One hundred years ago in the poppy fields of Northern France, July 1, 1916, saw the single most hellish day of armed conflict, with the start of the Battle of the Somme.

In what became the bloodiest day in British military history, almost 20,000 men were killed in the first 24 hours of engagement with the German enemy.

A century on, as persistent rain fell over the now silent fields, royalty, political and religious leaders from Britain, France, and Ireland gathered to commemorate those who lost their lives.

The commemoration took place at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, outside Picardy in Northern France.

President Michael D Higgins laid a wreath in the name of the Irish people at the Cross of Sacrifice, as did members of the British royal family and European political leaders.

President Higgins travelled with his wife Sabina and the Minister for Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys. The Irish contingent was greeted in France by UK prime minister David Cameron and French prime minister Manuel Valls.

Almost 500 Irish citizens were also invited to attend the memorial in France alongside the President.

The commemoration was a joint UK-French event, with the President attending to remember the Irish soldiers who volunteered for the British army in the First World War.

The Somme is often seen by Britain as the war’s most brutal battle, with more than 1m lives lost between both sides. The memorial cemetery was built to honour 72,195 UK and South African soldiers whose bodies were never recovered following the battle.

French president François Hollande led the dignitaries and heads of states from around Europe in remembering the soldiers who died during the 141-day battle.

Members of the British royal family attending the event included Prince Charles and Camilla, Prince William and his wife the Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince Harry.

‘We gather to honour those lost in battle’

Prince Charles wrote ahead of the event that the centenary was a day to “honour the men who served from across Britain and Ireland, the Commonwealth and from France”.

President Higgins and representatives from Northern Ireland visited the Ulster Tower of the Thiepval Cemetery, paying respects to the men of the 36th Ulster Division who died on the fields on the Somme.

Ireland’s four main churches were represented and called for christians of all traditions to pray for peace in the challenging times ahead of Ireland and Europe. The archbishops of the Catholic Church and Church of Ireland stood side by side with the heads of the Presbyterian and Methodist Church of Ireland.


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