Somme: 'It's right we pause to mark this momentous event and take pride in the legacy they left'
In the final of a series of special interviews in the days leading up to the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, First Minister Arlene Foster tells Ivan Little how her husband Brian's great-uncle, Sergeant Robert Devers, was wounded in the onslaught and recovered sufficiently to volunteer to return to the Front, only to be killed in action just months from Armistice Day
First Minister Arlene Foster, who's leading the Northern Ireland commemorations of the Battle of the Somme in France today, has said it's impossible to underestimate the significance of the Great War to Europe and to the province.
And she added remembering the sacrifices of the 36th (Ulster) Division in the First World War was of paramount importance.
The DUP leader has already attended a series of events across Northern Ireland to mark the centenary of the start of the infantry battle on July 1, 1916, when thousands of Ulstermen were killed or wounded.
In east Belfast, Mrs Foster unveiled a memorial to the dead of the Somme, which replaced a loyalist paramilitary mural on the Newtownards Road. She was also presented with a specially minted coin commemorating the Somme by the Orange Order.
But, on a personal level, Mrs Foster's thoughts have also been with a member of her husband Brian's family - for his great-uncle, Sergeant Robert Devers, who fought and died during the Great War.
She said: "While I will be at the Somme today, representing the people of Northern Ireland, I will also be there to remember a family member and an individual, who - like so many others - went over the top on that fateful day a century ago.
"While the name of my husband's great-uncle appears on a headstone in Lisnaskea, like so many others, his body rests in France."
War records show that Sgt Devers, who was the son of William and Sarah Devers of Lisnaskea, was killed in action on January 29, 1918, at the age of 29. He's listed as the husband of Margaret Devers from Clifton Lodge, Liskeard in Cornwall.
But Mrs Foster said the archives didn't tell the whole story of Sgt Devers, who served with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.
For he was initially injured at the Somme and, after he went home to recuperate, insisted on returning to the front line, where he was fatally wounded.
He's buried at St Sever cemetery extension in Rouen, a city which had a large number of hospitals within its boundaries.
"Robert Devers was a member of Carson's volunteers, who joined the 36th Ulster Division and was posted to the Western Front," Mrs Foster said. "He chose to serve not just once, but having been injured at the Somme, he recuperated before volunteering to return to France, where he later was killed in action. Robert's story is similar to the many thousands of other young men who left our shores and did not return.
"A print of the famous painting by J P Beadle that depicts the 36th Ulster Division going over the top at the Somme on July 1, 1916, hangs on the wall of my office, and I was delighted to help launch the project by the Ulster Scots Agency to present every school in Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Republic with a copy of that picture and one marking Victoria Cross winners with links to Ulster."
Mrs Foster said that it was only right and proper to remember and honour "the brave young men who sacrificed so much to give us our freedom".
"The scale of sacrifice is difficult for us to comprehend, with Ulster casualties per head of the population being almost three times higher than that suffered by the rest of the nation," she added. "The grim news returned to nearly every town and village that much of a generation was wiped out in defending freedom.
"It is right that we pause to mark this momentous event and to take pride in the legacy they left behind. The famous words of Captain William Spender on the day after that terrible slaughter have been often quoted, but they still carry powerful emotion a century later: 'I am not an Ulsterman, but yesterday, the 1st July, as I followed their amazing attack, I felt that I would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in the world'."
Earlier this year, Mrs Foster attended a Church of Ireland-organised historical discussion in Dublin about the Easter Rising of 1916. She had already said she wouldn't be going to any commemoration of the Rising, but added that the discussion at Christ Church Cathedral was a serious historical reflection.
She said that she'd been struck by the revelation that, for every Irishman who was involved in the Rising, 17 were out fighting in the Great War.