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  • We Are Hibernian FC - Part Nineteen

    War raged on in Europe and thousands of men were losing their lives in the trenches but it was not only on foreign fields that men were dying. A tragedy at Gretna saw hundreds of men, mostly from the Leith area, killed in a tragic accident as they left home to go and join the war effort overseas.

    Easter Road witnessed its first game of this new season when Raith Rovers visited for the semi final of the Dunedin Cup and found the greens in good form whilst centre forward Jimmy Hendren was at his very best in claiming all of the goals in a 3-0 win that took Hibs into the final against Hearts.

    The first league match played at home resulted in a 1-1 draw against Falkirk and the press reports after the game didn’t make the best of reading as they described the Hibs performance as looking as though the players had already endured a long hard season. That description is strongly backed up by the result in the next game Hibs played as they visited Tynecastle for the final of the Dunedin Cup and were thrashed 6-0 with the Maroons getting three goals in each half as Tom Gracie (2), Harry Graham (2), Robert Malcolm and James Speedie all found a way past poor Willie Allan in the Hibernian goal.

    That poor form persisted in the next outing, a 3-0 defeat at Motherwell before Hibs finally got a win in the league by beating early pacesetters Airdrie 1-0 before following that up with two 1-1 draws at Starks Park, against Raith and at home to a very strong Celtic side. Buoyed by a good performance against Celtic, Hibs took three points from their next two matches in beating Clyde 3-1 and drawing 0-0 at Cappielow against Morton but from then until the turn of the year disastrous results would see the greens languishing at the foot of the table with supporters frustrated that still no monies would be spent to improve a side that was staring relegation in the face.

    After that draw at Cappielow, Hibs lost six in a row with a 4-0 home defeat by Ayr United being perhaps the hardest to swallow. A point from a 2-2 home draw with Dumbarton seemed to offer a lift to the spirits as it was quickly followed up by three wins with Queens Park, Dundee and Partick Thistle the victims. Recent signing Robert Lennie had helped improve the side and had been amongst the goals during this mini ‘revival.’

    Those results may have perked the support up a little but another kind of report was causing great distress in the home of every Hibernian supporter. The war was not going at all well and already thousands of casualties had been reported, amongst them two former Hibernian players and a number of those fans that had flocked to sign up by ‘taking the King’s Shilling.’ That was an expression used to describe volunteers that had joined up for their shilling a day not realising that it merely resulted in giving their lives cheaply. In early October the Germans had captured the Belgian of Ypres but by October the British Expeditionary Force recaptured it forcing the Germans to counter attack. More than 230,000 men lost their lives in that one battle alone with around 90,000 of them being British and the battle raged on deep into November.

    Back in Edinburgh, December 1914 began for Hibs with a visit to league leaders Hearts where they lost 3-1. Harry Wattie gave the Maroons a half time lead before deep into the second half Harry Graham added a second only to watch in horror as ninety seconds later Hearts’ Archie Boyd put through his own goal after Willie Smith had forced the error. Sadly for Hibs James Low struck a third for the hosts, keeping them at top spot in the table whilst Hibs were way behind in tenth.

    Despite the setback at Tynecastle the next three results were encouraging with a fighting 2-2 draw at Cathkin against Third Lanark after being two goals down; a great 3-2 home win over St Mirren, again after being two goals behind but fighting back through Robert Lennie and a double from Jimmy Hendren. The greens ended the year with a cracking 4-2 away win at Dens Par, Dundee on Boxing Day 1914. Of course all of this was against a background of war raging on in all parts of Europe as well as on the high seas and December 1914 also witnessed the first use of aircraft in this war when the Allies sent in the Vickers FB5 which had a machine gun mounted in front of the pilot but the Germans responded with the faster and better armed Fokker E and so the Vickers was soon withdrawn from action.

    Although conscription had not yet come into being there was still a huge propaganda machine in place to encourage men to willingly volunteer to join up and help their countrymen win this war. ‘Over by Christmas’ disappeared for a while but would make a return each year until the conflict ended but in its place came a plea suggesting that the more men who volunteered the better as that would mean superior manpower over the enemy and consequently an early and victorious end to the hostilities. Thousands took up the call to arms and marched off, many never to return.

