Somme carnage touched every village in Ulster
In the third of a series of special interviews in the days leading up to the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, Orange Order chaplain the Rev Mervyn Gibson tells Ivan Little how both his grandfathers fought in the engagement — and lived to tell the tale — and why the anniversary is hardwired into unionists’ DNA
The clergyman who's conducting a remembrance service at a Somme centenary vigil on the edge of the Clandeboye estate in Bangor on the 100th anniversary of the devastating battle tomorrow has a double reason for wanting to participate in the emotional event.
For the Rev Mervyn Gibson's grandfathers both saw action at the Somme. And, happily, they both lived to tell the tale.
One of them was John Gibson, a Donegal man who volunteered with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the other was Richard Johnston, an east Belfast man who served with the Royal Irish Rifles.
Mr Gibson got to know both of his grandfathers, but not the stories of their wartime exploits.
"I was too young to ask them about what happened at the Somme," said Mr Gibson, who is the minister of Westbourne Presbyterian Church in east Belfast, which is known as "the shipyard church" because of its proximity to Harland & Wolff and because so many of its congregation worked there.
But Mr Gibson is also the chaplain of the Orange Order, which has been at the forefront of commemorations of the Somme down the years and which holds annual parades to remember the fallen.
Mr Gibson said it was impossible to overstate the importance of the Somme to unionism.
"July 1 is one of the most defining dates in the unionist psyche," he said. "It's in the DNA of the unionist community. And that goes for me, too - especially with my own family connections. The fact that the Somme is within the living memory of my family makes it all the more important to me.
"Obviously, many more people died at the Somme than just men from this part of the world. But I think in some ways it was the day that the foundations of Ulster were laid. Vimy Ridge was the battle that Canadians remember for the sacrifices of their Expeditionary Forces, Anzac Day is the time that Australians and New Zealanders commemorate their dead, especially from Gallipoli, but Ulstermen have July 1 as the day to honour all their fallen from the Great War.
"It's a date that resonates right around the province, because there wasn't a hamlet, a village, a town, or a city that didn't have someone who was killed, or whose people knew someone who died at the Somme."
Mr Gibson said both of his grandfathers were Orangemen and at least one of them was a member of the old Ulster Volunteer Force.
"One of them was also a member of the 36th (Ulster) Division Memorial Lodge 977 and he used to take me as a child of seven, or eight, to their dinners after their meetings, so I've always been aware of the 36th (Ulster) Division tradition in the family," he said.
Mr Gibson said the Orange Order played a major role at the Somme and their contributions would be remembered in a major exhibition which will run at the Orange Heritage Museum on Belfast's Cregagh Road until December. Photographs from the time show a number of Army battalions wearing full Orange regalia and one lodge even held their meetings in a convent in the run-up to the Somme. A number of lodges were actually formed at the time, but Mr Gibson said they weren't the exclusive preserve of Ulstermen, who trained in Seaford in Sussex before being shipped out to France. He said Englishmen also set up lodges and a number of them still visit Belfast to take part in Twelfth celebrations.
Mr Gibson said: "The Orange Order was massive in England at the time. There wasn't a ship at the Battle of Jutland that didn't have a lodge, or at least a number of Orangemen, on board."
According to one Orange publication, it was estimated that 200,000 members of the Order saw active service during the Great War - including almost 80,000 from Canada alone.
A number of accounts of the start of the battle also record how soldiers held Orange meetings in France and several of them donned their sashes before going over the top.
An Orange Order memorial was dedicated at the back of the Ulster Tower at the Somme in 1993 and officials from the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland will be travelling to France for the official centenary commemorations at the Tower tomorrow.
The Tower is, of course, a close copy of Helen's Tower, which stands in the grounds of the Clandeboye estate in Bangor, where many of the Ulster Division trained before moving to England and then on to France.
And it is in the shadow of Helen's Tower that Mr Gibson will conduct a remembrance service at the Somme Museum to mark the centenary of the exact moment that the battle started.
Tomorrow's service will be the culmination of an all-night vigil, one of a series across the UK.
Organisers said that Clandeboye was the perfect choice for the Northern Ireland vigil and that the service had been timed to let participants think about their ancestors in the few minutes before they went over the top at the Somme and suffered such catastrophic losses.