One of the most important of the so-called decade of Irish centenaries was marked yesterday at a major ceremony in France.
The 100th anniversary of the beginning of the gruelling Battle of the Somme, which had one of the worst casualty levels of any battle anywhere, was commemorated at the Ulster Memorial Tower in Thiepval.
The event was attended by a large crowd of over 2,000 people and by Royalty, politicians from both sides of the Irish Sea and both sides of the border, military figures and religious leaders. It was one of several locations in Britain and Europe to remember the onset of the battle, in which more than a million people were killed or wounded.
The battle has a deep imprint in Ulster mythology, given the initially successful inroads but ultimately heavy casualties encountered by the 36th Ulster Division in a matter of hours on July 1 1916.
The Ulster Tower, one of the most striking war memorials in northern France, was built after the war to mark the scale of those sacrifices.
But while the Northern Irish sacrificies are not in dispute, they have sometimes overshadowed the scale of losses sustained by southern Irish soldiers in the British Army, roughly as many of whom were dead by the end of the bloody battle in late 1916.
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But while the Northern Irish sacrifices are not in dispute, they have sometimes overshadowed the scale of losses sustained by southern Irish soldiers in the British Army, roughly as many of whom were dead by the end of the bloody battle in late 1916.
A distinguished guest list included politicians and military leaders from the Republic of Ireland.
The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall were accompanied into the service by Sir Julian King, the ambassador to France and one-time ambassador to the Republic of Ireland.
The Royal couple had earlier attended the large memorial event at the nearby Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, where other representatives among the 10,000 people in attendance included the Prime Minister David Cameron, French president Francois Hollande, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry.
The Ulster Memorial Tower ceremony began at 2.30pm.
The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester were in attendance, as was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers, Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster and the Minister for Arts in the Republic, Heather Humphreys.
Monsieur Jean-Marc Todeschini attended, as did the Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt.
Many councillors from across Northern Ireland were present, including members of the SDLP such as Tim Attwood from Belfast.
In a setting surrounded by trees, and in conditions marked by intermittent rain, the service followed a traditional format including hymns, an act of remembrance, and the playing of the Last Post, and the national anthems of Britain and France.
The guests, who filled the venue to capacity, included many ex-servicemen and a large contingent of Orangemen.
The Archbishop of Cantebury, the Most Revd Justin Welby gave the closing prayer.
He told the News Letter that he come to the service because he had been asked.
It was his first time at the Ulster Tower.
He said that the contributions of the “Irish regiments and the Ulster regiments in particular” had been “absolutely crucial”.
The Labour MP Kate Hoey, who sat in the front row, said: “The ceremony was extremely moving and very beautifully done. It was very simple but very poignant and I was very proud to be here.”
Mrs Foster said it was her first visit to the Ulster Tower. She had been planning to go in the 1990s but was unable to do so because she was pregnant.
“When you see the geography, then you understand [the battle],” she said yesterday, standing near the slopes where Ulster soldiers sustained heavy casualties under fire.
More from the Somme on Monday
Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor