Every single death in 1914-18 was individually tragic. But as Harvard’s eminent historian, Professor Niall Ferguson, highlighted in his monograph, The Pity of War, and in his recent television presentation, all nations did not suffer equal losses.
Vastly disproportionate casualties, almost double the overall rate of Britain and Ireland, compounded Scotland’s agony.
He concluded that, despite her remoteness from the land battlefields, Scotland’s soldiers and sailors suffered (after Serbs and Turks), “the highest death rate of the war”.
Scottish families, mine included, suffered grievously in both global conflicts. Whether an independent Scotland would have participated in both World Wars can never be determined, but the decisions would have been Scotland’s, and consequent participation subject to Scottish control.
Moreover, Scotland’s war losses were not confined to two global conflicts. Of about 200 countries recognised by the United Nations, historian Stuart Laycock estimated only 22 have never been invaded or occupied by Britain – so far. The mediaeval Scottish state combated Vikings and the English, but after 1707 Scots literally fought the world. As voluntary (and involuntary) janissaries of Empire, they secured colonies and toeholds in all continents, intervened in European wars – and left thousands of graves worldwide.
More recently, Scots lives have been lost defending residual colonial outposts and in overseas interventions designed primarily to revive great power pretensions (usually piggy-backed on US strength).
Retrospectively applying the litmus test of whether a vital Scottish national interest was at stake renders participation in almost all past conflicts, from a strictly Scottish perspective, questionable at best.
Standing, as Stuart Smith (Letters, 5 August) commends, “as one nation” with our southern neighbour, has come at enormous expense in Scottish blood over 300 years. Lives haemorrhaged in 1914-18 are most appropriately commemorated by preventing repetition, ensuring that in future young Scots are only placed in harm’s way, if truly unavoidable, by a Scottish Parliament, and only when vital Scottish interests are threatened, or international peace-keeping calls.
In critical matters like war and peace, the present incorporating Union is not fit for purpose: it promotes not the “shared interests” of the entire UK, but the priorities – in Ludovic Kennedy’s memorable phrase – of the elephant in the bed.
(Dr) Kenneth J Cameron
I found your front page (5 August) on the ceremony to commemorate the start of the Great War utterly depressing.
The same class and type of person – albeit four generations on – still stand out in front of the rest, claiming the mantle of leadership, and the same regiment of bishops, priests and church ministers who blessed the lost generation as they marched away are still officiating.
What was required was a clear and outspoken condemnation of the Great War (and the Second World War, and all of the dirty little wars that have followed), not a commemoration, where sacrifice somehow justifies the greed and idiocy that created it.
We are still being led by the same interests and blessed by the same groups that failed the nations in 1914, which means we have learned nothing in the course of 100 years.
It is time, for our grandchildren’s sakes, to divorce the state irrevocably from the influence of those who still find it necessary to worship imaginary beings, and to evolve a system of running our country that is truly representative of the majority who live here and pay for it, not the privileged few.
It was a great relief to read Tom Peterkin’s piece (1 August) about the Rev Norman Drummond.
After weeks of reading about the heroes who lost their lives in the First World War, I had been remembering my paternal grandfather, John Montgomerie, called up in 1916, who refused to take part in a war to kill his fellow humans. He belonged to a section of the Brethren and was an evangelist in Glasgow. He applied for exemption as a religious leader but the Brethren were not accepted as a religion and he was refused exemption.
He was then sent, as a conscientious objector, to Barlinnie prison, Wormwood Scrubs and Dartmoor, then for a short time for hard labour in a brickworks.
This kind, gentle man, whose health was not good, later wrote down his experiences for his son, the Scottish poet and folklorist, William Montgomerie, my father.
My maternal grandfather, Jack Shargool, on the other hand, was wounded in France after saving the life of a First World War fellow soldier by running through gunfire to where his friend lay wounded and carrying him to safety on his back. Two quite different men, both brave.
My grateful thanks to Rev Norman Drummond for his understanding and to The Scotsman for drawing attention to conscientious objection.