Belfast Telegraph

First World War centenary: All around me were the final resting places of men buried where they fell

The Thiepval Memorial would make even the biggest of men with the hardest of hearts feel small.

By Ivan Little in France

The single toll of a distant church bell on top of a verdant French hill was the solitary noise piercing the surround-sound of silence in the former no man's land on the Somme where a fleet-footed fox was the only living thing on the move in what nearly a century ago was the most dangerous place on earth.

But sitting near the entrance to Mouquet farm not long after dawn had broken over the tranquil pastoral perfection of Thiepval Ridge, it took a monumental leap of imagination to conceive that a war of unfathomable barbarity was raging in the same fields all those years ago.

The black and white newsreel which I'd watched a week earlier re-played in my mind's eye but the hellish memories of thousands of Ulster men going over the top from their trenches close to my vantage point were a chilling contrast to the sense of calm in the lush beauty which enveloped me now in full glorious colour.

For the life of me I couldn't erase the deathly image of one particular soldier who didn't even get fully out of his bunker before a German bullet killed him stone dead.

Over 2,000 of his friends and colleagues from the 36th Ulster Division met the same fate shortly afterwards as the better trained and more professional Germans who had a grandstand view from the high ground of the advance of the British volunteers picked their enemies off with consummate – and contemptuous – ease.

A Pathe News commentary summed it up thus, "Withering German machine-gun fire cut down the advancing troops with such precision that thousands died in the first 15 minutes of the battle.

"By nightfall, 60,000 men had been killed or wounded".

In my modern-day oasis the statistics of slaughter were almost too hard to compute from a war where an estimated 16 million people were killed and another 21 million injured. Among the dead were around 49,000 Irishmen from the north and south of the island.

Behind me, beside me and in front of me were the final resting places of many of those soldiers who were buried where they fell.

Nowadays there are around 250 Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries on the Somme with thousands of almost identical headstones cared for with such dedication that there's barely a weed to be seen anywhere near the graves.

But a sobering thought that struck me during that early morning four-mile walk through the Somme was the grim certainty that I was walking in the footsteps of dead men, many of whose bodies have never been found.

The detritus of war is still everywhere – shells transformed into flower pots are commonplace – and the earth regularly throws up other munitions and helmets.

One visitor showed me an object which was later identified as a hand grenade. A harmless grenade but a grenade nonetheless.

But there are even more macabre discoveries.

Late last year, two bodies were unearthed during road improvements near the Ulster Tower, a memorial to the 5,000 men from here who were either killed or wounded in the early phases of the Somme.

A Royal Irish Rifles regimental cap badge and shoulder flash were all that was left of one soldier's uniform and there was nothing else to indicate who he was.

But the second remains were quickly identified from name tags which hadn't decayed. He was Sgt David Harkness Blakey, a 26-year-old father-of-three from Gateshead who served with an Irish regiment and whose wife came from Londonderry.

Sgt Blakey's name is listed on the Thiepval memorial among the missing Somme soldiers with no known graves.

The imposing monument is less than a mile from where the sergeant's remains were found but it's likely his inscription will be removed once he is buried in a military cemetery under a headstone with his name carved on it.

Surveying the Thiepval memorial last week was a harrowing assault on the senses – a mix of sorrow for the unbelievable scale of the losses and frustration at the waste of so many young lives and so much promise extinguished by a near apocalyptic war that many of its participants simply didn't understand.

Several years ago, I was humbled to stand in front of the memorial in Afghanistan to soldiers who died in the war there. Its roll of honour at that time contained several hundred entries.

The Thiepval Memorial has the names of 72,500 soldiers on 16 huge four-sided columns of Portland Stone supporting a massive arch which can be seen from miles around.

Up close even the biggest of men with the hardest of hearts would feel small. Tonight, descendants of the missing soldiers will gather with local dignitaries at the memorial to light candles for the casualties of the First World War but the main centenary ceremonies for the Somme won't come for another two years in 2016, a century on from the commencement of the battle there.

At the centrepiece of the Thiepval memorial with its epitaph "Their names liveth for evermore", a wreath with green, white and gold ribbons stood out amid the red white and blue of Britain and France. A scrawled note on it revealed it was a tribute from a family from Co Offaly for one of the thousands of southern Irish soldiers who fought and died at the Somme.

All the missing soldiers are listed in alphabetical order in 19 thick red folders and the urge was irresistible to look to see if any Littles were on the register of death.

I pored over the details of 27 men with my surname who are remembered at Thiepval only to confirm what I suspected, that none of them was related to me or even from Ireland.

But not far away in a tiny military cemetery at the hamlet of Hamel which gave its name to a street in the Cregagh area of Belfast, I honoured a pledge to a friend to seek out his grandfather's grave.

Inexplicably, given that the soldier was a complete stranger to me, there was an eerie rush of emotion as I found Sgt William Gordon's headstone which recorded that he was a 27-year-old Royal Irish Fusilier who died on that calamitous first day at the Somme.

All around him lay his friends from Portadown and Lurgan who were also killed in the Battle.

I knew that Willie Gordon had sent a letter to his father just before he left Ulster to go to war. He spoke of how raw young recruits whom he had trained at Newtownards were frightened about what lay ahead of them.

But he clearly had his own concerns because he urged his father not to tell his mother when he would be heading off to the front lines or 'even that I am going at all'.

The letter also referred to his brother Bob who was injured during the war but later recovered and to a friend called Jim who wasn't so lucky.

Within minutes of my discovery at Hamel, Philip Jackson from Sunderland arrived to visit the nearby grave of his great uncle John Gilbert Cable who had been seriously injured at Gallipoli but was killed by a sniper at the Somme in February 1917.

