Theresa Villiers at Thiepval to hail Somme dead

Theresa Villiers,  Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
Theresa Villiers, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The courage of the 36th Ulster Division at the Somme has been praised by Theresa Villiers ahead of the annual wreath-laying commemorations in France.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be at the Battlefield site today to take part in the Royal British Legion tribute.

Ms Villiers said the number of lives lost at the Somme – said to be unparalleled in British military history – should never be forgotten.

“It is a great honour for me to be at Thiepval to represent Her Majesty’s Government on this deeply moving and solemn occasion,” she said.

“The 36th Ulster Division suffered massive casualties, but their bravery was truly heroic leading one eyewitness to say that ‘Their attack was one of the finest displays of human courage in the world’.

“As a result, the Somme has left an indelible mark on Northern Ireland. I say this mindful of the vital role that so many men and women from Northern Ireland continue to play in our superb Armed Forces across the world today.”

Ms Villiers added: “It is also fitting that today we remember the sacrifice of the 16th Irish Division at Guillemont and elsewhere. They, too, suffered terribly.”

The Republic of Ireland’s heritage minister Dinny McGinley has accompanied the Secretary of State on the trip – a gesture she said was a reminder of the volunteers from south of the border who made the supreme sacrifice.

Meanwhile, First Minister Peter Robinson will lay a wreath in Belfast this morning to mark the 97th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

The Republic’s foreign minister Joe Costello TD is also due to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph service which will be led by the city’s deputy lord mayor Christopher Stalford.

Representatives of the armed forces, ex-services associations and main churches will also be taking part in the City Hall commemoration which begins at 11.15am.