contalmaison and it was very humbling,” he said. “You see the cemeteries with the white crosses and you think how horrendous it must have been. But then you realise they were the ones whose bodies were found and identified and given a proper burial.

“There were hundreds of thousands of soldiers whose bodies weren’t found and identified. It’s a huge honour and it’s very humbling to be an ambassador for them. But it’s important that this is not hijacked by Hearts. It’s an honour for everyone in that battalion – not just sportsmen – because it was a huge sacrifice they made.”

Robertson explained that the stories are woven into the very fabric of Hearts – the club’s current home strip leans heavily on the design of their shirt from the 1914/15 season. “You get told the story when you are at Hearts,” said Robertson. “It’s a huge part of the club’s history.”

He made mention of a very special game being played a week on Saturday, when Raith Rovers are the visitors to Tynecastle in a Scottish Championship fixture. Rovers have also produced a shirt commemorating the deeds of McCrae’s Battalion in the colours of the Hunting Stewart tartan worn by the Royal Scots Regiment.

Earlier this year Hearts unveiled a plaque on the main stand at Tynecastle marking the spot where the conscripts had their photograph taken for the Daily Dispatch after enlisting en masse to McCrae’s Battalion, the first professional footballers to do so in significant numbers. Seven Hearts players never returned from the front line. “There’s no coincidence we play Raith on 8 November because both teams were involved,” said Robertson.

“Raith will wear McCrae’s Battalion colours and Hearts will have a McCrae’s Battalion badge.

“The Royal Scots band will be at the game, there will be a silence. These men are iconic figures at the club. There’s a plaque outside the ground where that iconic photograph was taken. We are in the process of getting a museum up and running and McCrae’s Battalion will be a huge part of that.”