On Armistice Sunday the Hibernian Chairman Rod Petrie laid a wreath on behalf of the club at the Hearts War Memorial at Haymarket, both Edinburgh clubs united in paying their respects for those who had made the ultimate sacrifice during the Great War. Trust Curator Tom Wright details Hibernian’s involvement during the conflict.
In September 1921, a Hibs/Hearts XI had taken part in a game against a Rangers/Celtic Select at Tynecastle to raise funds for the memorial, and the first of the annual services that continue to this very day took place on Sunday 9th April 1922 in front of a crowd estimated to be well over 35,000, with all the directors, players and staff of Hibernian Football Club in attendance.
The well-publicised efforts of the Tynecastle club during the Great War were commendable, particularly the tragic sacrifice of several of their players. Not so well documented however are the major parts played by Hibernian and others during the conflict.
At the outbreak of hostilities the grounds at both Easter Road and Piershill were immediately made available to the military authorities for the training of new recruits and it is said that within a short period of time, seven Easter Road players were either in uniform or in war related work.
After only a few games of the new season the Hibs players David Stevenson, James Williamson and the Chicago born American citizen Robert Wilson who had played in the previous seasons Scottish Cup Final, had decided to enlist. Sadly, Wilson would be killed in November 1918 only a few days before the end of the war. Another, John Aitken, a pre-war signing from Perth Violet who would also play a few games during the 1914/15 season before joining the Gordon Highlanders would be killed at Ypres in July 1917.
James Hendren, a prolific goalscorer who had been signed from Cowdenbeath in 1911 had already registered as a driver in the Army Transport Corps. However, because his wife had just given birth Hendren had been allowed to delay his enlistment. Unfortunately, within a few months he would die of natural causes in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.
At least seven former players would also lose their lives during the terrible campaign including the popular Patrick O’Hagan who had fought in the Boer War only to be killed during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and Bobby Atherton who had captained the side to Scottish Cup success in 1902 and the League Championship the following year, who was drowned when his ship was torpedoed in the English Channel in 1917.
Leith born Sandy Grosert, a pre-war signing from Leith Amateurs and a registered Hibs player throughout the entire campaign, was one of many Hibs supporters to join the McCrae’s Battalion, including the renowned future Hibs Chairman Harry Swan, but he had transferred to the Machine Gun Corps in 1915.
Second Lietenant Grosert
Second Lieutenant Grosert, another who had taken part in the Scottish Cup Final in 1914, would win the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry in the face of the enemy at the battles for Rouex and Greenland Hill in 1918. Although severely gassed and wounded he would return to Easter Road after the war, ending his playing career with Dunfermline in 1924 after a short spell with Aberdeen.
The former St Bernard’s player John Sharp who had played for the club at the turn of the decade was another who would win the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry in September 1918 for his actions in organising his men during withdrawals under heavy fire, on one occasion leading a bombing party back to a trench occupied by the Germans, repulsing the enemy until had party had secured another position.
Second Lt George Rae who had been a registered Hibs player until enlisting in the army just days before the outbreak of war, would later be awarded the Italian silver medal of honour for gallantry.
The 23-year-old Hibs supporter James McPhie, whose father Allan had been a director of the Easter Road club at the time of the Scottish Cup win in 1902 and the League Championship honour the following year would win the Victoria Cross, the nation’s highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.
On 14th October 1918, just weeks before the end of the war, Corporal McPhie of the 416th (Edinburgh) Royal Engineers was among a party of sappers maintaining a temporary cork float bridge across the Canal de la Sensee near Aubencheul-av-Back in France. Just before dawn, an infantry patrol was starting to cross under heavy fire when the bridge suddenly broke away and started to sink.
Without any thought for their own safety James and another man immediately dived into the river and attempted to hold the pontoon together. This however proved impossible although the time gained had allowed the patrol to reach the other side. McPhie immediately swam back to collect materials for repair and although it was now daylight and the bridge under heavy fire from machine guns, at great personal risk he was making his way back to the bridge when he was wounded several times causing him to fall into the water, dying almost immediately.
The pontoon bridge was eventually secured allowing the troops to cross and maintain a bridgehead on the opposite bank but, ‘it was due mainly to the magnificent example set by Corporal McPhie that touch was made with the patrol on the enemy bank at a most crucial period.’
In 1919 Corporal McPhie’s mother Elizabeth accepted her son’s VC from Queen Mary at an investiture ceremony in Edinburgh. In 1963 his family loaned the medal to the Imperial War Museum in London where it remains on display today.
James, who is buried at Naves, just a few miles from Cambria, is commemorated in his native Edinburgh on a chair situated near the Royal Scots Greys statue in West Princes Street Gardens, on a plaque in St Andrews and St Georges West Church in the city, and also on a memorial stone in the shadow of Arthurs Seat at the corner of Brown Street near to the site of Salisbury Street where he was born.
As part of a Royal British Legion movement to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the armistice in 1918, in October a Silent Soldier Silhouette campaign was rolled out throughout the entire country.
At Easter Road the Hibernian Chairman Rod Petrie and director Stephen Dunn were pictured with Tommy Davidson from the Ancre Somme Association on the centre spot at Easter Road alongside the almost life sized silhouette of the ‘Silent Soldier’ in appreciation of a generation that had sacrificed so much during the Great War.
(left to right) Tommy Davidson, Rod Petrie and Stephen Dunn at the Easter Road pitch centre spot with the 'Silent Soldier' silhouette
Later, a representative from Hibernian Football Club was invited by the Ancre Somme Association to lay a wreath at a ceremony at the Canongate Church to commemorate the centenary of the end of the Great War.
It was perhaps only fitting that Hibs should be involved on the day, as it was from the Canongate and the surrounding areas that the club drew so many of its players and supporters in the early days.
Written by Tom Wright