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Service and sacrifice worth commemorating

'No man outlives the grief of war," wrote the poet William Soutar in his poem The Permanence Of Young Men.

The words were written in 1940 and having served in the Royal Navy during the First World War, Soutar knew what he was talking about.

By then he was suffering from a form of the crippling disease spondylitis, contracted when he was demobilised, and had been bed-ridden ever since, but many more of his generation would have shared his "sadness unannulled" as they remembered lost loved ones.

It seems to be as good a starting point as any for the commemoration of the First World War, a conflict which has had a lasting influence on the world in which we live today.

Against the greater numbers of dead produced by the destruction of empires between 1914 and 1918, the Scots fatalities of 148,000 seem relatively modest. Yet the "war to end wars" cast a long shadow over Scotland's development and changed the way it viewed itself as a nation, for scarcely any family was unaffected by the losses.

Not that many kicked against it at the time. With the honourable exception of those who turned their face against the march to Armageddon - for example, conscientious objectors and political activists in the Red Clydeside movement - the conflict was widely accepted by the bulk of the population

During the fighting the Scottish land mass was not attacked in any appreciable way and apart from the sight of people in uniform and the growing casualty lists in the newspapers, plus the presence of the navy's battle fleet on the east and north coasts, there had been little physical evidence of hostilities.

Unlike other equally small European nations such as Belgium or Serbia, armies did not march over Scotland, there was no loss of life on home ground from combat; generally it was "business as usual".

In the majority of the letters and diaries written by the young men who marched off to war, the modern reader has to search long and hard to find comments which express any kind of opposition to the war or criticism of their senior commanders.

The volunteers might have taken fierce pride in being a Royal Scot or a Gordon Highlander and they might have considered themselves to be better than the other mob, but that was tribal and strictly personal.

Instead, they fought for their country and for the king who ruled it; on a private and personal level they fought for their families, those who were nearest and dearest to them, and in the final analysis they fought for their mates sharing the same dangers in the trenches beside them.

There were those who would fail the test of combat and men who forgot to die like heroes in the hellish fear of battle. But there were also those, the majority, who were bound up in a powerful common cause: their service and sacrifices are surely worth commemorating.

l Trevor Royle is also a military historian and a member of the Scottish Government's advisory panel on the First World War

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