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We cast our minds back to the slaughter of the Somme, trying to imagine the unimaginable

Century on from horrors of the Western Front, thousands congregate at the Ulster Memorial Tower to pay their respects and remember dead

By Ivan Little

Published 02/07/2016

The service gets under way
The service gets under way
Charles meets the public
Prince Charles, the Duchess of Cornwall, Arlene Foster and Theresa Villiers arrive for service
The Duchess of Cornwall greets Orangemen at the Ulster Tower yesterday
Charles meets the public

Where exactly 100 years ago there had been slaughter in the pandemonium of Picardy, there was only remembrance yesterday amid the pastoral poppy fields for the thousands of lost lives in the wasteland that had been the Somme.

And rather than blood, some tears were flowing around the Ulster Memorial Tower as around 3,000 people assembled to honour the soldiers who were cut down in the prime of their lives on the first day of the most devastating battle in British military history.

Fittingly, it was the biggest gathering of Ulster people on the Somme since the battle.

The carnage is, of course, beyond living memory, and many of yesterday's guests, including direct descendants of the fallen, were too young to have even met their forefathers who survived the horrors of 1916.

But while no one who was present yesterday could possibly remember the Somme, few of them have ever forgotten it, or the men who fought on the very fields where they were assembled in tribute.

Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall led the memorial service to symbolise the nation's respect and give thanks for the inexperienced soldiers from the (36th) Ulster Division who went over the top from trenches in Thiepval Wood at the signal of officers blowing whistles to start the advance, which was initially partly successful in overwhelming the Germans, but which ended in retreat and massacre.

Earlier in the morning Royal Irish Regiment soldiers took part in a small commemoration at the Connaught cemetery after marching out of Thiepval Wood from where the Somme advance was launched.

Bugler Gregory Lutton and Piper David Hogg provided a poignant soundtrack as three crosses were placed at a memorial stone.

The director of the Somme Association, Carol Walker, said: "It was really nice to have young soldiers of today and tomorrow paying their respects to soldiers of the past."

Across the road at the Ulster Tower the green fields of France looked even greener than usual, with freshly laid lawns around the memorial. And the presence of the royals and other dignitaries helped to create an atmosphere of comparative serenity yesterday that was starkly different to how it all must have been a century ago.

Try as they might, it was impossible for anyone in the former killing fields yesterday, July 1, 2016, not to attempt to visualise the appalling sights from July 1, 1916, when German soldiers who were dug into their defences close to where the Tower now stands mowed down wave after wave of advancing Ulstermen.

What was easier to picture was the sheer scale of the casualties. All it took was a glance around the throng of guests. For their numbers were almost identical to the numbers of soldiers who were butchered.

Just like the men who died in yesteryear, the guests of yesterday came from virtually every hamlet, town and city in Ulster and they arrived to see guns out again throughout the Somme, as French security forces prepared to thwart any attacks from more insidious foes than the obvious enemies of old.

The fear yesterday was that Isis terrorists would launch a headline-grabbing onslaught, just as they had done in November last year when they killed 130 people, just a couple of hours' drive away in Paris.

The concern about a repeat saw four snipers taking up vantage points on top of the Ulster Tower.

They were at the four points of the compass, readying themselves for anything, but hoping for nothing untoward.

Security arrangements for guests who got their tickets by ballot were stringent, but for people from Northern Ireland it was nothing they hadn't experienced before in darker times back home.

Only ticket-holders were able to get into what had been designated a red zone. Guests were brought to the ceremony on shuttle buses from a series of rendezvous points in the area, and at the tower there was a wait of up to four hours for the remembrance service to begin.

Because of the limited hospitality facilities on-site, guests had been provided with lunch bags to keep hunger at bay.

All but a handful of people had been restricted to attending only one of a number of ceremonies which took place around the Somme yesterday.

But at the Ulster Tower big screens had been erected to allow people to watch footage of the main national commemoration at the imposing Thiepval memorial just a short distance away and attended by 10,000 people, who were on the move from 5am.

It was, in a bizarre way, redolent of a fanzone at the Euro 2016 finals, but this was all about an altogether different Army from the Green and White one. The service ran with near military precision. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, accompanied the Prince of Wales and his wife, who were greeted by the Duke of Gloucester, the president of the Ulster-based Somme Association, whose officials were also in the welcoming party.

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, First Minister Arlene Foster and the leaders of the four main Churches in Ireland were introduced to the royal couple. After the colour party marched in, the chairman of the Somme Association, Alan McFarland, set the scene. And the mood changed in an instant as he painted a chilling picture of the grim reality that engulfed the Somme a century ago.

He pointed out where the Ulster soldiers were fighting back then - behind the guests and all around them.

And as he guided them on his tour of the turmoil on the battlefield heads, including royal ones, swivelled as people tried to imagine the unimaginable erupting around where they were sitting or standing.

Several moving letters from the front were read out before the service got under way for real with the singing of the hymn O God Our Help In Ages Past, and the four main Church leaders read lessons or said prayers.

In his address the Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Richard Clarke, said he and his Catholic counterpart Dr Eamon Martin had prayed for peace around the world with young Protestant and Catholic people at the Ulster Tower just a week ago.

He said: "As we recall with thankfulness, and even awe, those young men who, one hundred years ago, chose to join up and come to this place for what they believed was a righteous cause and where so many of them died, we do them no service if we do not relate them to today and to our hopes and prayers and aspirations for the future."

During a minute's silence in the service the noise of birdsong wafted across the gently rolling hills as people reflected on the losses at the Somme.

Then came the ceremonial act of remembrance, the exhortation and the playing of the Last Post and Reveille before wreaths were laid by Prince Charles and Government officials, along with representatives of local councils back home.

In his closing remarks, Viscount Brookeborough thanked visiting French officials for their help through the years.

The Somme Association president, the Duke of Gloucester, said it was significant that the contribution of soldiers from the South of Ireland in the Great War was now being recognised.

And Heather Humphreys, a minister in the Irish Government, told the Belfast Telegraph she was glad that Irishmen who fought were no longer seen as traitors.

After the ceremony the royal party went into the Ulster Tower's memorial room, which had been refurbished after a burst pipe on an upper floor forced its closure in November.

Happily, none of the artefacts from the Great War were seriously damaged.

Mrs Foster hailed the commemoration as an historic day. "It's incredible to be here, to be a part of it," she said.

"It's like Northern Ireland has moved here for the day."

Two SDLP councillors were at the Somme yesterday - Tim Attwood from Belfast and John Boyle from Derry.

Mr Boyle's grandfather Jack Rutherford fought at the Somme on July 1, 1916, and a tape recording of his recollections of the battle was recently found in a drawer in the family home.

"I am the first member of the family to come here and it is very emotional," said Mr Boyle after the service.

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