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Northern Ireland fans pause to remember Battle of the Somme fallen

Northern Ireland football fans have made an emotional pilgrimage to a First World War battle site where thousands of their countrymen died a century ago.

The Ulster Tower near the Somme was built on land gifted by the grateful French for the ill-fated attack British troops from places like East Belfast made against overwhelming German defensive lines.

Supporters held a brief ceremony at the stone memorial complete with piper and prayers. They also played a football match against a local town.

Jim Spratt, committee member at the Amalgamation of Northern Irish Supporters' Clubs said: "We are here supporting Northern Ireland and we are doing them proud.

"These men did the world proud and we need to all remember that."

The centenary of the start of the July 1 Somme battle will be marked in a fortnight and dozens of supporters in Paris for Tuesday's crunch game against Germany made the trip north.

The 36th Ulster Division's initial attack near the Somme village of Thiepval was a success but the force could not hold territory gained.

At least 2,200 were confirmed dead during days of carnage involving faulty bombs and with failed communications, guides said.

Their shells landed on their own men and even the prevailing wind blew the gas back towards them.

Messengers carrying orders from headquarters to the front lines to retreat were killed and the troops never received them.

Stephen Kennedy, a minister in Lurgan in Co Armagh, said prayers.

He said: "There was a huge amount of blood and much of it was Ulster blood.

"Soldiers decided that they would lay down their lives for our freedom.

"They literally numbered their days to secure our future."

After days of partying the fans relaxed over tea and biscuits at the small interpretive centre, which contains wine bottles and rusted spoons recovered from the front.

They toured Thiepval Wood, from which Irish troops launched at times abortive attacks.

The bombs wobbled and never reached their targets, the Germans on the horizon, and often landed among their own men, according to guides.

A total of 2.5 million grenades were moved through Thiepval Wood, many using mules.

Among the relics recovered from archaeological digs were razors, combs and shaving brushes in perfect condition - a remnant of civilisation for men who spent days in the mud and squalor of the trenches.

Iodine used to treat infection, tins of corned beef and belt buckles were among the other traces of the soldiers retained.

Many of the dead and wounded were left in a bunker deep underground, according to records.

Trenches have been preserved in the condition they were in, complete with bags which would have been filled with the chalky soil to provide protection.

Darren Morton, 33, from Lisburn near Belfast, has been following Northern Ireland throughout the tournament.

He said the soldiers did not realise they fought and died for tiny advances in the front line and added the history of the Somme should be taught as part of the curriculum.

"Kids today are not being educated about it.

"It is more garbage they are being educated on."

He claimed: "You ask a 15-year-old about the Somme and they would not be able to tell you.

"But you ask them about a reality TV show and they will be able to tell you everything. It just shows you the way society has changed."

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