COMPARING Taunton to Aleppo probably doesn't rank among the more diplomatic political utterances Bridgwater and West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Granger has ever made.

Mr Liddell-Grainger is of course no stranger to controversial outpourings in the House of Commons, but last week's likening of our county town to the Syrian city that witnessed a horrific chemical attack just last November was perhaps more than a little insensitive and ill-timed to say the least.

It came almost 100 years to the day since an organisation was set up in Taunton to cater for our troops blinded by gas attacks on the front line during the First World War.

Fortunately such weapons of war have long since been outlawed and the world looked on in disgust when President Assad's regime was recently accused of gassing his own population.

We have to go back to Saturday, February 8, 1919, just three months after the end of the war, for the inaugural meeting of what was initially called The Somerset County Blind Association.

The mood in the country had been one of euphoria in the immediate aftermath of the end of the 1914-1918 conflict that was supposed to end all wars.

But almost three months on, as the days merged into weeks and months, the shocking loss of millions of lives and the dreadful injuries that would forever blight so many others began to hit home.

Among the hundreds of seriously injured young men in Somerset were soldiers, some of them freshly out of school, who had been blinded during gas attacks on the front line and as a result were ill-prepared to resume their lives back on Civvy Street.

Records of how The Somerset County Blind Association cared for those who had lost their eyesight completely or who had suffered severe damage in the early days are pretty sparse, although 350 people in the county were registered blind in 1919.

But suffice to say that over the years the organisation that has now become known as Somerset Sight has never wavered from its dedication to people who, according to its modern mantra, "lack sight but not vision".

The organisation of the association was initially through the rural deanery and the first president was the Bishop of Taunton, the Rt Rev Charles de Salis, from 1920 until 1941. The family connection continued in 1986 when Count Charles de Salis followed in his footsteps.

Early accounts show the association received a £59 donation following a fundraising football match in 1925, along with £100 from the National Institute for the Blind to pay for the services of a home teacher.

She received a bicycle to make her visits and the following year a second home teacher who was employed by the association was given an Austin 7 costing the princely sum of £167 17s 8d to enable her to travel greater distances and to reach more people.

The next year another two teachers were taken on and provided with an Austin 7. The first teacher's bike was also upgraded to an Austin 7.

Early reports make frequent mention of the British Wireless for the Blind Fund, which still exists and for which Somerset Sight is the agent in this county.

Fortunately, British troops are not being blinded by gas these days, but the stark statistics reveal there are an estimated 19,000 people in Somerset who are visually impaired.

Of those, Somerset Sight helps around 3,500 a year and just last year 450 new service users benefited from the charity's services.

Holly Sutton, the charity's fundraising and development officer, said: "Activities and socials still run regularly across the county.

"Although many changes have been made, we are committed to providing social opportunities to visually impaired people of all ages and have started working with our families with visually impaired children."

Somerset Sight receives no Government handouts and relies on fundraising events, donations, legacies and grants. In 2010 it received cash from the Big Lottery Fund to cover the costs of its mobile resource unit for five years, which was renewed in 2017.

Early accounts show the organisation's income in 1920 was £19 6s - compared to £348,000 in the last financial year.

Among the support Somerset Sight offers to service users to enable them to live as independently as possible are home visits, emotional support, equipment and advice, an audio library and training. It also organises regular activities and social groups.

Somerset Sight is marking tomorrow's centenary at its home in Northcliffe House, Staplegrove Road, with a party involving pupils from nearby North Town Primary School in the morning and supporters, volunteers and service users in the afternoon.

Holly added: "We've been in operation since 1919 and our aim remains the same today as it was then - to work with blind and partially sighted people in Somerset and to provide services so that they may lead fuller, more independent lives."

Bella Flood, chairman of the trustees, said: "In looking back to the end of the First World War, it is difficult to imagine the hardships of our soldiers as they adjusted to civilian life, and especially those who suffered from severe damage to their eyesight in action.

"Our Association for the Blind was there to recognise and help at such a critical time in our history and for each individual affected.

"Over the last century, Somerset Sight has worked as a local and dedicated charity with people who 'lack sight but not vision'.

"But now is the time to reassure our members and friends that we are looking forward to 2019 and beyond and are adapting to the changing needs of our society."