Updated: Nov 3, 2019
In 1914 the majority of the Hearts first team, then sitting at the top of the league and favourites to win the Scottish Cup, received a white feather in the post. “Professionals”, including footballers, were excluded from enlistment for military service in the First World War, and the feather in the post intimated that they were cowards for not volunteering to fight in the trenches.
The Hearts team, along with many supporters and players from other local and amateur teams, joined the 16th Battalion of the Royal Scots, formed by Colonel George McCrae. The Battalion was raised in record time and was one of the many “pals” battalions formed at the time. They became known as the Hearts Battalion or the Sporting Battalion, but the soldiers preferred to be known as McCrae’s Own. They quickly gained a reputation as one of the best battalions in the British Army and were deployed at the Somme in 1916.
The first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916, was the worst day in the history of the British Army; almost 75% of those involved in the battle were killed or reported missing, many on that first day alone. Only one Battalion reached their objective that day - McCrae’s Own - but at a very heavy cost. They reached the village of Contalmaison and held a position known as the Scots Redoubt until relieved later that day.
Many from the Calders joined the Battalion. One of them was Lance Corporal Jimmy Boyd. Jimmy was born in Seafield and his family moved to Mossend on the outskirts of West Calder. He attended West Calder High School (then situated on Hartwood Road) and on leaving school he worked in the shale mining industry. He played football with a local team Mossend Burnvale, then joined the Hearts as an inside forward alongside his brother who was the Hearts Goalkeeper at the time. Also part of the team was Pat Crossan from Addiewell, a talented footballer nicknamed "the handsomest man in the world."
When the Hearts team decided to volunteer, Jimmy and his brother had to choose who would stay at home to support the family and who would go off to war. Jimmy won - or lost, depending on how you look at it. He survived the first day of the battle at the Somme, but on the 3rd August he was wounded and carried to a field hospital for treatment. The hospital was hit by artillery fire and all inside killed. Jimmy was initially buried near the scene but later his body was moved although there is no record of where to and he is one of the many buried in an un-named grave. His family have his name engraved on the headstone of the family plot at West Calder Cemetery.
Pat Crossan was also wounded during the battle and his leg marked down for amputation. He pleaded with the doctor not to do so as he was a footballer and needed both legs to play for Hearts! A German prisoner of war, a doctor, was asked to operate and saved his leg. Towards the end of the war, however, Pat was gassed and his lungs permanently damaged; he died as a result of his injuries after the war.
Very few of those who signed up in 1914 survived the war and only one or two of the Hearts team kicked a ball in earnest again. Mossend Burnvale, the team Jimmy Boyd played with before joining Hearts, all joined McCrae’s Own at the start of the war following Jimmy’s example. Only one of them returned home.
At West Calder High School a stone lion recovered from the original West Calder High School has been dedicated as a memorial to Jimmy Boyd and others from the school who fought and died in the War.
Author: Helen-Jane Shearer
Many thanks to Sandy Potter of West Calder High School and to Robin Miller of Kirknewton for their contributions for this article.
“If they’re taking our horses, we’re going too”
by Robin Miller, Kirknewton
" My grandfather Robert Lawson was tenant farmer at Leyden Farm from 1900 – 1920, a twenty-year lease from owner and landlord Earl of Morton. Along with his own family he employed two horsemen or ploughmen – William Tait who lived at Little Vantage Toll House on the Lanark Road, and George Gardiner who lived at Ainville cottage, Ainville Farm, where his parents were employed.
During the winter of 1915/1916 a Captain William Anderson and a military vet visited Leyden Farm and commandeered the two best horses in the stable. They had to be sound of wind and limb to endure the arduous task of pulling heavy guns through the mud of Flanders.
My mother Maggie Lawson Miller kept in touch with both ‘’Will’’ and ‘’Dod’’ who had witnessed their horses taken to war and who had said “if they’re taking our horses we’re going too” and had gone to Edinburgh Castle and joined 16th Royal Scot’s – McCrae’s Own.
Although their letters were censored she was able to follow their whereabouts until correspondance stopped prior to the Battle of Arras 9 – 14 April 1917. She was convinced that they had joined together, fought together and died together at Arras.
However war records show that William Tait died 1st July 1916, the date of attack on Contalmaison, and is buried in the Thiepval Memorial Cemetery. Records also show that George Gardiner was killed in action on 28th April 1917, the date of the attack on Roeux on the Scarpe River, and is buried in the Arras Memorial Cemetery. Paddy O’Brien of the War Graves Commission did not rule out my Mother’s theory - such was the confusion and conditions that bodies were often not found at the time and not before one cemetery was full and they had moved on to another.
Their names of course appear on the local war memorial in Kirknewton along with some forty one others. We are all in their debt."