A day of remembrance dedicated to the millions who lost their lives in the largest conflict the world had yet known, and including services across the UK and in Belgium, began with a service to mark the contribution of the soldiers of the British Empire, now the commonwealth nations.
The joy of the past 11 days of the 20th Commonwealth Games in Glasgow was set aside and the bright track suits replaced by sombre suits and dark ties as representatives of all 71 Commonwealth nations filed under the dark stone arch of Glasgow Cathedral to mark the day when the world went to war. In George Square the flags of the games had been replaced by four giant Union Jacks, one on each corner of the square.
Earlier the Prime Minister David Cameron had said: “A hundred years ago today Britain entered the First World War and we are marking that centenary to honour those who served, to remember those who died, and to ensure that the lessons learnt live with us forever. It is right to remember the extraordinary sacrifice of a generation and we are all indebted to them because their most enduring legacy is our liberty.”
The national service of commemoration in Glasgow Cathedral was attended by the Prime Minster and Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales as well as 1,400 guests including military officials and senior politicians. Later today a remembrance service will take place in Liege in Belgium, where the invasion by Germany triggered Britain’s involvement in the Great War. The service, which will focus on reconciliation will be attended by world leaders and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. While this evening a candle lit service at Westminster Abbey will reflect on the last hours of peace before Britain declared war on Germany at exactly 11 pm on 4 August 1914.
Leading the service was Reverend Dr Laurence Whitley, Minister of Glasgow Cathedral who said: “We meet because on a summer’s day like this one, one hundred years ago, the world changed. Our nations and peoples found themselves in a war the like of which had never before been experienced, and the memory of which still haunts us all. Today and in times to come we will hear much of inexpressible sadness, but also of selfless courage, of striving to do the right thing, of defending freedom and the rule of law.”
Later he explained: “Our service today carries no single, simple message, no defining summary of what today means, for there is none. We can only bow in acknowledgement of extraordinary courage and commitment and a cost beyond understanding which touched countless families.”
Sir Trevor McDonald then introduced a series of readings that reflected on the enormity of the conflict which claimed the lives of almost 900,000 British soldiers and an estimated 100,000 Scots, including passages from the poetry of the Canadian poet Isabel Ecclestone Mackay and an extract from the diaries of Arthur Honeyball: “22 October 1914:...My platoon retired to a barn...and we place the wounded behind a hay-stack...Captain Rose said that he would see where we could retire to next time, and as he looked round he was shot in the back. I, and another young chap was near, went over...I asked him where he got it, he said in the back, as soon as he said that, he got another that killed him. I had got hold of him by the feet, and the other chap had got hold of his shoulders...And then I got mine through the thigh, I must have fainted after that, because when I came to my senses I was in a ditch and no one seemed near me.”
McDonald then informed the congregation that five days later the family of Captain Rose, who was 34-years-old, was informed by telegram of his death: “Lord Kitchener expresses his sympathy.”
The entrance of Great Britain and her empire into the war turned a European war into a global conflict and the contribution of the Commonwealth countries was noted. Sir Trevor explained: “During the years to come we shall rightly hear more of the courage and suffering of our forces in the conflict, but especially as this city has known the privilege of welcoming our Commonwealth brothers and sisters to the Games just past, it is right that we pause now to remember their contribution.”
India, prior to partition, contributed 1 million soldiers of whom 54,000 were killed, while 60,000 troops fought from the African continent including Nigeria, The Gambia, Rhodesia now Zimbabwe, South Africa and Uganda for allied forces. Over 7,000 were killed while 166 received decorations for bravery. While in the Southern Hemisphere Australia contributed 416,000 men, 38 per cent of all men under the age of 44, of whom 166,000 were wounded and 59,000 killed and New Zealand sent 100,000 men including Pacific Islanders and Maoris.
The Indian High Commissioner Ranjan Mathai then read from a letter from a soldier called Punjabi Rajpuyt: “Do not think this is war. This is not war. It is the ending of the world.”
Among the other readers were Kate Adie, the BBC war correspondent who reflected on the role of the women in Britain who embraced work in munition factories: “It was a call to arms to play a role thought previously to be utterly beyond a woman. They were to gain more independence, more freedom. They were also to lose so very many they loved.” David Cameron then read a passage from St Mark’s Gospel.
One of the final readers was Kirsten Fell, a 16-year-old pupil from Dunbar Grammar School who last May had visited the battlefields of Flanders during a school trip. She explained that the cemetery at Poelkapelle was dominated by white gravestones on which were carved the words: “known unto God”. She said: “My soldier lay in Poelkapelle Cemetery. He still does and will always lie in Poelkapelle. But if I remember - and my poppy stays with him and is loyal, then I have done well and done my duties to those who loved him but have never been able to visit. I did it for them and didn’t pay my respects but theirs too.”
Tonight between 10 pm and 11 pm , the Royal British Legion’s “Lights Out” event will see households, businesses and public buildings across Britain turn out their lights to leave a single candle or light burning.
The event was inspired by the words of wartime Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, who said on the eve of WW1: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”