Read about Scotland’s sporting heroes who fought on the 1st of July 1916 at the Battle of the Somme – the bloodiest day in British military history.
At the end of June 1916, after 18 months of stalemate on the Western front, the British commenced a seven-day bombardment of the German lines. Over 1.5 million shells were fired during this precursor to the Battle of the Somme.
The hope was that this heavy bombardment would cause extensive devastation allowing the British troops to pass unchallenged through no man’s land and claim the German trenches.
However, the artillery barrage was less effective than anticipated, and this proved fatal for soldiers during the first offensive.
At 7.30am on 1st July 1916 the newly recruited soldiers of Kitchener’s New Armies were ordered to advance. The German machine-gunners, presumed neutralised by the extensive shelling, emerged intact and cut down the advancing British infantry.
The British succeeded in capturing sections in the south but the success was limited and it came at a heavy price: 57,470 casualties including the death of 19,240 men on the first day alone, making this the bloodiest day in British military history.
Soldiers from the 15th and 16th Battalions were part of the initial assaults on 1st July 1916; both battalions consisted of men from the city of Edinburgh.
The 16th battalion were especially well known amongst the Edinburgh community as it included local celebrities and was named McCrae’s battalion after local business man and former MP Sir George McCrae.
McCrae persuaded players from the Heart of Midlothian football club to join the Royal Scots 16th battalion - they were young, athletic and keen. McCrae was certain that their example would inspire others to do the same.
After a rally in central Edinburgh showcasing the players, hundreds of young men signed up and within days McCrae had the numbers to form the 16th battalion.
On the 1st of July 1916 Duncan Currie, Ernest Ellis and Henry Wattie, all players for the Heart of Midlothian football team, were killed in action. Alfred Briggs, James Hazeldean and Edward McGuire, also on the team, suffered substantial wounds and were discharged from the forces.
By 1915, McCrae’s battalion had earned itself the nickname of Scotland‘s ‘Sporting Battalion’. Amongst them were a variety of sportsmen: Jim Davie, a rugby player, was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry on the first day of the Battle of the Somme; Murdoch McLeod, the strongest man in Scotland, was brought down by German machine guns.
Harry Harley, a keen runner and member of Edinburgh Northern Harriers - was another amongst those killed on the 1st of July 1916 at the Battle of the Somme.
After the war, a clock tower war memorial was unveiled near Haymarket station in Edinburgh, with an inscription reading:
The Heart of Midlothian
To the memory of
Their players and members
Who fell in the
1914 - 1919.
Today the memorial to the club’s fallen, now a listed building, is still passed by hundreds of Heart’s fans on their way to Tynecastle stadium to support the team.