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Real tragedy of Somme is we may never know just how many died

Ahead of the centenary of the last day of the Battle of the Somme, Belfast journalist Martin O'Brien pays a poignant visit to Flanders

Published 11/11/2016

The Great War. 1914-18. Flanders.
The Great War. 1914-18. Flanders.
Corporal Adolf Hitler, right with two other soldiers and a dog during his stay in a military hospital, WWI, Pasewalk, Pomerania. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
United We Stand - Postcard showing uniformed men representing Britain, Irish National Volunteers and Ulster Volunteers flanking a sailor with a sword in one hand and a gun in the other presented as united on the outbreak of war. The verse reads 'Old discords have sunk to oblivion, For the honour of Britain they stand, In Unity shoulder to shoulder, In defence of the old homeland.' Collection Ulster Museum
Troops at the Battle of the Somme
Rifleman Jackson Clarke of the Royal Irish Rifles (circled) marching off to war. He survived the Great War, remaining in the army until 1931. Pic from Stephen Kerr
First World War image of a British soldier pulling colleague from rubble. It is unlikely that the helped soldier would look as cheerful as he does or that the helper would pull the buried and probably injured man in so unprofessional a way if he had been lying beneath the weight of soil and rubble after an explosion. It is more likely that the man has slipped and fallen into this position while examining damage, the aftermath of which is depicted here. (Hogg, A. R ) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
Women in Britain say go! - Hill, Siffken and Co (LPA Ltd) - First World War Recruitment poster; 'Women in Britain say Go!' This poster, produced by E V Kealey, in 1915 for the First World War British Army Recruitment Campaign shows an image (by artist Ernest Ibbetson) of mother and children at open window watching troops march off to war. which reflects the growing engagement of middle-class women in public life, civic and recruitment campaigns Parliamentary Recruiting Committee Poster no.75. Original accession card states it is Parliamentary Recruiting poster No.72 Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of a British stretcher party surveying wounded on battlefield. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image showing soldiers in snow with tanks on backs. The men may be carrying some kind of disinfectant or else a de-icing fluid as it is visibly a cold winterís day. The item on the cart looms rather like the flue of a fire or heater, indicating that the men may well be carrying hot water. (Hogg, A. R ) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image showing British soldiers washing in water held in shell hole, which appears to be the location for several British graves as indicated by the wooden crosses surrounding the crater, where the men may well have perished in an earlier explosion. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
Theres room for you. Enlist to-day - W.M. Strain & Sons Ltd. - First World War recruitment poster; 'Theres room for you. Enlist to-day.' froman original drawing by W.A. Fry. Poster shows a cheery scene of soldiers going off to war by train. Published by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, London; poster no.122 Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of British soldiers marching over battlefield. The devastation caused by repeated shellfire over four years left some parts of the Western Front and its hinterland a total ruin. (Hogg, A. R) Photograph © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of a British soldier at machine gun post. Machine gun fire was sometimes effective against low-flying German planes. Note the bolt-holes for the gunner to hide during bombardment, the trench spike against the skyline and the horn of what may well be a gas-alarm. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of a British first aid team treating wounded soldier. There are three orderlies, treating a soldiers treating a man on a stretcher with head and shoulder injuries. The location would appear to be littered with shells and shell boxes and there is a building which has been damaged by artillery fire or an explosion. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of British soldiers wearing capes carrying shovels, road-building party, along the Western Front, probably wet and muddy conditions of Flanders, 1917. The Irish soldier and poet Francis Ledwidge was killed in just such a group as this at ëHellfire Cornerí at Ypres in 1917. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of British soldiers grouping in battlefield. The road is long which soldiers marched to and from the front were known to enemy artillery which by the end of the war was becoming more and more accurate in its fire. Note the posts which mark the line of the road, all too easily spotted by air reconnaissance (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of tank and troops. Tanks were first used in September 1916, at Delville Wood. There were over 6,000 tanks in allied possession by the end of the war whereas the Germans did not greatly make or use them. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
'Everyone should do his bit. Enlist now' - Roberts & Leete Ltd. - First World War recruitment poster; 'Everyone should do his bit. Enlist now.' Poster with boy scout standing musing in front of a wall covered in recruitment posters. Published by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee London No.121 Original artwork by Baron Low Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of a British soldier using periscope to look over rim of trench. The soldier also exhibits other features of trench hardware such as water-bottle and Lee Enfield rifle. There were various models of periscope, some improvised by the men themselves. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
