Northern Ireland

Battle of the Somme centenary: Preparing to commemorate Ulster soldiers

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Media captionA special commemorative service will take place on the battlefield in July

BBC News NI reporter Mervyn Jess visits the Ulster Memorial Tower at Thiepval, as preparations are made to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

World War One was supposed to be "the war to end all wars". It wasn't.

Two years into the bloody and seemingly endless conflict, a plan was drawn up by the Allied Forces generals to strike a decisive blow against the Germans that would bring the slaughter to a conclusion.

By the time the Battle of the Somme was over several months later, more than a million men were killed, wounded or missing in action.

'Bloodiest day'

However, it is the losses suffered on the first day of the battle that resonate most strongly within the province of Ulster.

The fighting began at 07:20 on the morning of 1 July 1916.

Image caption Three regiments from the British army's 36th Ulster Division suffered heavy losses during the Battle of the Somme

Men of the 36th Ulster Division were among the 100,000 Allied soldiers who went "over the top" to face the German army on the slopes around Thiepval and Beaumont Hamel on the valley of the River Somme.

It was to become known as the "bloodiest day of the British army".

By the time the Ulster Division was taken off the front line the following day it had suffered around five thousand casualties with more than two thousand of them killed.

Sixty thousand soldiers from the Commonwealth and France had become casualties of war - about 20,000 of them died in the fighting.

'Walked into hell'

Despite the horrendous losses, the battle raged on and by September, the 16th Irish Division, made up of soldiers from the southern counties of Ireland, had suffered nearly 4,500 casualties with 1,200 of them killed. Even more Irishmen died fighting with other allied divisions.

Image caption The Ulster Memorial Tower attracts people from across the island of Ireland who come to France to visit war graves and battlefields

The Ulster Memorial Tower at Thiepval stands proud on the site of the battle in memory of those who died fighting with the 36th Ulster Division.

The division included three regiments - the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Rifles, along with volunteers from the Ulster Volunteer Force, an armed militia set-up by unionists to oppose Home Rule in Ireland.

The tower attracts people from Ireland north and south and other nationalities who come to visit the war graves and the battle sites.

Each year on Armistice Day, a small remembrance service is held at the memorial.

Image caption Last November, a number of people gathered at the Ulster Memorial Tower in Thiepval for the annual Armistice Day memorial service

Among those attending the latest ceremony was Avril Nicholl from Doagh in County Antrim.

"It's very moving coming to the Somme" she says.

"When you think of all those young lads leaving home for France with smiles on their faces, they just walked into hell. It was unbelievable.

Image caption Avril Nicholl was among those who attended the annual Armistice Day memorial service in November

"When they came out of their trenches in Thiepval wood they never even got across the road. They were just gunned down."

The Doagh woman believes there will an upsurge in the number of visitors this year because of the centenary.

"I think there are more people planning to come over. I just wish people back home would come more often and support the Ulster Memorial because this is where it all happened."

'In tears'

Teddy Colligan is the official guardian of the Ulster Memorial Tower at Thiepval. He conducts tours of the battlefield and helps people locate the war graves of their relatives.

"No matter how many times you do it or how long you've been here it still affects you," he says.

Image caption Teddy Colligan is the official guardian of the Ulster Memorial Tower at Thiepval

"I was in the cemetery with a lady who had never been here before, as she placed a small poppy wreath at a relative's headstone. Her and I both came out of the cemetery together.... in tears."

The local mayor Max Potie also attends the annual remembrance ceremony at the tower. He says it is important that the current generation of French people do not forget what was sacrificed on the fields around Thiepval.

"We realise that as you get older, all these men came over here freely to help us hold onto our freedom in France and elsewhere in the world, but particularly in France.

Image caption Thiepval's mayor, Max Potie, said the people of France must not forget the sacrifices made by foreign soldiers who died on French soil in WW1

"It showed a union between the countries to be able to keep our freedom and our fraternity," the mayor added.

Stories about the Somme continue to be told by people like Teddy for the next generation of visitors to places of memorial like the Ulster Tower.

The same stories that were probably told in the years immediately after the battle, a battle during which the slaughter was so great that the Somme was forever seared into the memories of the communities the soldiers came from across Ulster.