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Centenary remembrance of the 1917 Battle of Arras
Centenary remembrance of the 1917 Battle of Arras

'Earthed and Realistic'

Tuesday November 6 2018

Thomas Baldwin speaks to the chair of WW100 and the Scottish Commemorations Panel about the World War One centenary commemorations.

As luck, providence or simple mathematics would have it, November 11 2018 falls on a Sunday.

Uniforms will be donned, wreaths laid, silences observed and the National Anthem sung at churches and memorials in every town and village in the land, as has happened since it became customary to mark Remembrance Sunday (rather than Armistice Day itself) after the Second World War.

But this year the ceremonies will then move on to something different, as the emphasis shifts to specifically marking the centenary of the end of the 1914-18 conflict.

The national focus will be on Glasgow Cathedral, from where a commemoration service will be broadcast across the country. But the plan is that there will be events locally as well.

The Rev Professor Norman Drummond, chair of the Scottish Commemorations Panel which has advised the government on the centenary commemorations of the past four years, says: “We felt that on Remembrance Sunday, people across the UK would want to be amongst ‘their ain folk’, meaning that Remembrance Sunday should remain Remembrance Sunday rather than making it just about the centenary of World War One.

“But at 12 noon, it’s intended that the mood will shift. Across various areas there will be walks of gratitude and hope, so that people can come together, probably after a service or something within the community, and walk to their War Memorial. This is a way for communities to say ‘thank you’ but also to look to the future.”

The Glasgow service will be attended by HRH the Princess Royal. The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Rt Rev Susan Brown, will give the closing prayer and blessing, and the whole event is to be broadcast live by the BBC.

Norman, who is a former chaplain to the Parachute Regiment and the Black Watch and a Chaplain to the Queen in Scotland, says that the service will be on four themes, reflecting the mixed emotions that greeted the armistice.

“There was sadness and relief in the first instance,” he says, “Then a dawn of joy and victory, and then a realisation that life could never be the same again, and of the need to summon courage and hope for the future.

“It will be a multi-generational service led predominantly by young people… and will bring a real sense of participation in seeking to highlight and address those four themes.

“We have been very keen to make sure our commemorations are earthed and realistic. It was a day of victory, but there was so much yet to be done and so much sadness.”

For Norman and the rest of the Commemorations Panel, the service is the culmination of five years’ work and brings them back to where they started. The Cathedral was the setting for the event marking the centenary of the opening of the war, held on August 4 2014.

“It was the morning after the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, and we had an international Commonwealth attendance,” Norman recalls.

“Then on Sunday August 10 we had a triservice drumhead service on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. Attended in the teeth of Hurricane Bertha by 6000 people, and around 15-20,000 people down the Royal Mile.

“The Cockenzie and Port Seton Pipes and Drums were invited to stand down because of the weather, and the young Drum Major said ‘No sir, we are not doing that, because this is nothing compared to the conditions those we remember went through.’”

From there, a series of commemorations have been held throughout Scotland marking the centenaries of major WW1 events that have impacted on the country: Gallipoli; the Battle of Loos, the Battle of Jutland and the 1917 Battle of Arras.

There have also been events marking the Quintinshill rail disaster, and last year remembering the work of Dr Elsie Inglis and the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.

Earlier this year saw commemorations on the island of Islay of the sinkings of SS Tuscania on February 5 1918 and HMS Otranto on October 6 1918.

Looking forward, the final major event will mark the sinking of the Iolaire off the Isle of Lewis on New Year’s Day 1919; and then attention will turn to the legacy left by the commemorations.

“When we began work in 2013 I wanted it to have three main emphases: education, genealogy and legacy,” says Norman. “We’ve done our best since forming up as a panel to deliver on that.

“Our strapline was ‘What do We learn from all th1s?’ And all of our events have had historic documents which will be archived in due course and will feature in a World War One Scotland exhibit in 2019.”

Looking back over the five years, he pays tribute to what he says have been ‘many amazing people doing amazing things’ around the country.

“When we began our work there were a large number of organisations and people already preparing locally, and that pleased us greatly and encouraged us to make sure the national commemorations were delivered in an appropriate and significantly memorable way.”

A longer version of this feature appears in November's Life and Work

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