Conservative MP and former Army officer Bob Stewart had the House of Commons in rapt silence this week as he recalled having to bury six of his men after a bomb explosion in Northern Ireland.
Colonel Stewart, who served during the Troubles and later became the first British commander of UN forces in Bosnia, recalled the tragedy during a poignant tribute to the soldiers who fell during the Battle of the Somme a century ago.
Speaking during a Parliamentary debate on Wednesday called to mark the 100th anniversary of the bloody First World War battle, Col Stewart lamented the “utterly horrific” slaughter at the Somme.
And he used the debate to remember comrades he served with who were killed when the Irish National Liberation Army detonated a bomb at a nightclub popular with British soldiers in Ballykelly in Northern Ireland in 1982.
He told a silent Chamber: “In 1982 when I was a terribly good looking young Major and company commander in Northern Ireland I lost my company.
“I had six men killed and 35 wounded, not quite casualties like the Ulster Division had, but not far off, as in the First World War in one incident – the Ballykelly bomb.
“I had to not only be the incident commander through the night, but it took me six hours to identify my men. I then had to bring them home. They were all buried within the boundaries of Cheshire.”
As he walked towards St George’s Church in Stockport, where he was attending his second funeral in a week, he saw an old lady standing opposite crying, he told MPs.
“I crossed the road and put my arms around her, and I said to her ‘Don’t worry darling he is out of his pain’”, he recounted.
“She said ‘You don’t understand young man’.
“And in my mind I was thinking, I bloody understand, I held him as he died. I understand. And she read my mind, I didn’t say it but she read what I was thinking, and she said: ‘No you don’t understand. You clearly don’t understand.
“’When I was a little girl I stood on this spot and I watched 800 men off the 6th Cheshires go into that church. When they came back after the Battle of the Somme they filled three pews.’”
Col Stewart said the carnage of the Battle of the Somme was “enormous” with some companies wiped out entirely.
He said: “They stood no chance. I don’t suppose today we can get even near understanding how difficult it must have been to keep going, through the oozing mud, the wire, the shell holes, while your closest friends were dropping around you often in agony.
“The effect on our soldiers must have been utterly horrific.”