Ben Lowry: ‘When you look at the exposed fields of the Somme, the horror makes sense’

Former RUC officer Cecil Haire from Co Fermanagh and his grand children Aaron (left) and Calib (right) look down across a sloping poppy field near the Ulster Memorial Tower at Thiepval, France, on Friday, when a ceremony to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme was  held. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Former RUC officer Cecil Haire from Co Fermanagh and his grand children Aaron (left) and Calib (right) look down across a sloping poppy field near the Ulster Memorial Tower at Thiepval, France, on Friday, when a ceremony to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme was held. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
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The location of the Ulster Tower gives a vivid sense of the fighting that took place there, writes Ben Lowry:

To anyone who has not been to the Somme battlefields, it is hard to have any real sense of the disaster that unfolded.

Deputy grand master of the Orange Order Harold Henning, left, and his son David look at a graphic of the advance of the 36th Ulster Division on the opening day of the Somme. The father and son were at the Ulster Memorial Tower, Thiepval on the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, July 1 2016. By Ben Lowry

Deputy grand master of the Orange Order Harold Henning, left, and his son David look at a graphic of the advance of the 36th Ulster Division on the opening day of the Somme. The father and son were at the Ulster Memorial Tower, Thiepval on the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, July 1 2016. By Ben Lowry

When you have only read about the offensive, as was my situation prior to Friday’s commemorative service, then it is hard to distinguish the Somme from so many Great War battle scenes that you hear about in which men emerged from trenches to face relentless gunfire in poppy fields.

But when you do go to the Somme, and in particular to the Ulster Memorial Tower (from which you can see in the distance the bigger Thiepval Memorial), it all makes sense.

You can see the ridges where the Germans were entrenched, taking advantage of the higher ground – positions that the British soldiers were trying to capture.

You can see the exposed slopes that the UK soldiers, including many men from the 36th Ulster Division, had to traverse to get to those German lines.

Ulster Unionist councillor Richard Smart and DUP councillor Alistair Cathcart look out across poppy fields at  the Ulster Memorial Tower, Thiepval, on the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, July 1 2016. By Ben Lowry

Ulster Unionist councillor Richard Smart and DUP councillor Alistair Cathcart look out across poppy fields at the Ulster Memorial Tower, Thiepval, on the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, July 1 2016. By Ben Lowry

You can see the trees of Thiepval Wood, from which the allied attackers emerged.

And also the trees which the Germans used as their defence.

Many of the trees of course will have changed over the course of a century, some newer and some gone, but many of them will not have changed and the contours of the battle scene are still very clear.

The Ulster Tower, which is now an incongruously pretty and quiet place given the horror that happened at its location, is placed in the heart of where all the action was.

It is situated above the poppy fields that still contain bones, and that slope down to Thiepval Wood.

On Friday I was sitting beside the Irish Times journalist Ronan McGreevy on a coach as we arrived at the tower before the centenary service. As the vehicle chugged up on a lane between the fields Mr McGreevy pointed out of the windows and gave a commentary on where the bulk of the military assault took place, beside the lane, and where the deaths happened.

Like most Northern Irish people I have known about the Somme battle since childhood, including taking part in a school play 30 years ago that included sections of Frank McGuinness’s ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme’. Yet not until Friday, when I was in the terrain itself, could I finally understand why the allies launched the Somme attack, the logistical problems that the offensive posed, and how exposed the attacking soldiers necessarily were.

Looking down at those approach slopes from the Ulster Tower, you get a chilling sense not just of how terrifying it all must have been for the Irishmen, but also for the German defenders.

Suddenly on July 1, in what must have seemed like a hellish sequence, they had these Ulstermen warriors rushing at them from the trees with such force that they penetrated the outer German defences.

On Friday, the deputy grand master of the Orange Order, Harold Henning from Rathfriland in Co Down, and his son David, showed me a graphic on a mobile phone that mapped out the Ulster advances.

Using arrows, it shows how far men from the division got up the hills to the German lines. Also using arrows it shows the direction of the ferocious German response (from three sides) that was launched to stop the assault.

“The 36th made the biggest advance and had to turn back,” said Harold Henning.

“The Somme is immortal in the memory of Ulster folk – the blood that was shed here.”

David Henning, aged 23, pointed at a looping arrow in the graphic that shows the Ulster progress into German territory, further than other British advances, and said: “That is sticking out a mile. Only one other division got through a front line, while the Ulster got through a front line, a support line and right up to a German second line position.”

Pointing to the German arrows, he added: “You can see they were counter attacked from the back and both sides.”

One of the German machine guns fired the most rounds at the Ulster Division, and inflicted huge casualties as it poured concentrated fire at the advancing soldiers.

Arlene Foster, who was also on her first visit to the Ulster Memorial Tower, said that she too had only been able to grasp fully the logistics of the Battle of the Somme on Friday when she was there.
“When you see the geography, then you understand,” she said, speaking after Friday’s service.