Prelude to War


No one event or person caused the Great War, but perhaps one of the greatest contributing factors was, that on June 28, 1914, a Serbian fanatic assassinated Archduke Franz-Ferdinand of Austria. He was the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


Archduke Franz-Ferdinand of Austria


In the weeks after the assassination, the leaders of Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia saw war as the way to save their honour, as well as to solve the internal and international problems that needed to be resolved.
Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany supported Austria in punishing the Serbs. This set off a chain of events which saw Russia back Serbia - and her allies France and Britain to go to war.


 
 Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany





 Outbreak of War


At the outbreak of war, the German High Command activated the Schlieffen Plan, which called for a major offensive to capture Paris in precisely 42 days. According to the German generals the war would be over by Christmas, only five months after it began.




The Schlieffen Plan

 
 
But the Schlieffen Plan soon began to unravel. The German army, having advanced rapidly through
Belgium and deeply into France, found themselves physically exhausted and far ahead of their supply lines. As the German right flank drove towards Paris, it separated from the rest of the invading force. Recognizing their vulnerability, the Germans pulled up twenty-five miles short of Paris. Now it was France's chance to attack.
 
By mid-September, stalemate had begun and trench warfare had set in. No one suspected that the trench lines that stretched across
Western Europe by the end of December 1914 would not change much over the next four years. 




In Britain
, the Minister of War, Field Marshall Kitchener suspected that the war would last at least three years. In that case the British Expeditionary Force would need to be expanded. Unwilling to force conscription on the nation, he recommended a New Army be raised composed entirely of Volunteers.



 




Build-up to The Battle of The Somme


In Feb 1916 the Germans under the command of von Falkenhayn attacked the city of Verdun. The city had much historical significance for the French and von Falkenhayn knew the French would defend it to the last man.

The attack was massive and destined to continue until nearly the end of the year. The Germans had intended it to be overwhelming and hoped either for a breakthrough or to inflict so many casualties on the French that their will to continue the War would be broken. In the end the breakthrough did not materialise, and although severely tested, the French did not break.



Verdun Battlefields and Memorial today


Verdun
developed into a battle of attrition, and, by December, each side had suffered about 350,000 casualties.

By June 1916, the French were in a desperate situation.

They asked the British to help relieve the pressure at Verdun by launching an attack on the Somme by the end of the month. The British agreed and Sir Douglas Haig and Sir Henry Rawlinson (the British Commander of the battle itself) laid their plans.


 
Sir Douglas Haig, Commander in Chief
of British Forces




Sir Henry Rawlinson
Commander of British IV Army


The attack was set for 29th June and, for about three weeks before, every available British gun was brought to the Front, so that finally there was one gun for every seventeen yards of enemy front line.


British gun crew on the Somme


On 24th June the bombardment opened, and to those at the Front it seemed that nothing could survive the onslaught.1,537 artillery pieces and 467 heavy calibre guns, fired a total of 300,000 shells along the 18 mile front. However, in reality from the British point of view, there were several, very serious, but as yet undiscovered imperfections in the barrage which were to have awful consequences.



Shelling continued day and night


The 36th Ulster Division were part of Rawlinson’s 4th Army, X Th Corps.
For their attack the Ulster Division was composed of ten battalions with about 730 men per battalion. Their  Commanding Officer was Major-General Oliver Nugent.




Major-General Oliver Nugent

The Ulstermen’s objectives were advance up Thiepval Ridge and to take control of the A and B line trenches and then on to the Schwaben Redoubt, which consisted of a mass of gun emplacements, trenches and tunnels. This warren of defensive works helped anchor the German line on the Somme. Once the main area of the Schwaben Redoubt had been secured they were to go forward and secure the D-line trenches.  
 

On 26th and 27th June there was a series of heavy showers of rain, which continued into the 28th. Afterwards, although the sun came out, the land was still very wet and some trenches waterlogged. Consequently, the infantry attack was postponed until the 1st July. The barrage was also extended by 2 days, until just before the frontal assault.
The day had dawned clear and sunny – zero hour had been planned for 7.30am, when it had been light for 4 hours – this was to allow French Military Chiefs to observe the attack. 