    New Years Day 1915 had Hibs hosting Hearts in the final of the Wilson Cup at Easter Road and although the greens had risen to sixth in the league they were still no match for table topping Hearts who won the trophy despite going behind to a Mattha Paterson penalty as Andy Wilson and Harry Graham nabbed the goals to secure the silverware in front of a crowd just under 9,000.

    Hibernian, like other clubs was now losing players who had decided to respond to the call to arms and soon Sandy Grosert, Davie Stevenson and young winger, the American Bobby Wilson were on their way to the front line. Six league games were played in January with only four points collected thanks to wins at home to Kilmarnock and away to Airdrie – Jimmy Hendren being the most consistent Hibs marksman.

    February 1915 was a decent month for the greens as they played four matches and were undefeated. A 2-2 draw at Douglas Park with Jimmy Hendren getting the last goal of the game to earn Hibs a point was followed up by a 2-1 home win over Raith, a 0-0 draw at Pittodrie against Aberdeen and a very creditable 2-2 home draw against Hearts. An own goal by Robert Crossan put Hibs ahead, only for Graham to equalise before the break and then Tommy Gracie put them ahead early in the second half only for Hibs captain Mattha Paterson to head home a late equaliser, sending the majority of the 16,000 crowd into raptures. That dropped point allowed Celtic to draw level at the top with Hearts whilst Hibs maintained the ninth place they had occupied prior to kick off.

    Always on the lookout for new talent, Dan McMichael had been keeping a keen eye on a young full back playing with Leith Athletic and around this time he approached the Leith club with a view to securing the services of Willie Dornan on loan, receiving a positive response and thereby laying the foundation for the future signing of a lad that would be a wonderful servant to Hibernian.

    If February had been good then March was the opposite as Hibs failed to win any of the four games they played and that poor run included a disappointing 5-1 reversal against Celtic at Parkhead. Thankfully April proved to be a better month and started with two good league wins at home with a 4-2 victory over Third Lanark featuring a hat trick from Jimmy Hendren and a 4-0 humbling of Queens Park before the greens entertained English outfit Bradford City in a friendly and won that game 5-3.

    Although Hibs reached the finals of both the East of Scotland Shield and the Rosebery Cup they lost the first 1-0 at Tynecastle and the second 4-3 away to St Bernards to bring the curtain down on what had been another difficult season, played against the backdrop of fans and players alike joining up to help fight the war in Europe. Many young men had volunteered and would no longer be visiting Easter Road to watch their heroes play. Instead, they themselves became heroes with vast numbers losing their lives fighting for their country.

    Families back in Edinburgh lived in fear of receiving the dreaded telegram that would surely deliver bad news concerning their loved ones. Many did receive that news as their sons, husbands and brothers had given their lives whilst serving their country in the bloodiest of wars but in May 1915 the news delivered to a large number of families in Leith and Little Ireland must have been totally unexpected. The 7th Royal Scots (Leith’s Own) Battalion had been called to arms and had assembled at Larbert near Falkirk from where it would travel south by train before being shipped to Gallipoli. Around 500 officers and men were on board the troop train as it headed south. At around 7am, the signalmen on duty near Gretna were changing shifts and were working on the appropriate paperwork which meant that the signals were not changed to ensure safe passage. The result was catastrophic as a local train was stationery at the signal and the troop train ploughed into it with the impact causing the train full of soldiers to compact to only half of its original length. Just minutes later with injured soldiers trying to escape the carnage but finding the carriage doors locked to prevent them jumping off the train at stations, an express train heading north smashed into the wreckage and as that express train was lit by gas there was a huge explosion and fire rapidly consumed the wooden carriages of the troop train.

    On that morning no fewer than 227 soldiers lost their lives and a further 246 were injured. A mere 60 men from the Leith Battalion made it to roll call the next morning. When news reached Leith the effect was devastating and in time there would be many funeral processions as families buried their dead, a number of whom were laid to rest in the Eastern Cemetery which lies in the shadows of the Famous Five Stand at Easter Road.