Philip, who has in-laws in Ballymena, said: “I'm the first member of my family to come here. It did feel special. There was obviously a tinge of sadness but it was nice to see his final resting place is in such beautiful surroundings.”

Just like so many cemeteries at the Somme, most signatures in the Hamel visitors' book were from Northern Irish people.

But soldiers from right across the world died at the Somme and their descendants travel on pilgrimages around the battlefields and cemeteries, some of which are dedicated to the dead from different countries including Canada.

Teams of Canadian students, on summer breaks from their universities, man the magnificent Newfoundland Memorial Park which honours the 1,000 soldiers from that region who were killed during the Somme advance on the German defences.

One of the guides, Maud Shaughnessy, whose parents were from Cork and Galway and whose great aunts were nurses during the Great War, said many people who visited the park were stunned at how many people were killed as are many foreign visitors to the nearby Ulster Tower which is a copy of Helen's Tower in Bangor where many soldiers from the 36th Ulster Division trained.

The memorial is run by Teddy and Phoebe Colligan, the parents of the director of the Somme Association in Northern Ireland, Carol Walker.

From a distance the tower, built on land where the German front line once stood, has the look of a Disney castle. But this is no make-believe fantasy world. The tower and the Somme Association-owned Thiepval Wood across the road are solemn monuments to all-too-real and unspeakable massacres perpetrated around them.

The tower was opened in November 1921 on ground given in perpetuity to Ulster and therefore doesn't have to raise the French flag beside the Union Flag which never comes down.

The tower has a memorial room, a museum, a cinema, a cafe and it is also home to the Colligans who came here for two weeks in 2001 and are still living on the upper floors of the building even though they are in their 70s.

Belfast couple Cathy and Rab Nixon from east Belfast have almost lost count of the number of times they have visited the Somme during their motorhome holidays in France.

Cathy said it was only through coming to the battleground that she found out that she had lost not one but two great uncles in the war, one from Donegal and the other from New Zealand.

One of the men died in England after being injured in France and was buried in an old graveyard in south Donegal and the other was interred in a small cemetery on the Somme.

Coach loads of English battlefield tourists arrive at the tower every day. Among the visitors I met was Norman Pearson from Bury in Lancashire who said he hadn't realised that Irishmen from north and south had fought together until he visited the Peace Park at Messines near Ypres in Belgium.

“Apparently they marched down the road into battle side by side — republicans and unionists who had been prepared to fight each other over home rule before the war united them in a common cause,” he said.

Among 300 people on a Lest We Forget tour to the Ulster Tower was Poppy-wearing 76-year-old John Hawking from Bridgend in South Wales.

He said: “It has been most moving. My wife's grandfather and father fought in the wars but I wanted to come to offer thanks to those people who gave their lives for freedom in Europe. We've laid wreaths and held services everywhere we've gone.”

Many of the visitors follow itineraries set out in best-selling battlefield books in a series written by an English couple who call their

publications Major and Mrs Holt's guides.

Former British Army officer Major Tonie Holt and his wife Valmai are acknowledged as leading authorities on the Somme and other battles across the world. They've organised countless tours to war zones and they've written no fewer than 30 books which they are constantly updating.

I met them as they called at the Ulster Tower where the major told me: “What brings us back isn't so much about the war but about what happened to the people. At the first cemetery we ever visited as civilians after I left the Army, we couldn't go any further than four or five headstones because we were so overwhelmed by the emotion of it all.”

The major and his wife are fervent admirers of the Irish soldiers from north and south who fought in the Great War. Valmai said: “We have a particular affinity with the Somme where people like Teddy and Phoebe Colligan carry the flame of remembrance.”

Major Holt, who was a guest at the re-dedication of the Tower by Princess Alice in 1989 on the 75th anniversary of the battle, said Irish soldiers had made ‘a helluva contribution' to the war.

He added: “It was here that the only advance was made on the northern part of the front through the German lines. The Irish were the only people to get through the third German defence line.

“I'm often asked how come they did it when nobody else did and you can theorise about the excitement, the energy and the comradeship of the Irish. I think it was that feeling which enabled them to go forward, though sadly they couldn't hold on and had to come back.”

Valmai said the courage of the Ulster soldiers had been inspirational. And she didn't have to look far to see a memorial to some of the heroes she was talking about.

For at the entrance to the Ulster Tower is a plaque with the names of nine Ulster Victoria Cross winners from the first few days of the Somme including William McFadzean who threw himself on top of a box of hand grenades which exploded, killing him immediately. Valmai Holt said: “Private McFadzean is one of the first people that comes to mind when you think about wartime courage and his legend lives on as the ultimate sacrifice for one's friends.”

The most famous Great War soldier of all, however, is immortalised not for what he did but for how he inspired Scot Eric Bogle to write one of the most celebrated anti-war anthems, the Green Fields of France, which was once cited by Tony Blair as his anthem for the Northern Ireland peace process. The song tells how Bogle sat down by William McBride's headstone in France and tried to imagine what the young soldier's life had been like before the war and the singer then launches into a bitter attack on the futility of war. As many as 10 William McBrides were killed in action but it's accepted Bogle's soldier is buried at Athuile, though there are in fact a W McBride and a William McBride interred there just yards apart. Both were members of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and both were from Ulster. I stood close to both graves in the miniscule cemetery which is about a mile from the village of Thiepval and I could only marvel at how Bogle's song was still as relevant today as it ever was.

Bogle's most powerful lyrics were about man's blind indifference to his fellow man and about a whole generation that were butchered and damned.

It was also clear that Bogle had no time for the people who had suggested the First World War would be the war to end all wars.

In the afternoon sunshine in Athuile, thoughts of Gaza/Israel, Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and of hundreds of graveyards back home in Northern Ireland made it difficult to disagree with Bogle's sentiments about a century-old war which was anything but Great.

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