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Somme Centenary: Thousands gather at Ulster Tower in solemn salute to the fallen

First Minister Arlene Foster and royals among dignitaries paying respects at centenary memorial for one of most defining days in British history

By Ivan Little

Today the battlefields of the Somme will host a poignant remembrance service for the thousands of Ulster soldiers who died on the first day of one of the bloodiest battles in history.

Members of the Royal Family including Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall will be present at the Ulster Tower where almost 3,000 people from Northern Ireland will be in attendance for the Somme centenary commemorations


All around the Somme yesterday there was a procession of coaches to the dozens of cemeteries and monuments in the Thiepval area.

But parts of what had been no man's land a hundred years ago were a no-go area yesterday as a massive security operation was cranked up.

And nowhere was the security more evident than around the massive Thiepval Memorial to the missing soldiers of the Somme - all 72,000 of them.

French police kept a watchful eye as last minute preparations went on for today's service which will be attended by 10,000 guests led by Prince Charles and heads of state from a number of European countries.

Big screens were being erected and TV crews were installing their equipment for the live transmission of the service.

As the rain and mist enveloped the memorial, the strains of music from rehearsals wafted through the gloom.

Everywhere there were reminders of the conflict and the British connection - like the Old Blighty tea house which was doing a roaring trade.

At the Ulster Tower, Royal Irish Regiment soldiers took part in a full scale rehearsal for today's ceremony just minutes before the heavens opened.

The four main Irish church leaders who are participating in today's service visited the Tower together yesterday and were greeted by Carol Walker, the director of the Somme association.

Mrs Walker said she was confident today's commemoration would go smoothly.

Her parents Teddy and Phoebe Colligan who are the resident custodians of the Ulster Tower have been working flat out helping with the preparations.

Three of their grandchildren, Lisa Walker and Andrew and Michael Colligan have been on duty in the Tower's cafe.

Mrs Walker said: "The biggest challenge has been the high level of security which the French authorities have had to impose. They have peoples' safety in mind and it has been uppermost in our minds too."

Nervous French security forces, who have thrown up a massive ring of steel around today's commemorations, have even been searching memorial wreaths due to be left.

Nearly 3,000 people from Northern Ireland who have travelled to France for the remembrance service at the Ulster Tower at the Somme are being subjected to rigorous security measures by the French who are at full stretch coping with the European 2016 football championships and the threat from Islamic State terrorists after their slaying of 130 people in Paris late last year.

The murderous attacks on Istanbul's international airport earlier this week have also raised concerns that the insurgents could strike again anywhere and at any time.

Members of the Royal Family including Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall are among the high profile targets who are going to the Somme and they will be present at the Ulster Tower where over 1,000 of the ticket-only guests are members of Northern Ireland's 57 Somme memorial associations who were warned by the French authorities about what they should and shouldn't bring with them including the type of wreaths they choose.

The chairman of the associations, David Hagan from east Belfast, said: "We were told that wreaths with metal parts could be a problem at the security checks and would be rejected so we have tried to find ones with plastic components."

Members of the Somme memorial associations took part in a number of marches and ceremonies yesterday on the eve of the Ulster Tower service which is one of a number of major commemorations around the Somme to the 60,000 dead and wounded on the first day of the battle.

The Somme groups who've been accompanied by five bands split up yesterday for a series of visits to important French and Belgian memorials with Irish links.

Among the stops was the village of Wytschaete where the associations paid their respects at memorial stones on either side of a road to the 36th (Ulster) and the 16th (Irish) Division who fought side by side at the Battle of Messines ridge.

A Church Army officer at Willowfield Parish Church in Belfast, Captain George Newell, said prayers there and there were also ceremonies at the Tynecot cemetery, at a Scottish memorial and later at the Menin Gate memorial where all the organisations congregated for a united service in the afternoon.

The Somme memorial associations are also planning more parades and commemorations tomorrow when the Royal Irish Regiment are also expected to participate in their own ceremony. Mr Hagan said many of the Somme memorial groups had visited the Somme and the other battlefields before but he added that a number of visitors have been seeing their forefathers' graves or their names on memorials to the missing for the first time.

"The whole visit is proving extremely emotional for everyone," said Mr Hagan.

Over 10,000 people will be at the main ceremony later today at the Thiepval memorial which bears the names of over 72,000 soldiers whose bodies were never found.

But before that there will be a smaller ceremony at the massive Lochnagar Crater which was left by a British mine that exploded at 7.28am on July 1, 1916.

The last ceremony of the day will be the one at the Ulster Tower which was built as a memorial to the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division who served in the First World War.

Mr Hagan said the sacrifices at the Somme where it's estimated that a total of a million men were killed were gaining more recognition right across Northern Ireland.

Last month, 23,000 people took part in a march through Belfast and a re-enactment of the first day of the Somme was held at Woodvale Park.

Mr Hagan said that he and his colleagues had worked closely with descendants of soldiers from regiments which had been set up in west Belfast for nationalists to join during the Great War.

"We are all remembering the same people who were lost," he said, adding that more and more of the people who are showing an interest in the Somme had no direct family connections to the battle.

Mr Hagan said he had himself had only become aware of the losses at the Somme after community activists re-awakened an interest in the battle in the build-up to its 75th anniversary.

"I couldn't believe it. I had been taught all about English history and the likes of the War of the Roses in school but there wasn't a word about the First World War."

He said he had only recently learned that two of his great uncles on his mother's side had died during the Great War.

"I'm still researching their stories. But there's no doubt that finding out that my own ancestors had been at the Somme has only increased my interest in the war and the sacrifices."

At the Ulster Tower yesterday, rehearsals were held for today's ceremony which will also be attended by the First Minister Arlene Foster and the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers. Ireland's four main church leaders are taking part in the service along with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby.

East Belfast man Teddy Colligan, who is the resident curator at the Ulster Tower along with his wife Phoebe, said visits to the memorial had been soaring in recent weeks.

He also revealed that a number of journalists from around the world had been compiling reports from the Tower to illustrate the impact of the colossal losses during the battle.

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