                                                                  
    The Hawthorne Mine blown at 7.20 am 


At 7.20 a.m. a huge mine was detonated under part of the German lines; eight minutes later nine others were exploded.

                                                                                                    
At 7.30 the bombardment stopped and an eerie silence fell across the Front. A few seconds later bugles and whistles sounded and the first of the 120,000 soldiers all along the frontlines rose from their trenches and formed up in lines along no-man’s land. The smoke from the Stokes mortars concealed the men as they formed up.



Final Preparations


The soldiers were fortunate because they had assembled in Thiepval Wood and therefore a large number were hidden, from the vigilant enemy. Also, just beyond their Front Line, and at the edge of no-man's-land, was a sunken road where others could lie concealed and prepare for the advance. Many of the Ulstermen wore orange ribbons and one sergeant of the Inniskillings wore his Orange Sash.  Prayers were said, hymns were sung and the Ulster Division was ready for battle.



1st July

 

 

 
Seconds later, they went forward - Rawlinson's plan was to be put to the test.



The Ulster Division go "over the top"


At first all went well for the Ulstermen. The German wire had been cut in many places, and the leading waves reached the two German frontline trenches and move across them.

The second wave forming up in No Man’s Land now came under a heavy machine gun fire from the dominating position of
Thiepval Cemetery and the gun positions in the Schwaben Redoubt. When some of these men wavered, one Company Commander from the West Belfasts, Major George Gaffikin, took off his Orange Sash, held it high for his men to see and roared the traditional battle cry " Come on, boys! No Surrender!" This action encouraged a large number of men to follow him into the attack.





The 11th Inniskillings and 14th Rifles were literally mown down and No Man’s land became a ghastly spectacle of dead and wounded

The 32nd Division on the right were never able to clear Thiepval village and it was that fact which was responsible for the 36th Division's greatest losses.

 



Ulster Division assault on the Schwaben Redoubt


At 7.48 a.m. the B line of trenches were taken and exactly 1 hour later the C line was also in British hands. Even in the trenches they suffered great losses from flanking machine-gun fire, while movement from front to rear was almost impossible.
 


A deep wedge was now being cut into the German lines by the 36th Division but was not being matched by the divisions on either flank. The result was that the Division were suffering heavy losses in the German trenches.





At 9.16 the order came to halt the advance until the areas on either flank could be cleared, but the message could not be got through to the front line due to damaged telephone lines and runners being shot.

In the absence of the command to halt, the 107th Brigade continued their advance across the 1000 yards of open country to the D line trenches. Very few lived to tell the tale. Those that did told of desperate hand-to-hand fighting for the trench was full of German Reserves. When the odds were too great, the Ulstermen withdrew to the C line trenches.





As the day wore on, no-man's-land, which, before the assault, had been generally untouched by shelling, became, first of all an area of death to many who tried to cross it, and later on, as German shells pounded in, a shelter for the wounded. Injured men who lay in the open had to lie completely still or risk being shot again by German rifles and machine guns which continued their deadly work all day.

Supplies at the front line were running out fast and small supply groups being sent out from Thiepval Wood were being annihilated by enemy fire.






Due to the savagery of the German defence, further British attacks faltered and died away. The situation was now desperate – Major Peacock, second-in-command of the 9th Inniskillings had managed to cross no-man’s-land and with a bodyguard, managed to work his way up to an area of trenches known as the Crucifix – he quickly discovered that the holding of the ground taken was an impossibility unless Thiepval village and the gun positions in the Cemetery were taken. Major Blair Oliphant of the 11th Rifles brought in a similar report.


A counter attack, launched at dusk by fresh German troops who had been arriving at Grandcourt by train, pushed the 36th back to the A line trenches. By nightfall, the ground, which had been taken by the 36th Ulster Division at great sacrifice, had been lost due to lack of support on the flanks. As they retreated, they met the apprehensive troops of the West Riding Territorials, who had arrived too late to give relief at the Schwaben Redoubt. The West Yorks could only advance as far as the first line of German trenches which had been captured soon after the start of the Battle.