    A veil of grief lay over the port of Leith and surrounding areas. Many of those killed had just a few weeks earlier stood watching Hibernian play from the terraces at Easter Road. The club itself was shattered by this news and still more ill tidings were to follow. Just a few weeks after the Gretna disaster, Hibs’ popular centre forward Jimmy Hendren died suddenly at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.
    Needless to say the coming football season of 1915/16 was hardly really given a thought as it seemed unimportant when weighed against the fact that young lives were ending so suddenly both overseas and nearer to home but the consensus view was that football should continue to be played because it provided a welcome distraction from all of the bad news circulating around the country.

    For their part, Hibs struggled to find a player to replace Jimmy Hendren and their cause was not helped by the fact that their other stadium at Northfield had been given over to the army for training purposes and that had resulted in the £1,000 grandstand being demolished and several thousand more pounds having to be spent to make it usable by the army. That cost was met by Hibs as a gesture towards the war effort and was never recouped. It meant that money was tighter than ever and so Dan McMichael had to make do with the players he had, most of whom worked full time in a job that assisted the war effort. With no money at his disposal Dan McMichael raided the junior ranks and signed three Robert’s – Smith, Alexander and Taylor. All three of the new signings made their debuts in the first league match of the season which Hibs won 3-0 over Queens Park at Easter Road. At the match that day and in fact at most matches that day were recruiting sergeants from the army, hoping to persuade those that hadn’t already decided to volunteer for armed service to give serious consideration to doing so. No doubt they would be promised that their decision to join up would mean that the war would be over by Christmas.

    The good win on the opening day was followed up by a 3-2 win at Somerset Park against Ayr United but the next three games produced only one league point as the manager had to juggle his resources due to player unavailability with the war effort naturally taking precedence. The first Derby of the season was played at Easter Road where Hearts were two up inside the first ten minutes before Robert Alexander pulled one back but there were no more goals as Hearts ran out 2-1 winners.

    Whilst all of this was going on a major confrontation was taking place at Loos in Belgium where more than 100,000 men lost their lives with around 50,000 of the casualties being British. This was trench warfare at its worst but it would go on for some time yet. Effectively, Loos was seen as a strategic strongpoint and so both sides wanted to win it and seemed prepared to go to any lengths to do so. From the trenches, wave after wave of Allied troops stormed forwards and were cut down by heavy fire but eventually took Loos only for the Germans to counter attack and suffer a similar fate in terms of losses but ultimately they succeeded in recapturing Loos. Senseless loss of life was commonplace and back home there was little by way of detail in the newspapers as such bad news would be considered damaging to morale. Instead, word trickled back from letters written from the trenches with gruesome details painting an horrendous picture. Hardest of all was receiving a letter from a loved one after a telegram had arrived advising of their death.

    Following the Derby defeat, Hibs went eight league matches without a win and the fans were getting mighty restless until finally on 20 November 1915 a victory arrived in the shape of a 2-1 home win over St. Mirren. Both goals in that game were scored by recent signing from Falkirk, Harry Hutchison and the sigh of relief around Easter Road was audible. Shortly after that win, Hibs persuaded Leith Athletic to make the loan signing of Willie Dornan a permanent move and a fee of £20 changed hands in what would prove to be a very shrewd bit of business by the greens.

