Wilfred Owen, Scottish Football And World War One

 

I have had my interest raised particularly this week, writes TNS Foundation Officer, Gill Jones, by a meeting which Graeme Kirkham and I attended with local resident Chris Woods, who is part of a local committee planning a commemoration event this year in Oswestry of 100 years since Armistice Day, which also coincides with the 100 year anniversary of the death of world famous, Oswestry born World War One (WW1) poet Wilfred Owen, and at which we discussed the possible involvement of the Foundation and the Football Club in the commemoration events.

Plans are still at an early stage, but until our meeting I probably hadn’t fully appreciated the contribution made to the country’s war efforts by professional football players – we are probably all aware of the 1914 Christmas Truce, with its famous football match, referred to in the following extract from Gerard Degroot’s book ‘Back in Blighty: The British at Home in World War 1’:

“Fraternisation led inevitably to football.  Men who could not otherwise communicate shared a common language in the game.  “After a short while somebody punted across a football”, one subaltern recalled.  “The ball landed amongst the Germans and they immediately kicked it back at our men …..it was a melee.  It wasn’t a question of 10-a-side, it was a question of 70 Germans against 50 Englishmen.”  That scenario was repeated all along the line.  The locations of these matches remain obscure, in part because few soldiers subsequently admitted taking part.

The Christmas Truce is significant precisely because it happened only once .. By spontaneously playing football on Christmas Day, these men gave notice that something precious, noble and decent still survived amongst the carnage.  At that moment, they were neither British nor Germans, but lovers of a game ….”

Even more relevant and something I thought I should include in this article in welcoming our Scottish visitors this weekend from Dumbarton, is the role played by Scottish professional footballers in the war effort.  On 25 November 1914, even though professional footballers were exempt in the war effort, eleven players from Heart of Midlothian signed up for service in WW1, becoming the first British team to provide players in such large numbers.

According to Jack Alexander, author of McRae’s Battalion: The Story of the 16th Royal Scots, and many others, the team of 1914 was the best in Heart’s history, and they were on the verge of becoming a side strong enough to dominate Scottish football for the rest of the decade.   Hearts began the 1914-15 season in fine style winning their first eight successive matches.  By the end of November they had only lost once, to Dumbarton, in 16 games.

At the same time, however, as Hearts were flying there was an increasing concern in Britain at large that the numbers volunteering to fight were not great enough.  In response to this, Edinburgh politician Sir George McCrae decided to raise his own battalion of volunteers, the 16th Royal Scots and he convinced the 13 Hearts players to join him.  Another 5 who attempted to enlist were rejected on medical grounds.

This was a great publicity coup for McCrae, and 600 supporters followed suit with the encouragement of the Heart’s manager John McCartney …  The battalion became known as the footballers’ battalion, and soon fans and players from Hibs, Raith, Falkirk and Dunfermline quickly joined up too, allowing McCrae to meet his boast that he would be able to raise a battalion within a month.  The members of one local junior team, Mossend Burnvale, marched in to the recruiting office to join en masse.  Sadly, at the end of the war only one of their number was to return.

Having completed their military training the 16th Royal Scots were deployed to France on 8 January 1916 and saw their first action on July, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, near a French village called Contalmaison.  On this day the British army lost nearly 20,000 men with a further 40,000 wounded. The 16th Royal Scots itself saw 347 of its men wounded on this one day, and a further 229 men killed, including 3 of the Hearts players.  It was possibly some small consolation to the families of those who lost their lives that the battalion was recorded as having made the greatest advance against enemy lines of all the battalions in action on that first day of the Somme.

Here at TNS Foundation, working alongside the Wilfred Owen and Armistice Day Commemoration Committee, we are hoping to work with and involve local schools and others to find out more about our own local footballers who were perhaps WW1 soldiers and heroes.  As a precursor to this, and in view of today’s special match, I wondered what I could find out about the particular WW1 histories of Dumbarton FC and our previous opponents in the Irn Bru Cup – St Mirren FC.  My tiny bit of research has revealed that at least seven St Mirren and three Dumbarton FC players lost their lives in the war (with one player – Archibald McLardie having played for both teams).

Hopefully we will be proud participants in the 2018/19 Irn Bru Cup competition – should this be the case, we would love to use our Scottish Club links to commemorate the contribution made to football by professional football clubs and players north and south of the border – if anyone attending this weekend’s match has further information which they would like to share with us, we would be delighted to discuss further – please email Graeme.kirkham@tnsfc.co.uk or Gill.jones@tnsfc.co.uk

 

Gill Jones

Foundation Manager

Photograph courtesy of The Wilfred Owen Association.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Stewart Bloor

Media. The New Saints FC. Contact: stewart.bloor@tnsfc.co.uk