Over the next two days it will be my honour to represent the Scottish Government at the UK National Commemoration marking the Centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele, the name most commonly given to the Third Battle of Ypres during World War One. I will join representatives from the UK Government and the other devolved administrations, as well as 4000 descendants of those who fought in the battle, in paying my respects in acts of commemoration.
This evening I will visit the Menin Gate to witness the Last Post Ceremony – an act of remembrance that has taken place each evening for almost ninety years, interrupted only by the Second World War
On Monday I will attend a ceremony at the Tyne Cot Cemetery – with 12,000 graves, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the world. The majority of those laid to rest there died during the Third Battle of Ypres. It is also home to the Memorial Wall to the Missing, which lists the names of 35,000 fallen troops who have no known grave.
Finally, I will visit the Passchendaele Memorial Park and view the Centenary Exhibition, displaying artefacts from the time. While there, I look forward to meeting some of the descendants in attendance and hearing their families’ stories.
It is difficult for us today to comprehend the enormity of what happened a century ago. World War One touched the lives of millions of Scots at home and abroad – and there is barely a village, town or city in Scotland that did not feel its effects. Of the 700,000 Scots who joined the forces, more than 100,000 lost their lives.
During the Battle of Passchendaele itself, there were an estimated 300,000 Allied casualties, as well as around 260,000 Germans killed and wounded in one hundred days of fighting. To put in context, that is the equivalent of more than the entire population of Edinburgh today missing, maimed or dead.
What must be remembered is this was a conflict not in the main fought by professional soldiers. Conscription meant those who bravely went to war were drawn from all parts of society. They were mechanics, shopkeepers, doctors and teachers – brought together for a common cause – in the line of duty for their country. Not only that but they were also formed in battalions often derived from local communities. This meant neighbours, as well as brothers, cousins, fathers and sons fought and often sadly died alongside one another. This had devastating consequences for their communities, which were often left with so many of their young male population gone.
The Third Battle of Ypres commemorations are just the latest in a series of UK-wide events taking place from 2014 – 2018 and in which Scotland plays an important part. In 2013 we established the Scottish Commemorations Panel to identify events and battles with a particular significance and effect on Scotland. The panel includes key people from education, clergy, military, historians and media, and one of their key objectives is to ensure young people are aware of the significance WWI had and still has.
It is vital we continue to remember those brave men who fought in the war meant to end all wars. It is our duty to continue to tell these stories, ensuring each generation understands the human sacrifice made and the irreversible changes that still inform life today. Only by reflecting on these human tragedies from our past do we give ourselves the best chance of never repeating them in our future.
This article originally appeared in the Sunday Herald.