Posters and Memorabilia at the launch of the National Library's World War One Family History Roadshow which takes place between 10am and 7pm on Wednesday March 21st next. Pic Steve Humphreys 15th March 2012.
British troops manhandling a field gun, World War I
Belfast Telegraph. Page. Wednesday 5/8/1914 "Britain Declares War on Germany"
German troops and dogs prepared for the threat of 'chemical warefare' during the Great War, with gas masks.
Women making cartridges for British troops during the Great War. 1914-18
The return of British pow's, from the Great war, met on arrival at London by frienfs and family with refreshments.
Awarded the Victoria Cross for services in the Great War: Edmund De Wind (top left) James Somers (top right) Captain JA Sinton (centre) J Duffy (bottom Left) Robert Quigg ( bottom right)
Lord Kitchener inspects the 36th Ulster Division before deployment to the Great War.
British troops supply line during the Great War.
Crowds in Belfast line the streets as soldiers returning from the Great War march past Belfast City Hall.
British artillery on parade during the Great war.
British infantrymen occupy a shallow trench in a ruined landscape before an advance during the Battle of the Somme
Men of war: soldiers remove an injured man from the battlefield
The will of Private John Fleetwood, grandfather of Mick Fleetwood, who died during the First World War
First World War soldiers were treated for venereal disease in a camp at Chiseldon, Wiltshire.
The 36th Ulster Division march past at Belfast City Hall in May 1915
Undated handout photo of the front page of the Flanders Fields Post, a newspaper inspired by the historic Wipers Times created by First World War soldiers Captain FJ Roberts and Lieutenant JH Pearson in 1916, which has been recreated to mark the centenary of the war.
File photo dated 04/08/14 of the Grenadier Guards being watched by a crowd as they leave Wellington Barracks in London for active service in France at the beginning of World War I, as royalty, political leaders and families of the fallen will unite in Belgium and the UK today in marking 100 years since Britain entered the First World War.
The wills of soldiers who died during the First World War will be made available online
Family handout photo of Captain F. J. Roberts with his son Bill Roberts in 1914, as a newspaper inspired by the historic Wipers Times created by First World War soldiers Captain FJ Roberts and Lieutenant JH Pearson in 1916, has been recreated to mark the centenary of the war.
Undated family handout photo of Captain F. J. Roberts with his division, as a newspaper inspired by the historic Wipers Times created by First World War soldiers Captain FJ Roberts and Lieutenant JH Pearson in 1916, has been recreated to mark the centenary of the war.
Letters home from the Western Front in the First World War gave a snapshot of the horrendous conditions suffered by Ulster soldiers in the trenches
16-year-old Lee Dunion re-enacts the conditions in the trenches as a soldier in Thiepval Woods during the First World War
File photo dated 17/08/14 of British soldiers from the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Cheshire Regiment in a Belgian town on their way to Mons as part of the British Expeditionary Force, as royalty, political leaders and families of the fallen will unite in Belgium and the UK today in marking 100 years since Britain entered the First World War.
Sgt David Harkness Blakey who died in 1916
Handout photo issued by London Transport Museum of Ole Bill, a 1911 B-type bus No. B43 flanked by standard bearers in the Armistice Day parade 1920 as wreaths are being laid at bus stations and garages across London in memory of the transport workers who died in the First World War.
A British soldier uses a periscope device in a First World War fire trench, as it was revealed a system of practice trenches have been found in Hampshire
File photo dated 20/08/14 of the scene outside the Enlisting Office in Thogmorton Street, London, at the beginning of the First World War, as royalty, political leaders and families of the fallen will unite in Belgium and the UK today in marking 100 years since Britain entered the First World War.
Men of the Royal marines landing at Ostend, during the Great War. 1914
Family handout photo of Capatain FJ Roberts (right) with family (L-R) Bert, Will, Nell and Fred Roberts, (front) dad Henry and mom Mary Roberts in 1900, as a newspaper inspired by the historic Wipers Times created by First World War soldiers Captain FJ Roberts and Lieutenant JH Pearson in 1916, has been recreated to mark the centenary of the war.
Records show newspapers urged women to send 'small comforts' like cigarettes and warm clothes to troops in the trenches
Research suggests most people in the UK do not realise the First World War extended beyond Europe
Wooden wing sections from a First World War bi-plane have been saved by RAF conservation experts
The Winchester Whisperer, a journal handwritten on toilet paper that was circulated by conscientious objectors who were imprisoned for their beliefs during the First World War. (Religious Society of Friends in Britain/BBC/PA)
Horror of the trenches: many from here made the ultimate sacrifice in the First World War
Family handout photo of a young Captain F. J. Roberts, as a newspaper inspired by the historic Wipers Times created by First World War soldiers Captain FJ Roberts and Lieutenant JH Pearson in 1916, has been recreated to mark the centenary of the war.

