Piper plays lament as Northern Ireland remembers Somme heroes
As the sun set on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, a small group of people gathered at the Somme Museum near Newtownards to honour the memory of the men who fought and died in that most bloody of battles.
In heavy rain, Lt Col Kingsley Donaldson, Secretary of the Northern Ireland First World War Centenary Committee, joined caped bugler Ian Crangle and piper Graham Harris as the Union flag was raised outside the museum.
Bugler Crangle sounded out sunset, and piper Harris played The Battle of the Somme as a minute's silence was observed.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Lt Col Donaldson, said: "Our vigil tonight is to commemorate the night before the Battle of the Somme, and to reflect on the service and sacrifice of those solders who fought there.
"We will mark every half hour of the night, as we remember how our soldiers spent the night before battle hunkered down in the trenches, listening to artillery fire, waiting patiently for the big push."
More than 200 people were expected to attend the 7am service this morning.
The first day of the battle saw the worst loss of life in any one day in the history of the British Army.
While the slaughter on the Somme has enormous cultural and historical resonance within unionism, Lt-Col Donaldson was keen to stress that the commemoration reaches out across all of Ireland, the United Kingdom, across Europe, and indeed the world.
"Men from the Commonwealth, from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales - and of course Germany - fought and died in their thousands during the five-month long battle of the Somme," he said.
"During the commemoration we are thinking not just about the 36th (Ulster) Division. We will recall among others the gallant deeds of the 16th Irish Division and the Tyneside Irish Brigade and all the other Irish soldiers .
"We remember not only those men's service to their country 100 years ago, but also what service and sacrifice means to us today. That continuity is what we are marking at this vigil here this evening."
Strangford MP Jim Shannon, who served as a part-time solder for more than 14 years, said the Battle of the Somme was an important part of his history. "Standing here this evening, you can imagine all the preparations the soldiers made as they got ready to go over the top as the whistles blew," he added.
Lorna Barton from Ringdufferin, Co Down, brought her grandchildren to the vigil.
"My father - David Adams of the Royal Irish Rifles - fought on the Somme," she said. "I was the youngest in the family and was just a baby, so I didn't know very much about his war. It's really just in the past year that I have discovered more about my father's role in the war."
Stephen and Joanne Strain, from Downpatrick, had also come to pay their respects. "The Somme means an awful lot to me," Stephen said. "We wouldn't have our freedom today if those men had not gone out to fight for us. Rain hail or snow, I will always come out to honour those men."