Team 1914 - the Bairns players who joined up and marched off to war

This week sees the launch of a remarkable Edinburgh Festival Fringe production about a unique battalion of Scottish soldiers.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 3rd August 2018, 12:08 pm
Updated Friday, 3rd August 2018, 1:33 pm

Its ranks included six Falkirk FC players and an unknown number of Bairns supporters.

Led by the Heart of Midlothian stars of their day, they were all volunteer soldiers of the 16th (service) battalion of the Royal Scots – the first of foot, most senior infantry regiment of the British Army.

The tale has been told many times, not least in the Falkirk Herald which in 1914 carried an article about how the Bairns men answered the call to arms issued by the battalion’s founder, Sir George McCrae.

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It’s a story which is remembered with pride and sadness as part of Falkirk FC’s heritage, by Hearts – of course – and by clubs including Raith Rovers, Dunfermline and Hibs.

Inspired by the example of star players – who believed it their patriotic duty to show an example and enlist – hundreds of fans then flocked to join their team’s heroes.

Operational by 1916, the battalion went “over the top” on the catastrophic first day of the Battle of the Somme and lost 573 men and 12 officers killed or wounded.

The battle disaster is remembered as the worst ever suffered by the British Army with some 60,000 casualties, including around 20,000 dead, in the course of that single day.

Now, a story already capably told in Jack Alexander’s 2003 book and by the McCrae’s Battalion Trust among others – will be brought to a whole new audience by a cast of young Scottish actors in the world premiere of “A War of Two Halves”.

Written by Paul Beeson and Tim Barrow, it is directed by Bruce Strachan, artistic director of Nonsense Room Productions.

He said: “The opportunity to experience a behind-the-scenes view of a football 
stadium with a dramatic retelling of historical events will be a truly unique Fringe experience”.

He added: “This is a story that needs to be told to as broad an audience as possible. It takes on particular poignancy as it comes to life in the very ground the team left in 1914 with action taking place throughout the stadium”.

Countless books have been written about the Somme offensive which is often held up as among the worst examples of military idiocy witnessed in the era of modern warfare.

Barbed wire which was supposed to have been cleared by artillery fire was intact, and enemy troops who were supposed to have been shelled into submission were fully ready for the human waves launched at their machine guns.

Of course many Falkirk men served in other units in the same battle and elsewhere on the Western Front and local men died in other suicidal battles, for example at Gallipoli in 1915.

But the Somme has a unique place in British history, bringing to mind the stories of footballs being kicked into no man’s land when the whistles sounded the advance.

As the McCrae’s Battalion Trust account observes: “Machine guns make no allowance for celebrity and on that dreadful morning three-quarters of the rifle strength was lost including three Heart of Midlothian players”.

What of the Falkirk men? Of course Falkirk players didn’t all necessarily come from the Falkirk area but Bob Godfrey, born in Larbert, was one. He was medically discharged with a hammer toe.

Private Frank Reilly was wounded but later went on to play for Blackburn Rovers and several other teams.

Privates Mick Gibbons and John Morrison survived along with Private Bobby Wood – who was wounded.

Private Andy Henderson was wounded too and suffered from phosgene gas poisoning.

Many of the fans who had joined them must have been killed or wounded - 
supporting their team to the end.

A War Of Two Halves plays at Tynecastle Park from now until Sunday, August 19, with performances starting at 1pm, 3.30pm, 6pm and 8.30pm daily (not Saturday, August 11).

Tickets are priced £24 for adults and £20 for concessions and can be bought online at Hearts eTickets.

Tickets can also be bought in person at the Hearts ticket office on McLeod Street (inside the Main Stand). The production is reckoned suitable for children aged 12 or over.