Somme trip a fitting tribute to mark 99th anniversary of battle in France

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Former local councillor Ronnie Harkness and his wife Lesley have spent some time in France where on the 99th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme they attended no fewer than five commemorations.

Mr Harkness, a keen war historian and former Craigavon councillor, is a regular visitor to the war graves in France, and has just published a book on the Portadown Fallen from World War One. It is called ‘Where the Brave Live Forever’.

It will be officially launched at Portadown Library on Wednesday, July 29, at 7pm and members of the public are cordially invited.

While in France on their five-site tour – which embraced a single day – Ronnie and Lesley met up with four ABC councillors and other NI politicians – but more of that later.

In early morning they attended the commemoration to the 16th Royal Scots in the small hamlet of Contalmaison, where the men of McCrae’s Battalion were remembered.

This was the battalion that comprised of the entire Heart of Midlothian team that was leading the league at the time of their enlistment along with several hundreds of their supporters. Master of Ceremonies was Jack Alexander who is author of the renowned book, ‘McCrae’s Battalion’. Also present were folksingers Craig Herbertson and Ed Westerdale who, along with local schoolchildren, sang the popular Scots folk song, ‘Hearts of Glory’.

Next up was the The Royal British Legion’s Service of Remembrance at Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. It was noticeable that the attendance was surprisingly small compared with previous years, perhaps due to a ferry strike at English ports which prevented many coach tours from making the annual pilgrimage.

It was the customary attendance at the Order of Divine Service at the Ulster Tower when Northern Ireland visitors turned out in large numbers. The new ABC Council was represented by Councillors Colin McCusker, Sam Nicholson, Mark Baxter and Jonny Buckley, who laid the wreath. Several Portadown people helped swell the crowd. Michelle McIlveen represented the OFMDFM and Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt was also in attendance.

An hour after the Ulster Tower ceremony, it was off to the small village of Guillemont to remember the men of the 16th (Irish) Division who had made the Supreme Sacrifice. Again ABC councillors paid their respects, the wreath being laid by Sam Nicholson accompanied by Jonny Buckley and Colin McCusker.

In a jam-packed itinerary, Ronnie and Lesley made their way to Fricourt German Cemetery where an Annual Service of Remembrance has been held in recent years, attracting larger attendances on each occasion. Representatives of French, German and British authorities laid the customary wreaths whilst the ceremony concluded with the playing of three national anthems.

Ronnie paid tribute to the French fire and medical officers who kept a close watch on all attendees during the heat of 35-plus degrees Celsius. At least three standard bearers were overcome during the day by the extreme temperatures and they were treated immediately by medical personnel.

For next year, attention turns to the Centenary commemorations of the Somme in July 2016. The British Government has anticipated an attendance in excess of 10,000, and therefore attendance will be limited and admission by ticket only.

Tickets will be free and allocated through a public ballot. The ballot will be launched on September 28, 2015. The Government does, however, state that those organisations which traditionally attend will be represented.

For those travelling to France and unable to receive tickets, there are plans to broadcast the Thiepval event live on large screens in a number of towns throughout the Somme region. Details will be available at a later date.