Remembering the bloodiest battle in history

Personal stories...behind names  that appear on local war graves is what the project aims to discover, much like that of Kirsty Wark's Great Uncle James.
Personal stories...behind names that appear on local war graves is what the project aims to discover, much like that of Kirsty Wark's Great Uncle James.

More than one million people lost their lives at the Battle of the Somme.

The first day, July 1, 1916, has gone down in the history books as the bloodiest in the British Army’s history.

But as commemorations and vigils are held across the country this week, another project aims to ensure that none of the fallen are ever forgotten.

The public are being invited to visit their local war graves and discover the stories behind the names of those who gave their lives.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has launched a Living Memory Project to remember the forgotten front – 300,000 war graves and memorials in Britain from both world wars.

It aims to encourage community groups to explore and remember their war heritage.

In Scotland alone, there are more than 20,000 war graves and memorials commemorating men and women from the First and Second World Wars.

The CWGC is also looking for 141 UK groups to hold 141 events to mark the 141 days of the Somme offensive.

UK media manager Samantha Daynes said: “CWGC has graves located in more than 1200 locations in Scotland. The majority of men and women buried or commemorated either died in a British hospital of injuries sustained during the First World War or in the influenza pandemic that followed.

“Remembering those buried in CWGC war graves in the UK is a fitting way to mark the Somme centenary.

“Funding and resources are available to help groups identify a war grave close to where they live or to research some of those buried locally.”

Colin Kerr, CWGC director of external relations, said the Commission’s work overseas was already well known.

However, he added: “Here in the UK, there is little awareness of the graves and memorials in 12,000 locations that commemorate more than 300,000 Commonwealth war dead of the two world wars.

“We believe this is wrong and, through the Living Memory Project, aim to reconnect the British public to the commemorative heritage on their doorstep.

“The Living Memory Project will encourage more people to discover and visit our war grave sites and remember their war dead.

“We want them to share their stories.”

With 168 branches across the country, Legion Scotland has appealed for its members support.

Kevin Gray, chief executive officer, said: “Legion Scotland (Royal British Legion Scotland) was founded as a direct result of the First World War to support veterans returning from the conflict, a role we still fulfil today.

“So we fully back the Living Memory Project, which encourages the public to visit local war graves and to find out more about the people who gave their lives.

“Almost everyone will have a connection to the Forces – be it through great grandparents, grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters or friends.

“That connection stretches into every community in Scotland– from our largest cities to our smallest villages.

“With vigils being held across the country to mark the centenary, this project is a fitting tribute.

“We will be promoting this initiative to our 168 branches across Scotland and to those we engage with every day on social media.”

Getting local support is vital in discovering more about those who died.

Samantha added: “We want to find out about the stories behind the names.

“By asking communities to get involved, we hope to build up a better picture of the people these graves commemorate. With more than 300,000 graves, we can’t do that alone – local people are therefore vital.”

Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark is ambassador for CWGC’s Living Memory Project in Scotland and has a very personal connection with the Battle of the Somme.

She said: “My Great Uncle, James Wark, fought for the entire 141 days of the battle.

“However, he died from Spanish Flu just days after the Armistice in 1918.

“He had the most poignant letter in his kit bag, which the family now have, saying how much he looked forward to coming home.

“Sadly, he never made it, but thanks to the CWGC he is buried and remembered at the Ascq Communal Cemetery in France.”

In the Journal and Gazette area, there are more than 300 graves from the First and Second World Wars.