Ulster Tower. Thiepval Memorial. Guillemont. Menin Gate. Passchendaele ... And that is not even to mention the cemeteries - it is a land of cemeteries and memorials - and the incredible work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).

I had seen those places on television and in history books before, especially in the broadcasts around Remembrance Sunday.

On July 1, with millions of others, I was glued to the TV, watching the coverage of the centenary commemoration of the start of the Battle of the Somme.

A few days from now, on November 18, 141 days on, sees the 100th anniversary of the last day of the Battle of the Somme, which left more than one million Allied and German soldiers wounded, captured, or killed, including an estimated 50,000 soldiers from this island, who died - Protestant and Catholic, unionist and nationalist.

A few weeks ago, I realised a long-held goal of visiting the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme, thus honouring the memory of those from both parts of Ireland who died in a war that was naively meant to be "the war to end all wars", but turned out to be a human catastrophe that claimed the lives of an estimated 17 million people.

It is unsettling that the truth is we will never know just how many died. So much for the sanctity of human life.

Indeed, we'll probably never know the exact number of soldiers from this island who died serving King and country and may never know all their names.

I have read that historians say that the 49,935 names inscribed on the Irish National Memorial in Islandbridge, Dublin - visited jointly by the Queen and then-President Mary McAleese in 2011 - is not reliable and the real number may be either well above that, or even lower.

One has been conscious for a long time that, while the sacrifice of the 36th (Ulster) Division has been properly and rightly recognised here at home and in France, the sacrifice of tens of thousands of Catholics from the south was not properly acknowledged until relatively recently in the Republic.

It was not just at official level that the memory of the latter was overlooked or dismissed. Perhaps just as importantly, it happened at the family level.

Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
A Somme commemoration parade passes through Royal Avenue and Donegal Street in Belfast, Northern Ireland on July 01 2016 ( Photo by Kevin Scott )
A Somme commemoration parade passes through Royal Avenue and Donegal Street in Belfast, Northern Ireland on July 01 2016 ( Photo by Kevin Scott )
A Somme commemoration parade passes through Royal Avenue and Donegal Street in Belfast, Northern Ireland on July 01 2016 ( Photo by Kevin Scott )
A Somme commemoration parade passes through Royal Avenue and Donegal Street in Belfast, Northern Ireland on July 01 2016 ( Photo by Kevin Scott )
A Somme commemoration parade passes through Royal Avenue and Donegal Street in Belfast, Northern Ireland on July 01 2016 ( Photo by Kevin Scott )
A Somme commemoration parade passes through Royal Avenue and Donegal Street in Belfast, Northern Ireland on July 01 2016 ( Photo by Kevin Scott )
A Somme commemoration parade passes through Royal Avenue and Donegal Street in Belfast, Northern Ireland on July 01 2016 ( Photo by Kevin Scott )
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 01/07/2016 East Belfast host's The Battle of the Somme aniversary parade. Bands from around Northern Ireland and Scotland take part in the Battle of the Somme anniversary parade. The bands marched around the winding streets of East Belfast and past the nationalist markets area which was heavily policed. Picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press

I recall visiting Artillery Wood cemetery at Boezinge in the Ypres Salient and meeting visitors from Dublin at the grave of the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, from Co Meath, a soldier in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, who is one of the more than half-a-million soldiers on either side killed in the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres.

One of them, a man in his sixties, had a grand-uncle killed in the Great War and he had come to Flanders to find out more about the general circumstances in which his relative and so many of his generation had died.

"We knew very little about him and, as a family, we never talked about him. All I heard as a child was that there was another uncle who was a bit of an eejit because he went off to the war and got himself killed.

"It is terrible that is the only memory I have in relation to him and I would say that attitude was not uncommon. When I was growing up, that aspect of history just wasn't talked about."

