Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Badge of honour: rusting Royal Irish Rifles cap pin found next to body dug up on Somme poignant symbol of Ulster's sacrifice

The Royal Irish Rifles cap pin
Lasting tribute: Ulster Tower at Thiepval Wood
Lasting tribute: Ulster Tower at Thiepval Wood

It's an old and battered badge – but serves as a poignant reminder of the sacrifice of thousands in the Battle of the Somme.

This Royal Irish Rifles pin was discovered alongside human remains under mud and soil in the once bloody fields of France where soldiers from Ulster fought and died.

The simple military symbol was found with the remains a week ago, raising the possibility they belong to a Royal Irish Rifles soldier killed during World War One.

The cap pin along with other military equipment were stumbled upon by a roadworks team close to the Ulster Tower at Thiepval Wood.

The tower was built as a lasting tribute to the sacrifice of the men from Ulster who gave their lives during the Great War.

It stands on what was Germany's front line during the Battle of the Somme, which lasted from July to November 1916.

On July 1,1916, 36th Ulster Division made up of several regiments, made its historic charge opposite Thiepval Wood.

The division was tasked with taking a German fortification called the Schwaben Redoubt.

They joined Australian, English, Scots, South African, Welsh, and other Imperial forces in the attack and also fought alongside French and French-African troops.

The 36th was devastated in the assault, suffering more than 5,000 casualties – 2,069 of whom were killed in 48 hours.

The remains found last Thursday led experts to believe the serviceman had been blasted by a mortar shell.

During the excavations, the bucket of a digger struck what is believed to have been a German gas shell.

The area had to be evacuated after the digger ruptured the shell and caused a gas cloud explosion.

The area was preserved and the remains covered while Bob Thompson from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) in Thiepval was called.

"All necessary steps were put in place to recover the remains, which were treated with the utmost respect ," a spokesman said.

The Somme Association is assisting the CWGC in identifying the remains.

The Somme left Ulster, Ireland and leaders in Britain with an enduring legacy, with the battle becoming for unionists a symbol of commitment to Britain.

Work is ongoing in the Thiepval area of the Somme in preparation for events surrounding the centenary of the Great War.

BACKGROUND

The Ulster Tower is a memorial to the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division who fought in World War One.

The memorial was officially opened on November 19, 1921 and is a very close copy of Helen's Tower, which stands in the grounds of the Clandeboye Estate near Bangor. Many of the men of the Ulster Division trained in the estate before moving to England and then France early in 1916.

The tower is staffed by members of the Somme Association, which is based in Belfast.

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