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The Somme remembered: Sun sets on an unforgettable weekend as Royal Irish take the lead in poignant finale

By Ivan Little

Published 04/07/2016

The Royal Irish Regiment performing during the beating of the retreat at the Ulster Tower
The Royal Irish Regiment performing during the beating of the retreat at the Ulster Tower
Members of the regiment with Carol Walker, director of the Somme Association, with her father Teddy Colligan, mother Phoebe and other family members
Wreath laying: Cllr Jonathan Buckley

Soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment have provided a moving finale to the weekend of centenary commemorations in France to honour the thousands of their predecessors who fought and died at the Battle of the Somme.

Just as the start of the offensive 100 years ago was marked with a religious service - as was the enforced withdrawal of the 36th Ulster Division from the battlefield 24 hours later - so too was the remembrance at the Ulster Memorial Tower on Friday.

Several hundred people attended the beating the retreat in front of the war memorial.

The Royal Irish Regiment band took the lead in what was an emotionally charged evening on the very spot where the carnage of the Somme was so mercilessly played out.

The 40 musicians received a standing ovation as their performance culminated with a stirring rendition of a tune called The Path to Peace on the very site that, on July 1, 1916, that witnessed such calamitous war.

While rain had seen 3,000 people use cardboard boxes and chairs to keep themselves dry earlier on Friday, beating the retreat was enacted in unbroken sunshine.

And the picture postcard perfection of the stunning countryside around Thiepval was only enhanced by the sunlight dancing on what seemed like 40 shades of green in the fields and woods all around.

Also in stark contrast to the main ceremony on Friday was the fact there were no visible signs of security - instead there was a relaxed air surrounding the proceedings.

While there were no members of the Royal family in attendance at this event, there were dignitaries present, mainly French civic officials who were invited so that Somme Association representatives could say thank you for their help, past and present.

What they made of the contribution to the ceremony of a couple of Lambeg drums was unclear.

David McWhirter and Bob Paden from the Conlig drumming club played instruments adorned with paintings of the Ulster Tower and Helen's Tower near Bangor, on which the Somme memorial tower is modelled.

Mr Paden was sceptical of claims that Lambeg drums were played at the battle of the Somme.

"I think that's an urban myth. How would they have got them here? Even today the reality is that Lambeg drummers don't travel in Minis," he laughed.

The Royal Irish band didn't just play music; it also put on a spectacular marching display made all the more difficult by the narrowness of the path leading up to the tower.

But there were no mishaps and the band's repertoire included reminders of home, such as The Green Glens of Antrim and The Star of the County Down.

There was also an impromptu sing-along as the musicians struck up the wartime anthem, It's a Long Way to Tipperary. They also played the regimental march of a military unit from the past, the Royal Irish Rifles.

A number of Ulster politicians who represented local councils at Friday's ceremony stayed on for the beating the retreat.

One of them, councillor Jonathan Buckley from Armagh Banbridge and Craigavon Council, was on a personal mission as well.

He laid a wreath on the grave of his great, great grandfather Private Robert Warden at the Ancre cemetery.

"It meant a lot for me to be here. It has been a poignant weekend," he said.

Somme Association chairman Alan McFarland said he believed the commemorations at Thiepval had been a major success.

"I think we have done our ancestors proud with a fitting recognition of the sacrifices they made," he said.

The association's director Carol Walker had tears in her eyes as she reflected on the weekend.

"It has been absolutely brilliant, amazing. The beating the retreat was a magnificent way to bring the curtain down," said Mrs Walker, whose great grandfather Private Charles Grundy died a few days before the end of World War One.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said he hoped the legacy of the Somme would be remembered long after the centenary of the Great War.

"I would like every schoolchild in the British Isles to at least have the opportunity to come here and see the battlefields and the trenches, and learn about the sacrifices of soldiers from every part of our islands including the south of Ireland," he said.

"We are searching for a shared future but we mustn't forget our shared past and the shared sacrifice on an unimaginable scale."

Upwards of 5,000 people from Northern Ireland visited cemeteries and memorials linked to the Somme in recent days.

At one point at the massive Lochnagar crater left by a huge British mine on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, no fewer than five bus-loads of visitors from the province were touring the site.

A number of ex-loyalist paramilitary figures have been among the visitors.

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