My grandfather Tommy... and the brave men of 100 years ago
This weekend is one of the most sombre in our calendar, as we remember those who fought and died or were injured, in the Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1, 1916. Many commemoration services are being held in churches all over Northern Ireland, and yesterday the leaders of the four main churches here attended a special service in France.
Prior to travelling there, the Presbyterian Moderator, the Rt Rev Dr Frank Sellar, said: "For us today, 100 years on, it is difficult to imagine, or even contemp late, the scale of the loss of life and the impact which that would have had on local communities back home; especially close-knit local congregations across Ulster, and other parts of Ireland too."
It is indeed very difficult to grasp the immensity of the suffering. By the end of the first day at the Somme, the 36th (Ulster) Division had over 5,000 casualties, including 2,000 dead.
Around 75% of the division's fatalities have no known graves, and their names are recorded at the Thiepval Memorial and the Ulster Memorial Tower in France.
Even when you visit the Somme battlefield, as I have done on two occasions, it is difficult to imagine the horror of those days when virtually a generation of Ulster's young men died, like those from other parts of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.
The silence and the stark beauty of the well-maintained Allied war graves are more eloquent than any words.
On this particular week when politics in the UK are in such turmoil and the future of the EU is also so uncertain, those endless graves in Europe are a blunt warning about what can happen when politics fails, and when nationalistic and sectarian passions take over.
I find it impossible to comprehend the fact that more than one million men from the UK, France and Germany died in the Battle of the Somme from July to November in 1916.
In times such as these, I think of my grandfather Tommy McCreary who took part in the Battle of the Somme. He had joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers in south Armagh to take the place of young brother Sandy who had fibbed about his age when joining up.
My grandfather was a stretcher bearer, bringing the wounded across the battlefield and along the trenches. This was one of the most dangerous roles on the Western Front, but he rarely, if ever, talked about it. Sometimes when he felt like reminiscing, he would tell me about being captured by the Germans and being forced to work in a salt mine. However, there was no sense of abiding bitterness. He felt that it was part of the life he had to live in those days.
Perhaps the horrific experiences helped him to put things in perspective later on. He rarely worried about anything, and one of his favourite phrases was: "It won't signify."
I think of him with the utmost respect and affection as an ordinary, and yet extraordinary, Ulsterman who did what he had to do, who then got on with life, and who never asked for sympathy. He was typical of so many brave men of his generation.
This year I won't be at the Somme or at any of the major commemorations, but I will look even more thoughtfully at my grandfather's war medals which are displayed on a wall in our living room, together with the new poppy which I place on them each Remembrance Day.
It's hard now to believe that I knew and talked to a man who fought at the Somme a century ago. Tommy McCreary has long passed on, but I will remember him with pride for the rest of my life.