As the centenary of the Great War approaches, Ivan Little meets the custodians of the Ulster Tower in France who work tirelessly in remembrance of the local men who fell in battle.
Belfast pensioners Teddy and Phoebe Colligan are living the dream in a land of nightmares, helping the world to remember the sacrifices of the thousands of Ulster soldiers who fought and died in the Great War, which started a hundred years ago on Monday.
In a small corner of France that will forever be Northern Ireland after it was gifted to the province by the Paris government, the indefatigable couple, who are well into their seventies, live and breathe the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in history.
The charismatic Colligans are the live-in custodians of the Ulster Tower, a memorial to the 2,000-plus Ulstermen who perished just yards away during the first day of the fearsome yet ultimately futile battle near the village of Thiepval in 1916.
But the Colligans’ role isn’t celebration. It’s commemoration.
They’re very much the keepers of the Ulster soldiers’ faith as well as of the building because they believe passionately that the losses, coupled with the valour of the 36th Ulster Division, can’t be told and re-told too often.
At an age when their peers might be content to walk the dog or tend the garden, the Colligans play host to scores of visitors every day to the Tower that is every bit as well preserved as they are.
Sprightly Teddy gives two daily guided tours of the Tower and the re
constructed trenches across the road deep in Thiepval Wood from where the Ulster advances were launched, while Phoebe runs the café, making endless pots of tea and mountainous plates of sandwiches.
Phoebe and Teddy are both walking encyclopaedias about the Great War but particularly about the Somme, which was fought all around the Tower that was built shortly after the 1918 Armistice on what had been the German front line.
Among all the scores of monuments in and around the Somme, the Ulster Tower is unique in that it doesn’t have to raise the French flag alongside the Union flag, which flies 365 days a year.
The Colligans have been in a front line of their own in recent days as the world’s media have descended on the Tower for interviews to mark the centenary of the First World War, even though the battle of the Somme didn’t erupt until two years later.
Teddy normally does the talking but former Belfast-based journalist Fergal Keane from the BBC persuaded Phoebe to do her first ever TV interview. And she had a poignant story to tell him because her own grandfather, Charles Grundy from the Shankill Road in Belfast, was a casualty of the Great War.
The father of five survived the Somme but died on October 27, 1918, just before the end of the war, as a result of a mustard gas attack. He’s buried at the massive Etaples military
cemetery on the French coast and Phoebe often travels there to pay her respects to the grandfather she never knew.
Quite astonishingly, Phoebe and Teddy, a former fireman, hockey player and champion motorbike racer from the golden era of Giacomo Agostini and Mike Hailwood, only came to man the Tower for a fortnight in 2001 and have ended up staying for 13 years, with only the shortest of interludes.
They arrived with nothing more than a tent and a couple of sleeping bags but as their flying visit settled into something much more permanent, they turned the upper floors of the Tower into a cosy home from home in a breathtakingly beautiful part of Picardy
The Tower is a replica of Helen’s Tower at Clandeboye in Bangor, where men of the 36th Ulster Division trained for a war that was more horrific than anything they could have been prepared to expect.
Bessbrook-born Teddy doesn’t try to sugar-coat the slaughter of the Somme during his tours of Thiepval Wood, which was bought and excavated in 2005 by the Somme Association.
But he also highlights the bravery and the partial successes of the Ulster soldiers in taking a German fortification called the Schwaben Redoubt. Alas, they failed to press home their advantage due to a lack of reinforcements in an ill-thought-out and disastrous military strategy from their commanders.
The Colligans’ pride in doing their bit to spread the gospel about their fellow countrymen’s contribution at the Somme sears through every conversation about the battle, though some people might bristle at living in an area where battlefields and cemeteries are their neighbours.
Phoebe says: “I used to be afraid to go into a graveyard, but not here. I like visiting the small cemeteries around the Somme to look at the headstones and recall what so many young men did for our freedom.
“Many soldiers have no surviving relatives to visit them so I will place a little cross on their graves.”
Phoebe, who worked as a supervisor at the old Fisher body factory in Dundonald, speaks only a little French but she can understand the language better than she can talk it.
She and Teddy met through a shared love of cycling and they have been married for 56 years.
The French lifestyle suits them. “We love it here,” says Phoebe. “The French people have made us feel very welcome from day one. We have lots of amazing French friends and though we miss our family, we do have a few months back home in the winter and it’s great to welcome them over here, too.”
