On the 7th of August, 1914, three days after Britain declared war on Germany, the war minister, Lord Kitchener, began a mass recruiting campaign.
Lord Kitchener became the rudest man in the world on the 7th of August, 1914. He was seen constantly pointing at people and folks used to say that his eyes seemed to follow you as you walked past his image on the recruitment posters. Those famous posters, which have been plagiarised around the world, were a wee bit like the Mona Lisa, only Kitchener wisnae as pretty. His enrollment appeal called for men aged between eighteen and thirty to join the British Armed Forces to fight against the Germans, against whom Britain had declared war three days previously. At first, an average of thirty-three thousand men were joining up each day, but this was deemed insufficient, and three weeks later Kitchener raised the recruiting age to thirty-five. By the middle of September, over five hundred thousand men had volunteered their services and by the end of 1915, some two million men had joined the Armed Forces.
By the end of the Great War, a total of one hundred and forty-seven thousand, six hundred and nine Scots had been killed. That massive total represented a fifth of Britain's dead – from a country that made up only ten per cent of the population of Great Britain. Some of those one hundred and forty-seven thousand, six hundred and nine Scotsmen were football players, including the entire Heart of Midlothian first team squad, who joined en masse in 1914. Other clubs, including Celtic, Clyde, Dunfermline, Falkirk, Raith Rovers and Rangers, had players who signed up to fight in the First World War.
At the beginning of the 1914 football season, Hearts was Scotland's most successful team, having won eight games in succession. Nevertheless, every member of the first team joined a new battalion being raised in Edinburgh by Lieutenant Colonel Sir George McCrae. On the 26th of November, 1914, ‘The Times’ carried the story with the headline ‘Eleven Leading Players Enlisted’. The event captured the country’s imagination and McCrae’s Battalion, the 16th Royal Scots, was brought to full strength in record time. The example of the Tynecastle men was followed by around five hundred of their supporters and season ticket holders. Not to be outdone, one hundred and fifty followers of their Edinburgh rivals, Hibernian, also joined.
McCrae’s Battalion crossed the Channel to France in 1916 and, on the 1st of July, took part in the infamous opening day of the Battle of the Somme. The Battalion was selected to assault the most dangerous part of the enemy position, a fearsome network of barbed wire and entrenchments, bristling with machine-guns. In spite of this, it took every one of its objectives and penetrated the German lines to the greatest extent of any unit anywhere on the front that morning. In the process, McCrae’s lost three-quarters of its strength. Tragically, three Hearts players, Harry Wattie, Duncan Currie and Ernie Ellis, were killed. Another member of the team, twenty-two years old Paddy Crossan, was about to have his right leg amputated, but he pleaded with the German surgeon not to operate, telling him, “I need my legs; I'm a footballer.” His leg was saved, and Crossan survived the war only to die later as a result of his lungs having been destroyed by poison gas. By the end of the war, seven members of the Hearts team had been killed in action.
Jimmy Speirs played for Glasgow Rangers, Clyde, Bradford City and Leeds United. On the outbreak of the War, Speirs enlisted in the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders and went off to France. According to contemporary newspaper reports, Speirs ‘was wounded in the heavy fighting of Autumn 1916, but was not fortunate enough to be sent to a home hospital’. After convalescing, he quickly rejoined his regiment. He was awarded the Military Medal for bravery and promoted to the rank of sergeant. In August 1917, Speirs was at Passchendaele and a few weeks later was reported wounded and missing. According to the ‘Bradford Weekly Telegraph’, he had been “hit in the thigh during an advance and managed to crawl into a shell-hole.” He was never seen again.
Robert Torrance was a Scottish team mate of Jimmy Speirs’ at Bradford City and one of the finest wingers in the club’s history. From the outbreak of the war he had worked as a munitions worker, but during March 1917 he enlisted. No doubt because of his work with munitions, he became a gunner with ‘A’ battery, 62nd brigade, Royal Field Artillery. During the Germans’ final offensive of 1918, his battery was in the Somme sector west of Albert. He was badly wounded in an enemy barrage and taken to a field hospital, where he had an arm amputated. Fearing the worst, he gave some of his personal effects to a soldier about to return to Bradford on leave, and on the 24th of April 1918, Robert was killed when the hospital was shelled.
William Angus came from Carluke and played for Celtic before joining the 8th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry. In 1915, Angus volunteered to attempt to rescue a wounded officer, Lieutenant James Martin. At first, the mission was vetoed as being suicidal, however, when Angus suggested that it didn’t matter much whether death came now or later, he was eventually given permission. Angus crawled out to Martin through No Man's Land and tied a rope to him, before trying to carry him to safety. He came under heavy fire from the Germans and was hit, but he signalled to his trench to pull Martin to safety whilst he crawled off, drawing the enemy fire. Despite being hit again several times, he managed to drag himself back to the trenches. Angus lost his left eye and part of his right foot, and for his bravery became the first professional footballer to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
William Angus’ commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Gemmill, later wrote that, "No braver deed was ever done in the history of the British Army." His citation read, “For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty at Givenchy, on 12th June 1915, in voluntarily leaving his trench under very heavy fire and rescuing an officer who was lying within a few yards of the enemy position. Lance Corporal Angus had no chance of escaping the enemy’s fire when undertaking this very gallant action, and in effecting the rescue he sustained about forty wounds from bombs, some of them being very serious.”
Hearts has a permanent memorial to its war dead. It is situated in Edinburgh’s Haymarket and every Remembrance Sunday officials, players and supporters of the club gather to pay their respects to a team that inspired a nation at war.