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History : the story of McCrae's Battalion.

There is a corner of a foreign field that is forever Edinburgh. It’s called Sausage Valley and it remains entirely unrecorded in any history of Scotland’s capital. The word ‘valley’ is misleading: Sausage is no more than a shallow depression, hidden among the rolling Picardy downlands of the French département of the Somme. Today it is ploughed and planted with arable crops; 87 years ago, pock-marked by shell-holes and craters, its northern end was dominated by a fearsome system of defensive entrenchments, infested with German machine guns. 

On 1 July 1916 twelve infantry battalions of the 34th Division assaulted this position. It was the opening of General Sir Douglas Haig’s grand summer offensive, the so-called ‘Big Push’. Within a couple of hours all thoughts of breakthrough had dissolved in front of the Maxims. This was the British Army’s ‘blackest day’: among 20,000 killed and 40,000 wounded were over a thousand officers and men from the division’s two ‘City of Edinburgh’ units, 15th and 16th Royal Scots – more than three-quarters of their total attacking strength. In spite of this, 16th Royal Scots was credited with achieving the deepest penetration of the enemy line anywhere on the battlefront that morning: a small party from C Company fought their way into the ruined village of Contalmaison, only to be overwhelmed by the opposition and chased back out again. The survivors withdrew to join their remaining comrades in a captured German strongpoint known as Scots Redoubt, where they held out in the face of fierce counter-attacks for three long days and nights. The epic defence of Scots Redoubt is the great untold story of that dreadful day; the hero of the hour was an Edinburgh man, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir George McCrae.

McCrae, a hatter by profession, was the former Member of Parliament for East Edinburgh. By 1914 he was serving as chairman of the Local Government Board for Scotland. On 20 November the Edinburgh papers carried an announcement that he had secured permission to raise a new battalion for active service in the field. It was his intention to lead the unit overseas. Sir George announced that he would have his battalion ‘within seven days’. It sounded unlikely – until Wednesday 25 November, when eleven professional footballers employed by Heart of Midlothian became his first enlistments. They were Alfie Briggs, Duncan Currie, Tom Gracie, Jamie Low, Harry Wattie and Willie Wilson from the League team; and Ernie Ellis, Norman Findlay, Jimmy Frew, Annan Ness and Bob Preston from the reserves. The following day they were joined by two team-mates, Pat Crossan and Jimmy Boyd. Hearts – leaders of the Scottish League – were then the most attractive side in Britain, so the news of the players’ action caused a nationwide sensation. After this, it took McCrae only six days to obtain the full complement of 1347 officers and men. Augmented by a substantial contingent of professionals from Raith Rovers and Falkirk, his volunteers included numerous local sportsmen, hundreds of Hearts ticket-holders and supporters, along with players and followers of many other clubs, including an estimated 150 supporters of Hearts’ great city rivals, Hibernian

The battalion – now more familiarly known as ‘McCrae’s Own’ – was duly taken on the strength of Lord Kitchener’s ‘New’ Army as the 16th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Scots. Training was completed in Edinburgh, Yorkshire and Salisbury Plain. They embarked for France in January 1916 and spent their first few months learning the ropes in the quiet zone around Armentières. The move down to the Somme took place in May – giving them only a few weeks to prepare for the Push. The trench system that faced them to the east of the main Bapaume road was arguably the most dangerous sector in the entire German defensive position. No ordinary unit would have been chosen to assault it. The ultimate objective was a line running through fields slightly to the north of the fortified village of Contalmaison.

Before the war Contalmaison consisted of about 70 houses, scattered round an open square and a substantial brick-built church. Most of the five hundred inhabitants made their living from the land, growing wheat and sugar beet or grazing small herds of cattle on the verdant chalk downlands that rolled into the distance as far as the eye could see. By 1916 the cattle were dead, the people scattered and the houses flattened by a pitiless succession of British artillery bombardments. Concealed within the ruins were the headquarters of the 56th German Reserve Infantry Brigade. The village was protected by two formidable entrenchments, ‘Kaisergraben’ and ‘Quadrangle’, each of which was screened by several bands of barbed wire, eight feet high and thirty yards broad. In order to reach this position, however, the attacker had first to negotiate the enemy ‘front system’, which consisted of three additional lines of trenches, each with its own dense entanglements. Every approach was covered by machine-guns. It was a veritable fortress.

