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Somme hero's children make pilgrimage to the battlefield on centenary

By Lisa Smyth

Published 21/06/2016

Frank Thornely depicted in the famous Somme painting in Belfast City Hall
Frank Thornely depicted in the famous Somme painting in Belfast City Hall
Frank Thornely depicted in the famous Somme painting in Belfast City Hall

Relatives of one of the key figures of the first and bloodiest days of the Battle of the Somme are planning a visit to the scene.

Lieutenant Frank Thornely, who served with the Royal Irish Rifles, led the assault on the Schwaben Redoubt on the morning of July 1, 1916.

He was only 19 at the time and was one of only four people from the 21-strong 11th Battalion who survived the day.

He was further immortalised in an historic painting by James Prinsep Beadle which now hangs at Belfast City Hall.

The portrait depicts the 36th (Ulster) Division attacking the German lines on July 1, 1916, and the officer leading the charge - seen waving - is Lt Thornely.

Two of his children, Nick Thornely and Celia Preston, are planning a trip to the Ulster Memorial at Thiepval next week to commemorate the day their father led his men into battle.

The pair, from outside Bristol and Tunbridge Wells respectively, are making the journey with five grandsons and five great grandchildren.

Nick explained: "My brother and I went in 2006 but it is the 100th anniversary this year.

"It is such an important part of history and my father played a very important, personal role in a moment in history."

Nick and Celia visited the trenches at Thiepval with their parents in 1947, and although they were only 10 and nine years old respectively, remember their father describing the events.

Nick continued: "He said there had been a continuous bombardment for seven days and nights and the noise was terrible. It stopped at 7.30am and the silence was huge, and he remembered hearing the song of a blackbird. Then the whistles blew and they went over the top.

"He said that at the end of the day they had to retreat back to their lines. He lost his rifle but was able to find another one easily. He said that on the retreat back over No Man's Land, his feet hardly touched the ground.

"I never quite appreciated the statement and it was only later that I understood that what he meant was that the 300 yards of No Man's Land was so full of dead and wounded soldiers, that he had to crawl and stumble over them to reach safety.

"Our father, like many veterans of the war, did not talk too much about his experiences.

"He did however attend as many reunions as he could, mainly in London.

"My father also advised the artist, James Prinsep Beadle, when he was painting the picture on the accuracy of the event."

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