 


All along the British trenches chaos reigned. They were filled with the wounded and the dead, fresh soldiers who had come up to continue the battle but who could go no further forward, and with the shattered remnants of the troops who had attacked but who had now retreated back to supposed safety.





With darkness the cries of the wounded and frightened continued. Men walked, crawled, or were carried back to their own lines. Stretcher-bearers who had laboured heroically under fire through the day continued with their errands of mercy during the night.


 
Royal Irish Rifles Ration Party



On that day 1st July – The first day of The Battle of the Somme – the 36th (Ulster) Division were the only division of the allied forces on the Western Front to partially complete all of their objectives.




2nd July




During the night of the 1st/2nd July, three battalions from the 148th Brigade, 49th Division, were at least put at the disposal of the 36th Division, with the object of retaking the Schwaben Redoubt and attacking Thiepval village from the rear, with the assistance of the 107th and 109th Brigades. However at 1a.m, two of these battalions had not arrived and the attack had to be called off. The exhausted troops, holding on grimly to the 2nd line of German trenches had to beat off more enemy attacks through the night, but the line held and some prisoners were taken.

The heavily depleted units in the line now had to fight off vicious enemy attacks all through the second day and no further relief came. Casualties mounted and many of those who had survived the previous day's onslaught, lost their lives
to the terrible artillery and mortar fire brought to bear on them.




Map showing line held all day and final fallback positions



That night the 49th Division relieved the Ulster Division. The two remaining lines of trenches held were between A12 and A 19.
Their relief was not complete until 10 o’clock the following morning when a weary, tattered, pitiful remnant marched into Martinsart. Less than half those who went over the top on the 1st July, marched into Martinsart.





A few days later the Division was taken further back to reorganise in the Bernaville area. The Divisional Artillery, the Royal Engineers and the 16th Royal Irish Rifles remained in the
 line to carry on their hazardous duties in support of other divisions. On July 12th the 36th Ulster Division, less Artillery, received orders to move to Flanders




 Victoria Cross






Four members of the 36 Ulster Division were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions during the first 24 hours of the battle.

Lieutenant Cather of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers




During the evening of the 1st July he spent five hours in no-man’s land dragging men to safety. On one of these missions he did not return. He has no known grave.


Captain Eric Norman Bell of the 9th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers




Crept forward with a bombing party and when they were unable to advance due to machine gunfire, he went forward alone to attack the gun position. His body was never found.


Rifleman William McFadzean of the 14th Royal Irish Rifles


In the early hours of 1st July he was opening a box of grenades in a concentration trench in Thiepval Wood. The box slipped and fell into the crowded trench – 2 pins came out – with heroic bravery he threw himself on top of the bombs in an attempt to save his comrades. He was blown to pieces but only one other man was injured. He gave his life for his comrades. He was buried in Thiepval Wood.


Rifleman Robert Quigg of the 12th Royal Irish Rifles




During the night of the 1st July he went out into no-man’s land on seven occasons to look for his Platoon officer
Harry McNaughten who had not returned. Under heavy machine gun fire, he returned each time with a wounded man.

The body of Harry McNaughten was never found.

After the war, Robert Quigg returned to Bushmills to a hero's welcome. He remained in the army until 1934, when he retired with the rank of Sergeant.  He died in 1955 and was buried with full military honours in Billy Parish Churchyard, close to his Bushmills home.




Robert Quigg's gravestone in Billy Churchyard, Bushmills


Five more men from the 36th were awarded the Victoria Cross during the Great War and their names are on the memorial stone in the grounds of the
Ulster Tower.



 
Memorial stone to the 36th Ulster Division 





Casualties


For the British, who had staked so much on 1st July, the meagre achievements were a bitter disappointment. In simple terms, the right wing of their attack had been successful, with devastating failure in the centre and left flank.

The final casualty list totalled

57,470  dead,wounded,missing or taken prisoner 

of those,

19,240  were killed   -   993 of them officers.

Almost half the men of the 143 battalions who attacked had become casualties - the figures for officers being higher - only one in four officers who went over the top, remained unhurt!

