Order salutes bravery of Somme war heroes

Grand Master Edward Stevenson and Deputy Grand Master Harold Henning pay their respects at the war memorial in Ards earlier this month. 'Photograph: Graham Curry
Grand Master Edward Stevenson and Deputy Grand Master Harold Henning pay their respects at the war memorial in Ards earlier this month. 'Photograph: Graham Curry

The Battle of the Somme will forever be embedded within the soul of Orangeism.

Tomorrow, I will have the honour and privilege of representing the Orange Institution at the centenary commemorations in France.

One hundred years later, we remember with pride all those who served during the Great War, and in particular those who made the supreme sacrifice at Thiepval during the momentous battle.

As I attend services at the Ulster Tower and the Orange memorial I will think of those in the 36th (Ulster), as well as the 10th, 11th and the 16th (Irish) Divisions, and reflect on the many tens of thousands of members of the Orange Institution worldwide who bravely enlisted at that time.

I will recall the courage and fearlessness of those who fought at the Somme and other battlefields; many who took their Orange ritual and tradition with them to the trenches, with some even wearing their sashes as they went over the top to face the enemy.

The first of July 1916 was a fateful day. Exactly 226 years after King William III led his troops to victory at the Boyne it was tremendously symbolic that men draped in Orange once again took to the battlefield.

In such extraordinary circumstances, for many it was sadly the last time they would wear their sashes as they fell in the battle.

Whilst surrounded by red poppy fields, it would be remiss not to also think of the Orange lily, so synonymous with our Institution. Given the proud military pedigree and heritage of the Order, both flowers are poignantly symbolic of a generation lost in battle a century ago.

We must never forget the global nature of Orangeism’s contribution to the war effort.

It is estimated that as many as 200,000 Orangemen from across the world served in the First World War, with many thousands seeing action at the Somme. Naturally, lodges were depleted as members signed up for active service for King and country.

Right across the British Isles, the Commonwealth, and throughout the Orange fraternity worldwide, a common bond of selflessness prevailed. These were men and individuals united not only by their Christian faith, but also their collective willpower to defeat the enemy on the battlefields.

Their bravery was immense, with a number of Orange soldiers receiving the ultimate accolade – the Victoria Cross. This week we were reminded of the supreme gallantry of one of those individual recipients, Robert Quigg, whose service was recognised by Her Majesty the Queen in his hometown of Bushmills.

Quigg, and other Orangemen like him, fought alongside fellow soldiers from the Roman Catholic and nationalist traditions, whose valour was equal to that of their Protestant peers. We rightly acknowledge that joint and unified heroism in our commemorations.

We owe all of them an immense sense of gratitude and are indebted to those who served with such distinction. We salute the bravery of all those who voluntarily chose to bear arms in the defence of the freedoms we enjoy, and take for granted, today.

Whatever challenges lie ahead in the next century; 100 years on let us stand secure in their memory, as we remember them all.