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Bloodiest battle has brought us together

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 01/07/2016

ALBERT, FRANCE JUNE 30: A general view of the Thiepval Memorial as Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry attend the Somme Centenary commemorations on June 30, 2016 in Albert, France. (Photo by Tim Rooke - Pool/Getty Images)
ALBERT, FRANCE JUNE 30: A general view of the Thiepval Memorial as Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry attend the Somme Centenary commemorations on June 30, 2016 in Albert, France. (Photo by Tim Rooke - Pool/Getty Images)

At 7.28am today, silence reigned over what was once the scene of the bloodiest battle in modern warfare. As the dignitaries, including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, and the descendants of those who fought and died at the Somme stood in solemn reflection at the Thiepval Memorial, the thoughts of so many turned to that exact moment 100 years ago when the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division went over the top and into a withering hail of fire.

When the day was done, upwards of 2,000 soldiers from the province were dead - men from every part of the region and from both sides of the community. It was the most disastrous day in the history of the British Army. Even now, a century later, the scale of that horror is embedded in the DNA of so many families and communities.

At this remove, it is almost impossible to imagine the death and destruction that is forever associated with the name the Somme. Modern warfare is equally brutal in the savagery of its conflict, but it is also warfare waged almost clinically, with precision bombing, drones and long-range artillery.

But we only have to look at the old, grainy photographs or watch some of the fledgling films of the Battle of the Somme to realise that those who took part were thrown into a living hell. The conditions in the trenches were awful. Above, between the opposing lines, the land was blasted until barely a living object could be seen. It was a desert of mud and death.

Today, the land around the Somme has grown over those killing fields, but nothing can ever erase what happened there or the anguish that came to so many homes in Northern Ireland as the fateful telegrams telling of hundreds of deaths were delivered to families who had seen their menfolk depart such a short time before. Now they would never return, either buried in a foreign grave or lost forever in an unknown resting place.

The war may have been fought over imperialist ambitions, but it was hugely personal and intimate for many people here.

It has taken until now for a truly shared remembrance to occur. Initially, nationalist Ireland, engaged in its own conflict, shunned those from that tradition who fought and died under the colours of the British Army. It was an attitude that was - shamefully - to prevail for much of the following century.

Astonishingly, today's anniversary, which was regarded until a very short time ago as a potentially divisive date in the calendar, has proved something else is possible. There is now an acceptance that the Somme was a horror visited on every section of the community, and that those men who fought and those who died deserve to be remembered with honour.

The decision by Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and other party members to go Flanders Fields last month to lay a wreath in memory of the fallen was a significant gesture and a recognition that our society is more than the simple Orange and Green divide so often portrayed. It is much more complex, and with the modern thirst for tracing family trees there is a recognition that our past is intertwined much more closely than most of us imagined.

Look again at those old photographs. They were men captured in a moment of time, men who did not look exceptional, but who showed exceptional bravery and resolve.

It is right that they are remembered, and their descendants who went to Thiepval for today's ceremony were hoping that they could make some kind of connection with those lost souls by simply treading the same earth they fought over. Fittingly, today, that eternal symbol of remembrance, the poppy, grew proudly out of that same ground.

Belfast Telegraph

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