As a comparison with other battles in which the British Army has fought - the British lost 8,458 at the Battle of Waterloo.  In the opening two offensives in 1917, at Arras and Messines ( both of which employed a similar number of troops as at the Somme), the British suffered 13,000 losses, over three days. In World War II, on D-Day the British and Canadians combined suffered 4,000 casualties.

Perhaps the most astounding comparison is that on the opening day of the battle of the Somme, the British Army lost more men that their total for the Crimean War,the Boer War and the Korean War combined!

 




The Ulster Division’s casualties over the two days amounted to
5,104 officers and other ranks, killed, wounded or missing.
Some battalions had almost disappeared.

The regiment, which suffered the most, was the Royal Inniskiling Fusiliers.
One battalion of the Inniskillings suffered 2,208 dead, the greatest death toll ever inflicted on a British regiment in one day.

The Belfast newspapers, as elsewhere on 3rd July, reported the Somme Offensive, and spoke of brilliant successes. It was several days before the true horror of the casualties was known, and as day by day the lists in the newspapers grew longer, the whole Province went into mourning.





In the streets of
Belfast, as in other towns and villages throughout Ulster, mothers looked out in dread for the red bicycles of the telegram boys. In house after house, the blinds were drawn until it seemed that every family in the city had been bereaved. 1,800 of the men who left Belfast in 1915, never returned.

The small County Antrim town of Ballyclare had over 30 killed and over 100 injured. Almost every town and village in the land had suffered.

In Belfast on the 12th July, all business and traffic halted and the whole City fell silent for five minutes. There was no 12th Demonstration that year.




The battle continued on for several more months although never on the scale of July 1st, and finally ended 140 days later on 14th November when the Germans retreated to a new line of fortifications called The Hindenberg Line.

Exact and accurate figures are hard to find, but it is certain that by the end of the battle, for an advance, of six miles at most, the British had suffered 400,000 casualties. Total casualties of the three countries involved - British, French, and German - came to over 1,300,000, which were almost equally divided, between the Germans and the Allies. What had been planned as the "Big Push" which might end the War had turned into a horrifying battle of attrition.

In no war, before or since, on the opening day of a battle, did the British lose so many men as they did on the first day of the Somme. 

After the Somme, the battalions had to be re-organised and brought up to strength with men from many sources and so ended the era of the "Pals" batallions. In this respect the Ulster Division suffered greatly - for political reasons conscription had never been enforced in Ireland  and so after the Somme, the Division was made up of whatever men were available. In doing so it lost its majority Ulster Protestant nature.

The 36th Ulster Division went on to play a major role in amongst others, the battles of Messines, Cambrai, St. Quentin and the Third Battle of Ypres, which become known in later years as Passchendaele.

 



Elsewhere on the Frontline


It would be wrong to imply that the Somme was only about the 36th Ulster Division, for their heroic struggle was only a small part of the bigger picture along the 18 mile front. Elsewhere, battalions of men both Regulars and those in Kitchener's New Army (the Pals battalions), battled bravely in the face of the vicious German onslaught. On some sections of the front, small gains were made, which were held and reinforced later - on others death and slaughter was widespread. Many other acts of heroism were performed by Allied troops along the front.

At Mametz Wood, the 38th Welsh Division suffered heavy losses as they battled to gain control of the heavily fortified German positions in the wood.The Welsh Division lost about 4,000 men killed or wounded in this bloody engagement.



38th Welsh Division Memorial


At Beaumont Hamel, the Newfoundland Regiments fought as part of the 29th Division. On 1st July, 801 soldiers of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment rose from the British trenches and went into battle at Beaumont Hamel. The next day, only 68 men answered the regimental role call. 255 were dead, 386 were wounded, and 91 were listed as missing. Every officer who had gone over the top was either wounded or dead.

To this day, Beaumont-Hamel remains the most significant single military action fought by Newfoundlanders and a turning point in the history and culture of the island.
The battlesite, Newfoundland Memorial Park, covers 84 acres and was purchased by the Government of Newfoundland as a memorial to their armed forces. It is now a designated Canadian Historic Site and Monument and has the best-preserved trenches of the whole battlefront. The memorial is in the form of a Caribou crying for its missing young and is one of the most poignant on the whole Somme battlefront.


