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No celebration in events that commemorate the Great War

History has given the month of August a bad press.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called it 'the most terrible August in the history of the world', while later the historian Barbara Tuchman would refer to 'the guns of August'.

They were loudest - symbolically rather than literally - on this, the fourth day of that month, when the UK's ultimatum to the Austro-Hungarian Empire expired and it joined what became known, oxymoronically, as the Great War.

And today I'll be in the congregation at Glasgow Cathedral for the first of several services to commemorate that day, that month and, of course, the centenary of the day the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (as was) joined the First World War.

Note the word 'commemorate'. When this month's events were first announced some supporters of independence indulged in the usual histrionics. SNP MSP Joan McAlpine, for example, warned of a 'jingoistic' attempt to boost Britishness ahead of the referendum.

The 'outburst of hysterical patriotism in 1914', she added, represented 'the worst of British - arrogance, self-delusion and a desire to dominate on the world stage'. Beyond the hypocrisy (British 'patriotism' bad; Scottish nationalism good), such remarks also amount to a caricature of British attitudes to imminent war a century ago.

As the minister at this morning's service put it, emotions 'ranged from excitement to foreboding, from confidence to dread.'

Initially, there was indisputably a (British) nationalistic zeal for battle, but 'Behind the lines', a fascinating exhibition at the National Library of Scotland, charts the changing views of several protagonists including Walter Elliot, a future Unionist MP and Secretary of State for Scotland, through his personal correspondence. Initially enthusiastic, by the time his brother died at Gallipoli Elliot realised fully the horror of the 'Great' War.

Actually it's difficult to conclude that the First World War has ever been, beyond its initial phase, 'celebrated' at all. From the moment the relentless death toll and fruitless trench warfare became widely known, the mood was clearly far from celebratory.

This point is underlined by a moving exhibition of First World War art at the recently refurbished Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London. Here the conflict, at home and on the front line, isn't celebrated but documented in all its brutal reality.

The creation of the IWM (initially at Crystal Palace) was another manifestation of a general desire to commemorate, even before the war had ended, along with more modest memorials the length and breadth of the UK. There was plenty to commemorate. Of the almost 700,000 Scots mobilised between 1914-18, more than 100,000 didn't return home, meaning Scotland's death toll ranked only third behind that of Serbia and Turkey.

Of course Scots fought as part of the UK, but nevertheless the war had a peculiarly Scottish dimension, fostering a growing sense of national consciousness, institutionally, culturally and even politically. The Duke of Atholl, for example, ensured Scotland had its 'own' National War Memorial, finally completed some years later within the confines of Edinburgh Castle.

An intriguing paragraph in the Unionist (Conservative) Party's 1922 campaign handbook also attributed (then rising) Home Rule sentiment (in part) to 'experiences in war time', explaining that many 'public men' in Scotland had become 'irritated and annoyed' during the war 'at the delays and difficulties caused by the necessity of constant reference to Departments with headquarters in England'.

But having acknowledged 'that if the responsible men in Scotland had been granted a freer hand many causes of friction, and much sense of injustice, might have been obviated' was 'no doubt true', its author nevertheless concluded that 'the task the nation had to tackle, unexpected and unprepared for, was so vast that it is surprising the confusion was not worse.'

Unionists did well in the khaki election of 1918 becoming, as Christopher Harvie put it, 'the patriotic party of the "Anglo-Scottish" Empire', while some Home Rulers attempted to argue that Woodrow Wilson's 14 points, particularly the last about guaranteeing 'political independence' to 'great and small states alike', ought to apply to Scotland.

Wilson, however, was clearly thinking of Central Europe rather than the Central Belt, although of course the First World War did hasten the departure of (most of) one small state to the west of Britain while halting moves towards 'Home Rule all Round' within what remained of the UK.

All of which is a reminder that the First World War was both the product of imperialism and the beginning of its end. Another exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland ('Common Cause') commemorates the Scots who fought not for the UK but on behalf of the Dominions and Territories of what is now the British Commonwealth.

Fitting, therefore, that between the Games' closing ceremony last night and this morning's service sporting euphoria gives way to historical commemoration of lives lost not just in Scotland and the UK, but across the globe. Glasgow hosting both events is also significant, for the city of the Commonwealth Games was also a city largely built on slavery and Imperial trade.

That isn't something many Scots are keen to recognise let alone commemorate, which is unfortunate for the UK has generally been willing to face up to darker chapters in its history. During the Games the Empire Café (in Glasgow's Merchant City) charted this forgotten history while yesterday it emerged that the city council plans a more permanent memorial.

Indeed the success of the Games demonstrates how relatively smooth the transition was between Empire and Commonwealth, and how those links endure to this day. Fascinating to ponder that when Edinburgh hosted the Games back in 1970 it was the first time the moniker 'Empire' hadn't featured.

Some wounds, closer to home, took longer to heal. Only in the past few years have UK-Irish relations become as close as those between two such near neighbours ought to be, although of course the Republic left the Commonwealth in 1949 never to return. Perhaps given the success of the recent state visits even that might change in four years' time?

There are those (including the Glasgow-born historian Niall Ferguson) who now argue the UK should never have entered the War . There are also those who'll denigrate today's commemoration as too British and too jingoistic, but as the novelist John Buchan remarked in a different context, that would amount to 'good propaganda but bad history'.

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