Scotland, the UK and Europe paused yesterday to mark the moment a hundred years ago when one of the costliest conflicts in history began.
Services in Glasgow , London and in Belgium drew British royalty, heads of state and dignitaries from around the continent to pay tribute to the 17 million fallen of the First World War. Attention focused on Glasgow Cathedral, where Prime Minister David Cameron attended a service of remembrance alongside a number of Commonwealth dignitaries, in the city for the Glasgow 2014 Games, whose countries fought alongside the UK.
Sixteen-year-old Kirsten Fell, a pupil at Dunbar Grammar, delivered one of the most poignant tributes by recalling the moment during a school trip to Flanders when she laid a poppy on the unmarked grave of “her soldier”.
The Prince of Wales, Prime Minister David Cameron and Scotland First Minister Alex Salmond all attended the service in Glasgow, which was followed by a wreath-laying ceremony at the city’s cenotaph.
The day of contemplation ended with a candle-lit vigil at Westminster Abbey and a “lights out” event culminating at 11pm, 100 years to the hour since Britain declared war.
People were asked to turn off all their lights except for a single candle in a tribute 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 lifetime.”
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry and David Cameron attended a twilight ceremony at St Symphorien Military Cemetery near Mons, Belgium,
Earlier in the day, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were also at a ceremony attended by heads of state representing both sides of the conflict at the Allies’ War Memorial of Cointe in Liège.
Speaking in Glasgow, Mr Salmond said: “No home, no school, no community in Scotland was left untouched by the devastating impact of the Great War, which remains one of the most brutal conflicts the world has ever seen.
“Between 1914 and 1918, the First World War claimed the lives of around 145,000 Scots, leaving many more thousands injured or disabled and forcing friends and loved ones across the country to come to terms with the terrible consequences.
“As the curtain falls on 2014 Commonwealth Games, we acknowledge the countries of the Commonwealth we fought alongside during the Great War and it is fitting that this service in Glasgow Cathedral should focus on the contribution of these nations.”
He added: “Our journey of commemoration starts today in Glasgow with the Commonwealth-themed service at Glasgow Cathedral and cenotaph as part of the UK Commemorations Programme, and it will continue on August 10 when we start the Scottish Commemorations Programme with a drumhead service, procession and memorial in Edinburgh.”
‘No man was the same but they all died and lie side by side’
Kirsten Fell’s poignant tribute speech at the service reflecting on a school trip to the Flanders battlefields:
“The experience began when we marched on to the bus. From then on we were following the footsteps of the soldiers of World War 1. No technology, no contact with families or the outside world. Just us. And the battlefields.
“The graves lay silent – there was peace. Every man with his own story – no man was the same but they all died and lie side by side – together.
“‘Known unto God’ – a phrase seen, heard and read too many times – A soldier known unto God – No name – No visitors – Just one of thousands and thousands who lie in the vast cemeteries of the first world war.
Poelkapelle [cemetery] is just one, but 81 per cent of the thousands of soldiers who live there are ‘known unto God’. 81 per cent are unknown. 81 per centare unidentified. 81 per cent will never be visited by their loved ones as their families will never know where they lie or what happened to them.
“We were each placed before a headstone – a headstone of an unknown soldier. We were told to imagine what this soldier had been like and give him a name, an appearance and a personality. Once we had done that we were told to take a few minutes to remember. There is one thing that is associated with remembrance, one flower, the poppy.
“As I laid my poppy on the headstone of my soldier and gazed out over the never-ending ripples of white stones, I suddenly felt so small. So tiny. From then on my outlook on life has never been the same.
“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 only pay my respects but theirs too.
“They told us we would change. They were right. We will never be the same again. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to forget. But the truth is you don’t. You never forget something that has meant so much to you and after experiencing something as powerful. It will never go. It will always be with me and nothing will be forgotten. I will remember my soldier. Forever.”