29th Division Memorial and preserved trenches



Also in the park is the monument to the 51st Highland Division who suffered over forty per cent casualties in clearing an area called the Y-Ravine. The memorial is located near the
Y-Ravine on the 84 acre Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial  site. This location had been the scene of the fiercest fighting for the division on
November 13, 1916 during the closing portion of the Battle of the Somme.



51st Highland Division Memorial


The 12th Gloucestershire Regiment sustained heavy losses whilst fighting in the battle in the area around Contalmaison and Ovillers. By the end of the month they were in the line facing Delville Wood or `Devil’s Wood` as it had already become known. This attack required the Battalion to advance in daylight over a distance of one and a half miles, in full view of the enemy and as a target for the murderous machine-gun and artillery fire. The attack was successful in the terms of the First World War but the cost to the `Bristol’s` was horrendous for in this brief action one officer and 44 men were killed and another 48 were missing. Six officers and 225 other ranks were wounded. From a total of 913 men, 324 had been killed or injured in their first full action.


 
12th Gloucestershire Regiment Memorial





Orangemen in the Great War


It is estimated that 200,000 members of the Orange Institution Worldwide saw active service during the First World War, with approximately 80,000 of these coming from Canada alone. Throughout the world the number of Orangemen joining up was high.

On the outbreak of war, Sir James H. Stronge, Grand Master of Ireland, said
"It is not for Orangemen to limit their patriotism to service on our shores or to wait until the law compels them to take up arms. It is for us to do our duty betimes and with a good will as citizens of a great united Empire, trusting God will deliver us from the dangers both foreign and domestic, by which we are now encompassed".


In Scotland, the numbers of enlisted Orangemen was as high as 85% of those who were eligible and on the other side of the world, Australian and New Zealand Brethren joined in large numbers to serve King and Country.

Even for those Orangemen who remained at home, their thoughts and prayers were with their Brethren. In June 1916, the ten Belfast Orange Districts presented bagpipes, side drums and a bass drum to the 36th (Ulster) Division.


The Grand Orange Lodge of England showed their commitment to the cause when in October 1916, they launched an Appeal Fund on behalf of a hospital ward for the exclusive use of Ulstermen and Orangemen at the Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital in Nottingham. The Duke of Portland officially opened the Ulster Recreation Hut and Orange Ward on 16th January 1917.


The Grand Orange Lodge of England also tried to cater for the Spiritual needs of the men at the Front by setting up a fund to supply Bibles to the troops and there is evidence of The Good Book literally saving a soldiers life when he was shot - the bullet was stopped by the Bible inside his tunic! 




Military Lodge 862, (East Belfast Volunteers) before
the Battle of The Somme


The Grand Orange Lodge of England issued warrants to Military Lodges and in due course, as many as fifteen Lodges meeting on the Western Front. Warrants were also issued to Lodges formed at training Camps throughout the United Kingdom. 

One Military Lodge at the front was East Belfast Volunteers LOL 862 (pictured above) - after the Armistice and demobilisation, this Lodge returned their warrant to the Grand Lodge of England and the members formed a new Lodge with a warrant from the Grand Lodge of Ireland. This new Lodge had in its ranks, many members of the Ulster Division who had fought in France and so was named 36th (Ulster) Division Memorial LOL 977  - this Lodge continues to this day.


The Boyne Anniversary at the front was first celebrated on 12th July 1915. Bro. George Sherwood a native of Belfast serving with the Canadian Army Service Corps tells the story.

"We (the Canadians) all gathered together with a good many Ulstermen to celebrate the Battle of the Boyne. The procession started from "Shrapnel Square" and was headed by an old scout mounted on a white horse with its mane and tail plaited with Orange and Purple ribbon. Next came the fife and drums well decorated with Orange Lilies and "No Surrender" was painted on the flag we carried"

 

Every opportunity was taken to further the Orange cause and the military Lodges lost no time in seeking out new candidates. A report of the December 1915 Meeting of Young Citizens Volunteers L.O.L.871, meeting in the attic of a bomb damaged house, advised that there was a long list of candidates proposed. In many places along the frontline, Lodges held meetings in any available building or if there was none, in the trenches. Meetings were eagerly anticipated and proved to be a great leveller amongst the men - where else would the situation have arisen where an Officer would have to address a Private as " Worshipful Master"!







