Fifty years ago, in another lifetime, I toyed with the notion of becoming a soldier.

Many factors prompted me, not least the chance of training to be an infantryman, in my mind's eye one wearing puttees, breeches and a peaked cap, having stepped out of a sepia photograph, circa 1914.

At the time I was obsessed with the First World War (I still am) but in the early 1960s the Army had moved on. Somehow, the shapeless serge battledress of the time didn't quite cut the mustard and although I underwent various physical and mental tests it was clear that I was not cut out for the martial life.

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And yet, during the course of a ­variegated life as a civilian, the Army has remained in my personal foreground and many soldiers have become firm friends. My sons, ever anxious to prick pomposity, joke that I have achieved the complexion of a colonel without ever having run any of the risks.

As for the First World War, it lay in the seemingly irretrievable past and remained there as the years rolled by. But now we face the centenary of the outbreak of the conflict and later this year, the country will begin the process of commemorating that extraordinary period between the tumult of August 1914 and the awakening to ashes four years later in November 1918.

To my considerable pleasure and anticipation I was invited to join a panel of experts which has been established to advise the Scottish Government on the commemoration of the First World War.

From the outset any sense of celebration was swiftly kicked into the long grass. Instead, we hope the mood will be respectful, imaginative, inclusive and above all deeply human. While key events involving Scots - such as the great battles of Loos and Arras - will be targeted, as will be less familiar events such as Red Clydeside and the Glasgow rent strikes, we must never forget that those events were framed by real people.

Already, all over the country plans are being put in place to populate local war memorials so that anonymous names can become again the once vibrant young men who went off to war, often with gay abandon, and certainly not thinking about what lay in store for them. This is a real opportunity to breathe life back into common humanity and to make sense of the roughly 148,000 young Scots who left their homes and the solace of family never to return. Last January the Scottish Government made an imaginative gesture when it announced the creation of £1 million fund to enable communities to refurbish war memorials which have fallen into disrepair, and the first grants have already been issued.

During the past year I got a sense of how a community might be affected by the loss of its life-blood when I joined forces with the admirable Neil Oliver to put together a BBC documentary on the fate of a Territorial rifle company from Portree, which encountered the reality of modern warfare at the Battle of Festubert in May 1915. The film is called The Machinegun and it will be transmitted in the spring, but the main theme is best summed up by the subtitle: Skye's Band of Brothers.

THE last survivors from the First World War are now gone - Alfred Anderson, Scotland's last man standing, passed away in 2005 aged 109 - but thanks to careful archiving, their memories live on. While researching the subject over many years it was always humbling to listen to the stories of men who had been transformed by their experience of warfare.

It was not always derring-do and happy warriors. Once, while I was visiting the Western Front with a party of Chelsea Pensioners, a former soldier of the Middlesex Regiment, one of the original "Old Contemptibles", broke into tears as he recalled the broken bodies of German soldiers gunned down by the famous "five rounds rapid" fired by British riflemen during the Retreat to Mons in September 1914. One thing stuck in his mind: as the young Germans walked arm-in-arm across the sun-kissed fields, they had exchanged their steel helmets for soft student caps as if to remind themselves that they had not always been soldiers.

Another Chelsea Pensioner with us had served in a famous Highland regiment and was the life and soul of the party, always ready with a quip to lighten the mood. He was the sort of man who, if faced by certain death, would probably have found something to laugh about, but his insouciance came at a price. After his death I attended his funeral and his granddaughter asked me if I had known that once a year he would enter a darkened room, close the door behind him and weep quietly.

Each year the date was the same - September 25, the anniversary of the Battle of Loos, which was fought in 1915. Most of the 70,000 soldiers who swept into the attack that day were serving with Scottish infantry battalions but they paid a terrible price for their courage. Three weeks later the fighting petered out and the generals picked up the butcher's bill: 20,598 dead, one-third of them Scots. The losses were so appalling that scarcely any part of the country was unaffected.

So high were they in Dundee that each year on the anniversary of the battle the light shines from the granite war memorial on The Law to remember the city's war dead, many of them local men who fell while attacking the heavily defended German positions. The majority were killed serving in one of the six battalions of the Black Watch which took part in the assault; one of them, 9th Black Watch, sustained 680 casualties (killed, wounded or missing) in the first hours of the fighting.

While it is true that service on the Western Front was not necessarily a death sentence and that most of the volunteers came safely home, the war brought a bitter reckoning. Many came back with broken bodies; others returned with fractured minds, a result of having seen things no human should witness. As the poet William Soutar, a sailor during the conflict, put it: "No man outlives the grief of war," and he was right.

Although this was an age when men were supposed to suffer in silence and to show a stiff upper lip, the repression of war experience could not disguise the fact that many veterans were condemned to spend the rest of their lives suffering in smaller or greater measure from the effects of war. There was also the continuing pain of those who had lost loved ones, women made unseasonal widows, children who would never know their fathers, and parents denied the opportunity of seeing their teenage sons become men.

None of this can be ignored by anyone involved in the business of interpreting the First World War and that is why a few years ago it was not difficult for me to accept an invitation to become a trustee of Combat Stress, the Veterans Mental Health Charity which continues to help servicemen and women who have been traumatised by their experiences on the battlefield.

It was founded in 1919 mainly by women who did not care to see their menfolk coming back from the trenches with damaged minds. Who would have thought that it would still be needed in today's world? That, too, is a subject which must be addressed during the commemoration of a war which, after all, was supposed to end war.

Trevor Royle is the Sunday Herald's diplomatic editor, is the author of Flowers Of The Forest: Scotland And The First World War (Birlinn) and is a member of the Scottish Government's Advisory Panel on the Commemoration of the First World War.