Teddy and Phoebe first went to look after the Tower as something of a favour for their daughter Carol Walker, who is the director of the Somme Association, which is based at the organisation’s heritage centre near Bangor.
Which, of course, makes Carol the Colligans’ boss as well as their daughter. But they’re never a family at war because it has turned out that Carol did her folks the good turn in recruiting them to operate the Tower as it’s obvious from even a short time in their company that what they do at the Somme keeps them young.
Last year they thought they were returning to Belfast for good but after problems arose at the Tower, Carol asked her parents to go back to Thiepval. She didn’t have to ask twice.
“We missed the Tower and France,” says Teddy as Phoebe pours me a third cup of tea.
The couple are renowned around the Somme for their commitment to the Tower and also for the warmth of the welcome that brings visitors back time and time again.
One of the greatest authorities on the Somme, Major Tonie Holt, who along with his wife Valmai has written a series of books about battlefields around the world, told me: “Teddy and Phoebe are an absolutely wonderful couple who always look after people here. And this is no easy job, especially during those winter months when the Tower is open. I honestly don’t know how they do it.”
People come from all over the world and the Tower includes a memorial room with scores of plaques and wreathes. There’s also a museum comprising shells, uniforms, bottles, medical equipment and other artefacts of war discovered by Teddy Colligan during digs in Thiepval Wood.
One of Teddy’s favourite finds is a soap container. He explains: “It says Finlay’s of Belfast on it. When the Ulster Division marched down Chichester Street in Belfast and turned left into Victoria Street to get the boat to war they went past Finlay’s factory and the workers there were handing out shaving kits and soap.”
In Teddy’s museum there are many German relics as well as British ones.
“We get a lot of Germans coming here, too,” says Teddy. “They will include people who lost relatives on the Schwaben on the First of July, too.”
The Tower also has a small cinema where there’s usually just one film on show — a black-and-white DVD of the carnage on the Tower’s doorstep.
In the Tower’s back garden, the German front line is easily spotted. “Nothing grows along that line” said Teddy. “And the firing points are clear. They are where the German soldiers would have been standing with their rifles or machine guns just off the fire-step where their colleagues could have walked behind them.”
Behind the Tower’s garden is a second German line where the enemy’s underground living accommodation is still intact. It was dug in solid chalk but the land isn’t accessible to visitors because it is owned by a local farmer.
Back in the grounds beside the Tower, tucked away in its own garden, is a separate memorial to the Orangemen who died at the Somme. A number of Orange lodges from across Britain make pilgrimages to the memorial throughout the year.
And more and more of the Tower’s visitors are from schools in England, Scotland and Wales where there is financial assistance for the trips. Similar incentives aren’t so readily available for Northern Irish schools, though children from home do come in their droves.
Last week, 39 fifth-year pupils from Annan Academy in the Scottish borders got the Teddy Colligan tour treatment and two pupils dressed themselves in uniforms of a soldier and a nurse from the time of the First World War.
“It’s a great experience for the children to come here,” says teacher Lynne Russell. “I went to the school myself and was on a visit to the Somme in 1989. The visits fit in well with our curriculum. Many of the pupils research their own family histories and even if they didn’t lose anyone in the war, if they see names like their own on headstones it brings it all home.”
The odd famous face appears in the Tower and one that Phoebe remembers fondly was legendary TV motor racing commentator Murray Walker, who brought senior Ferrari executives to the battlefields.
“Murray said they could only stay for 10 minutes,” says Phoebe. “They were here for three hours.”
Former Linfield manager David Jeffrey, who has a passionate interest in the Great War, is a regular visitor to the Ulster Tower with a Somme organisation.
George Best’s brother-in-law Norman McNarry brings dozens of Northern Irish people to the Somme and other battlefields like Ypres with his organisation Fields of Conflict.
And every July 1, on the anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, a solemn religious service is held at the Ulster Tower. A few weeks ago Secretary of State Theresa Villiers took part and wreathes were laid by a number of council representatives and individuals from Northern Ireland.
On Monday the centenary of the outbreak of the war will not be marked by any major ceremonies at the Ulster Tower because the Battle of the Somme didn’t commence until 1916. But the anniversary will not go unnoticed.
As for Teddy and Phoebe Colligan, they aren’t sure how long their latest stint at the Tower will last.
Teddy adds: “We are staying on here on a month-to-month basis, but neither of us is in any hurry to go home.”