There are many reports of Orange celebrations taking place on the front, just as they would at home - on one occasion in December 1915, the South Antrim Volunteers LOL 863 celebrated the closing of the gates of Derry in 1688, by parading through a village complete with band, fireworks and two effigies of the traitor Lundy, which were promptly burned, to great cheers from the Brethren and onlookers!

 
This has been described as Orangeism’s greatest triumph and heaviest defeat. Triumph in the numbers who joined the war effort, but defeat in that the Institution lost so many of its young men.Three Orangemen were awarded the Victoria Cross for the heroic part they played.


 One of those who had made the ultimate sacrifice, was, Major George Gaffikin, who had rallied the West Belfasts, with his Orange Sash. He was badly wounded leading his men into the Schwaben Redoubt and later died at a Casualty Clearing Station.




Military Lodge 862, after the Battle of The Somme


Many Lodges, both at the Front and back home, were decimated due to casualties sustained in the battle. In Belfast, as a mark of respect, there was no Twelfth Demonstration that year, but the Grand Lodge of Ireland held a service in the Ulster Hall on 10th July, at which they passed the following resolution:

"That we express our intense gratification at the heroism and self-sacrificing stand made by the Ulster Division in France. That we express our deep sympathy with those who have been bereaved and also with our gallant soildiers wounded and in hospital and we pray that the God of all grace may pour out His spirit of comfort on the multitude of sorrowing hearts".



The Ulster Division's Infantry battalions were only a shadow of their former selves, so great was the loss. In those first few days after the Somme, the men were very quiet, each one reflecting on the comrades and lifelong friends they had lost - but if anything, time is a great healer and in war, a week is a long time. These men had at least accomplished their task in the face of incredible difficulties.

On the 12th July 1916, General Nugent and his Staff saw battalions of the 107th Brigade marching from the train station of Thiennes into Blaringhem. The sun was shining on the old Flemish village. Officers and men wore marigolds in their caps to honour the day, the bands played "King William's March". The Ulster Division was regrouping - their confidence returning.

They marched like victors, as was their right. 








The Aftermath

On 8th November 1918, a German delegation met with Allied Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch - who was to lead the military negotiations - in the forest of Compiegne, some 65 km north-east of Paris.The armistice was formally signed in Foch's railway carriage on 11th November 1918.
The Great War finally ended with the total surrender of the German Armies.
Six months later the Treaty of Versailles was signed which punished
Germany
and her allies heavily for the destruction of the war years.





Armistice signed in the forest of Compiegne


There are many reasons for the slaughter on that first day of the
Somme and the repercussions it would have for all the nations involved. Tactical inflexibility, poor quality munitions and not enough heavy calibre guns all contributed to the slaughter.That in itself could be debated for years.


The phrase “Lions led by donkeys” has been often been used to describe the part played by the forces on the ground and their commanders, but in recent years a more sympathetic understanding has come to the fore. It was the largest battle the British Army had ever taken part in and to a certain extent they were unprepared for it. The men literally walked to their deaths weighed down by heavy pack, but the Commanding officers had genuinely believed that the week-long bombardment would have obliterated the German defences and all the British frontline troops had to do was walk across no-man's land and take the enemy trenches.

M
any vital lessons, learned on the Somme, were put to important use in subsequent battles. The role tanks could play in battle being just one of those. Many of these lessons contributed to British successes in the following years of the war and indeed in World War 2. 
 



New York Times reports the Armistice


After the Armistice, most of the Divisions of Kitcheners New Armies of Volunteers were disbanded. Men were de-mobbed and gladly returned home to their loved ones and civilian life.


By January 1919 the 36th (
Ulster) Division had ceased to exist. But the men of the 36th Ulster Division had done more than kill Germans when they stormed the the Schwaben Redoubt on 1st July.