Although I have no known relatives who were killed, or injured, my visit was a moving and instructive experience that shone light on the scale of the slaughter - insofar as that is possible - and the resultant, unconscionable loss; the different historical narratives in Britain and Ireland and within the island of Ireland.

The visit also provided an opportunity to see the wonderful efforts of the CWGC and the Belgian and French authorities to keep alive the memory of the fallen.

The majestic Thiepval Memorial remembers the Somme’s missing men
The majestic Thiepval Memorial remembers the Somme’s missing men

The CWGC maintains 1.1 million headstones worldwide and 959 cemeteries in what was the Western Front alone and each year re-engrave 17,000 headstones in Western Europe.

There was no shortage of poignant experiences. These included visiting the grave of Major Willie Redmond MP, of the Royal Irish Regiment, a strong advocate of Home Rule, the 56-year-old brother of the nationalist leader John Redmond, who died from injuries at Messines Ridge in 1917.

Private John Meeke (23), from Ballymoney, a stretcher-bearer with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 36th (Ulster) and a member of the original Ulster Volunteer Force, braved gunfire and artillery to bandage him and, although wounded himself, persisted in trying to save Redmond and was later awarded the Military Medal for bravery.

Arriving in Ypres, Belgium one is struck to see a town that lay in ruins following the German invasion and shelling now gleaming with a new Cloth Hall (incorporating the In Flanders Fields Museum) and the old St Martin's Cathedral - also restored to its former glory.

By the side of the cathedral is a large Celtic cross, bearing the words: "In memory of those men of Munster who died fighting for freedom. A tribute by the people of the province and Cork, its capital city."

There can hardly be a more evocative experience than attending the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, which has taken place each evening at 8pm since 1928, save for during the German occupation in the Second World War.

The huge memorial contains the names of 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers who went missing in the Salient in the First World War and have no known graves.

There are hundreds of poppy wreaths at the memorial and the first one I noticed bore a little black-rimmed card marked 'Royal British Legion'; someone had written: "In memory of the brave men 36th Ulster Div. & 16th Irish Div". In another part of the memorial, I spotted a similar wreath with a message in black handwriting: "Lisburn Branch Royal Irish Rangers Old Comrades Association. Lest we forget."

On the way to the Somme, through the largely flat countryside of maize crops and sugar beet that was once the site of trench warfare and bloodshed unprecedented in military history, we stopped at Rue du Bois.

It was there, on May 8, 1915, that Fr Francis Gleeson, a Catholic Army chaplain from Co Tipperary, mounted his horse and gave The Last General Absolution to 900 men of the Munster Fusiliers before the Battle of Aubers Ridge, in which 140 of them died and 230 were wounded.

One cannot be prepared for the majesty of the 45-metre-high Thiepval Memorial, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, that commemorates 72,205 soldiers from the British and South African armies who were declared missing in the Somme.

The Ulster Memorial Tower nearby may be small in comparison, but no less impressive in communicating its purpose, which is to honour the memory of "the sons of Ulster" who laid down their lives in the Great War.

Equally poignant and rich in symbolism is the Irish Peace Park and Peace Tower at Messines, the village in Belgium where the Catholics of the 16th Irish and the Protestants of the 36th Ulster fought together. The tower was inaugurated by the Queen, President Mary McAleese and King Albert II of Belgium on Armistice Day 1998.

One of the most striking aspects of my visit was to hear about how the battlefields of Flanders continue to yield up their secrets. The remains of a New Zealand solider who had served in the British Army were recently discovered and identified during an archaeological survey near Ypres.

The battlefield historian Iain McHenry, a native of Belfast now living in Ypres, was an excellent tour guide and his encyclopaedic memory impressed all. McHenry, who has written a book about the work of a military tunnelling company on the Western Front, says every year in the Ypres area alone the Belgium bomb-disposal services deal with around 360 tonnes of unexploded shells.

McHenry says: "We call it the season of the iron harvest. When the farmers are ploughing and re-sowing, they often bring up to the surface unexploded ammunition and other material."

It is evident the First World War centenary has brought extra business to Ypres. Next year, there will be renewed interest in these tours, nay pilgrimages, from throughout Ireland.

That is because 2017 sees the centenaries of both the Battle of Messines (June 7-14) and the Battle of Passchendaele (July 31-November 10) - the two engagements in which the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) fought side-by-side in common cause.

Martin O'Brien is a journalist, communications consultant and former award-winning BBC producer

Belfast Telegraph

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