    Unfortunately the win over St Mirren was followed by five straight defeats including a 4-2 reversal at Ibrox where Hibs were reported to be the better team! The fifth of those defeats came on Christmas Day when Dundee secured a 2-0 win to ensure a bleak day for the Hibernian support. Fans may have gone home feeling down about that result but the news filtering through from the war would surely make even the most dispirited Hibs fan thank their lucky stars that at least they got to go home that day. December 1915 marked the Battle of the Somme in which more than 60,000 British troops lost their lives on the first day alone. New Supreme Commander General Douglas Haig was under enormous pressure from the French to launch this action and that may explain why he took the decision to do so. It came to light however that despite his aides warning him of the new machine guns being used by the Germans and the introduction of tanks into the fray and for years afterwards a debate would rage as to whether Haig needlessly caused the deaths of thousands of his men when he reacted to the news of that weaponry saying that machine guns were overrated and that tanks could not operate effectively in trench warfare. Regardless of which argument is thought strongest, tens of thousands of men lost their lives at the Somme and still worse was to follow as hard on the heels of realising that the highly trained British Expeditionary Force had been shattered and that Battalions made up of plucky volunteers had been cut to ribbons the British Government decided to introduce the conscription of unmarried men and that would mean thousands more still at home would soon be heading for the trenches.

    It would have been a sombre Hibs support that made up part of the 6,000 crowd at Tynecastle on New Year’s Day 1916 where Hearts and Hibs clashed in the Wilson Cup Final. The hosts were enjoying a successful league campaign and sat in second spot whilst struggling Hibs flirted with relegation in second bottom spot and so it was something of a surprise that the greens won 2-0 with a double from Harry Hutchison. Two days later the greens went down 4-2 at Hampden to Queens Park but found some form in defeating Raith Rovers 1-0 in their next outing at Easter Road. Three more games were played in January resulting in one win and two defeats with the win coming at home against Airdrie in front of just a couple of thousand fans. The crowds at the Hibs ground had been dwindling for some time as voluntary enlistment, conscription and poor form kept the fans away.

    In February Hibs won two and lost two but it was the last of the four when Kilmarnock were beaten 1-0 at Easter Road that was the most poignant for those fans in attendance. As the game raged on the sounds of the ‘Last Post’ could be heard from the nearby Eastern Cemetery as yet another serviceman was laid to rest. It seems a bizarre thought but the loved ones of that serviceman were lucky in a way as they had the opportunity to lay the man to rest whilst thousands more were killed in the Battle of Verdun and their bodies would not be brought home but buried near to where they fell. That particular battle raged on for some months with something in the region of 500,000 men losing their lives.

    March 1916 was a dismal month for Hibs with only one point gained from three games played but in fairness to Dan McMichael he often had no idea which players would actually turn up as war work prevented a number from doing so. Players were drafted in from junior clubs but it was quite a step up and most never made the grade.

    A 3-1 reversal at Love Street was quickly followed up by a 2-1 defeat at Boghead where defender Peter Kerr had to play in goal when neither of Hibs’ two keepers could make the game. All in all it looked bleak for the greens when they travelled across town to face a very strong Hearts side that was fifth in the league whilst Hibs were joint bottom with Raith Rovers. Around 5,000 watched on as Peter Nellies gave the hosts a half time lead but Hibs came roaring out in the second period and scored three goals in a five minute spell through Robert Lennie, Sam Fleming and Mick Newton. A 3-1 win was beyond the wildest dreams of those Hibs fans in the crowd but in a way it made up for all the disappointments that had gone before.

    Only two more league games remained and they brought a 3-1 home win against Ayr United and a 3-1 home/away defeat by Hamilton. Home/away because it was Hibs’ home game but as the vast majority of their players resided in the west and could not get time off from their war duties to travel the game was played at Parkhead in front of just over 1,000 fans. Only the local cups now remained and Hibs trounced St Bernards 6-0 in the semi final of the Rosebery Cup but when they met Hearts in the final at Tynecastle the maroon’s exacted sweet revenge for that earlier league defeat by thumping a bedraggled Hibs side 4-0 in front of 5,000 spectators.

    That latest Derby was played on Saturday 13 May 1916 by which time conscription had been opened up to all who were fit enough to be sent to the trenches. The Parliamentary Bill that introduced compulsory conscription was met with an outraged response by the trades unions and doubly so in Ireland where a group of men had realised that the English promise of Home Rule looked bleaker than ever. An uprising in Dublin led to that group and the British Army clashing and once the dust had settled on that uprising, James Connolly, Edinburgh born and confirmed Hibernian supporter was put to death by firing squad some 24 hours before his beloved team was put to the sword at Tynecastle.
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