"The Ulster Division has lost more than half the men who attacked and in doing so, has sacrificed itself for the Empire which has treated them none too well. The much derided Ulster Volunteer Force has won a name which equals any in history. Their devotion, which no doubt has helped the advance elsewhere, deserves the gratitude of the British Empire. It is due to the memory of these brave heroes that their Province shall be fairly treated."
                                                  Major W. Spender 36th (Ulster) Division H.Q.


When the majority of Ireland became the Irish Free State in 1921, most of Ulster was not forced into an unwanted union with the South. The sacrifice by men of the Ulster Division in the war, especially on 1st July was a factor influencing this concession, just as major Spender had hoped it would be.
In 1921 most of
Ireland became the Irish Free State.


Ulster
- minus the counties of Cavan, Donegal, and Monaghan - remained part of the Union with the United Kingdom. The decision was to no small extent earned by the sacrifices of the Ulster Division - many of those men had been members of the Ulster Volunteer Force before war had broken out. The UVF had been established to preserve the Union, and the devotion to duty of those who fought and died at the Somme
eventually achieved this aim as their reward.









The Battlefield Today



Today the battlefield has reverted to the quiet countryside of rural Picardy. Crops grow in the fields and tall trees in woods have replaced the shattered stumps of ninety years ago. Trenches have been filled in and the barbed wire has gone. The land is at peace.



The key positions on the battlefield where the Ulster Division fought



Many of the
Ulster dead are buried at the edge of Thiepval Wood in the Connaught Cemetery
.


A grave in Connaught Cemetary

A short distance away to the north, across the sunken road and up the hill is the site of the Schwaben Redoubt.



Mill Road Cemetary


At its northwestern edge is the
Mill Road Cemetery
. This is approximately where the front of the Schwaben Redoubt stood. Here there is a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside and former battlefield.  Many of the gravestones are laid flat due to subsidence caused by the extensive underground tunnels of the Schwaben Redoubt.



View of Thiepval Wood from Mill Rd Cemetary


Stand in the cemetery and look down the slope towards Thiepval Wood – this is the exact ground the Ulsters had to cover under intense fire to reach the Schwaben Redoubt.

On your right behind the line of trees is the 36th (
Ulster) Division's Memorial. This is the Ulster Tower, built as an almost exact replica of Helen's Tower in Clandeboye Estate near Bangor in County Down, where many of the soldiers of the Ulster Division trained.




The Ulster Tower Memorial



On
Saturday 19 November 1921, the completed Ulster Memorial Tower was unveiled by Field -Marshall Sir Henry Wilson. The people of Ulster paid for the tower and it was the first official memorial to be erected on the Western Front.


In the tower itself, the Memorial Chapel is full of commemorative plaques, flags, standards and pictures of Irish actions.












Around the walls are inscribed the words:

Helen’s Tower here I stand

Dominant over sea and land

Son’s love built me and I hold

Ulster’s love in lettered gold.


 



To the rear of the tower is a small garden housing the Orange Order memorial to fallen Brethren. It is a striking black marble obelisk with gold lettering.






Beside it is a bench dedicated to Orange Brethren who were awarded the Victoria Cross.





On 1st July 1994 a new visitor’s centre was opened to the left of the tower.

In 2004, the Somme Association purchased Thiepval Wood and are currently excavating and restoring some of the trenches. Daily tours are available to see the historic trenches.



Reconstructed Trench in Thiepval Wood




The Thiepval Memorial


A few hundred yards to the southeast, and visible for miles around, is the Memorial to the Missing. It stands now on the site of the ruined Thiepval Chateau. Inscribed are the names of over 73,000 British, Irish and South African men who have no known graves and who fell on the Somme between July 1916 and 20th March 1918. The Memorial stands 45 metres tall and is visible for miles around. It is the largest British War Memorial in the world. In September 2004, The Duke of Kent opened the nearby visitor's centre.



 



The men - or perhaps, more accurately, the boys - who fought in the Great War were not supermen, but ordinary citizens who were caught up in a war they did not really comprehend, but who, nevertheless, fought and died for a cause in which they truly believed -
their Country and their freedom.







 In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below
In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow
In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow


We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.


Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow









 




 

 

 

 

 





4 members of the Ulster Division were awarded the VC for actions during the first 24 hours of the battle.