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'I'm just sad George never got his chance to pay tribute here'

The Northern Ireland football star often spoke of his desire to visit the Somme and other battlefields of Europe, his brother-in-law Norman McNarry tells Ivan Little

Published 02/07/2016

Poignant tribute: A soldier amongst illuminated graves during a vigil to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme at the Thiepval Memorial
Poignant tribute: A soldier amongst illuminated graves during a vigil to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme at the Thiepval Memorial
George Best
Norman McNarry

George Best's brother-in-law, Norman McNarry, who organises emotional tours of battlefields in Europe, has spoken of his regret that one of the world's finest footballers never got to pay his respects to the thousands of Ulstermen who died at the Somme.

The late Manchester United and Northern Ireland genius had often expressed a desire to visit the scene of the dreadful battle and others from the Great War along with Norman, who runs the Fields of Conflict tours organisation.

But the troubled superstar died in November 2005 - before he could take up Norman's offer of a visit to the Somme.

"It was something that he had talked about, but sadly it never happened," said Norman, who said he didn't know of any members of the Best family who had fought at the Somme.

But Norman has helped scores of descendants of soldiers who died in the First World War to visit the battlefields where their ancestors fell and their final resting places in graveyards across the Western Front.

Norman was at the Somme yesterday for the centenary commemoration of the horrific battle, but he didn't even try to arrange a trip for all-comers through Fields of Conflict.

The sheer volume of demand for tickets and the major security measures which were put in place for the 100th anniversary of the start of the Somme made an open tour impractical.

Instead, Norman - who has a military background himself - travelled to Picardy with a group of 28 ex-servicemen.

"We've all been to the Somme three or four times, but we are particularly honoured to be allowed to join in the commemorations at the Ulster Tower this year on such a significant anniversary," said Norman.

A series of ceremonies were held at different important sites all around the Somme.

The biggest was the national commemoration at the Thiepval Memorial, where the names of more than 72,000 soldiers, whose bodies were never found, are inscribed.

But for security and practical reasons, guests were restricted to just one ceremony yesterday.

And so the Ulster Tower was the only choice for Norman McNarry and his colleagues, who also marked the centenary with a black-tie dinner in the hotel where they stayed.

Norman never wearies of talking about the Somme, which has fascinated him ever since he saw his own grandfather's name on a war memorial in Comber.

His ancestor survived the war, but the family link stirred something inside Norman, who began his tours to the battlefields in the 1980s, when they were designed to help serving soldiers get a better understanding of the logistics, strategies and tactics of the Great War.

The emphasis changed after Norman retired from military service in 2007 and more and more members of the public expressed an interest in heading to Flanders.

The Fields of Conflict company evolved into a well-organised operation that could customise visits for groups numbering from five to 50.

Gradually, the uptake from interested parties in the Republic soared after it became less of a guilty secret for families south of the border to acknowledge the sacrifices of their forebears fighting for the British Army.

There have, however, been no borders in the reaction of Irish people to finally finding their ancestors' graves along what was once the front line of the Great War.

Norman and his team undertake as much research as possible before leading their tours across Europe in an attempt to discover graves and relevant battlefields.

The sense of emotion and satisfaction is not a one-way street. And Norman admitted that he was often as moved as his clients as they stood reading for the first time the inscription for a grandfather, or great-grandfather's, headstone in an impeccably maintained Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery.

Norman, who also organises tours to locations linked with the Second World War, said the Great War had a range of myths associated with it, because of the disowning of it by so many communities.He cited Messines as a place where Ulstermen and Irishmen had fought side-by-side, without any thoughts of religion, or politics.

All the old soldiers have gone now, of course. But Norman said he had been thrilled to meet one of the survivors at the Somme on an anniversary of the battle on a sunny July 1, a number of years ago.

That man was Leslie Bell, from Moneymore, and though he was 94 on his return to the battlefield, he was able to remember details about the dreadful war which were new even to Norman.

"It's a day I will never, ever forget," said Norman.

Belfast Telegraph

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