At 7.30 on the morning of 1 July McCrae’s Battalion rose up from their shallow assembly ‘cuts’ and advanced in line abreast towards the wire. Almost at once the guns opened fire. ‘The lads,’ wrote one survivor, ‘fell like corn before the scythe.’ They pressed forward, however, fighting their way into the enemy trenches with bomb and bayonet. Shortly before 10 a.m. the remains of C Company, led by Captain Lionel Coles, arrived at Birch Tree Wood, about a thousand yards south-east of Quadrangle. Coles had Contalmaison in his sights: by some miracle all his officers and around half his other ranks were still standing. His little command included several ‘soldier footballers’ from Hearts, Falkirk and Raith Rovers. His sergeant-major was the Tynecastle half-back, Annan Ness, whose surviving playing comrades included full-back, Pat Crossan, and Harry Wattie, who was regarded as the finest inside-forward in Scotland. Corporal Michael Kelly, by comparison, was a humble bowling-green keeper, employed by Edinburgh Corporation. He owed his stripes to a short spell before the war with the Dublin Fusiliers. Kelly’s platoon officer was George Russell, a young bank clerk, who had joined the battalion as a private in 1914. 

Shortly after 10 a.m. Coles led his company out of the shelter of a shallow sunken road and found himself faced by three enemy Maxims. Within minutes he had lost half his strength. Most of the survivors were pinned down in the numerous shell-holes that peppered the surrounding meadows. Over on the right flank, however, 2/Lt Russell had managed to elude the guns, find a gap in the wire and cross Quadrangle just south of the main road. He had around 30 men with him. They worked their way into the village, where they were joined by a dozen Northumberland Fusiliers who had broken through further north. At 10.35 Russell sent a runner back to Coles, requesting assistance. Five minutes later they were almost overrun; Russell was killed; Kelly took command and decided to withdraw. He had nine men left, all but two of whom were wounded. They took off down the road, hoping to find friendly troops coming up in support. Arriving back at Quadrangle, they found their escape blocked by a party of German signallers. Kelly charged at them, despatching five before he was shot in the chest. He continued his attack, killing two more and struggling with the third until he choked him. He then led the survivors back through the German line and into the relative safety of the cratered shell-fields. Just before he passed out, he found one of the signallers’ flags still clutched tightly in his hand. At 11 a.m. Lionel Coles made a last attempt to cross Quadrangle. As he ran up the side of the road, a burst of machine-gun fire caught him in the chest, killing him instantly. A further nine days would pass before the village was finally captured.

McCrae's Battalion's ill-fated entry into Contalmaison represents the most advanced penetration of the enemy line anywhere on the front on 1 July 1916. Until now, their achievement has never been recognised. Four officers and 225 other ranks were killed on the village approaches; six officers and 341 other ranks were wounded – of these, 27 died of their injuries in the following months. In 1920 battalion survivors proposed the creation of a unique memorial to the sacrifice of their comrades. Identical stone cairns would be erected – one in Edinburgh, one in Contalmaison. These would carry identical bronze plaques, incorporating the Edinburgh city crest, the regimental badge and a brief history of McCrae’s. Each year, on 1 July, a party of local schoolchildren would make the pilgrimage to France to lay wreaths in honour of those who had given their lives. These plans, however, were expensive and, in the absence of any help from Edinburgh Corporation, the cairns were reluctantly abandoned – to be replaced by a simple stone tablet, which was unveiled in the High Kirk of St Giles in 1922 and which makes no specific mention of the events of 1916. 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Colonel and his wonderful battalion is the fact that they were so thoroughly forgotten. The familiar thin account of Tynecastle’s ‘en masse’ enlistment was always more of a tenuous rumour than a matter of authentic historical record. The publication of McCrae’s Battalion after more than a decade of detective work rescued this tale from extinction. The efforts of the Great War Memorial Committee (see 'Contalmaison Cairn' section) have now ensured that McCrae's are commemorated by the most ambitious battalion memorial to be erected on the Western Front since the period immediately following the Armistice.

Jack Alexander

Enquiries about the historical aspects of McCrae's Battalion can be sent to Jack Alexander at [email protected] .

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