MEMBERS of the Friends of the Somme Mid-Ulster Branch have just returned from their thirteenth annual trip the Somme and other sites commemorating the dead of the World Wars in France, and Belgium.
The group now has more than 80 members, 51 of whom made this year's trip to the various sites, sights and remembrance services.
Setting off from Larne on Thursday, June 28 they sailed to Cairnryan in Scotland before making their way to Hull where they caught the ferry to Zeebrugge and arrived in Belgium the following morning where they then made their way to their hotel in the town of Arras.
After meeting with fellow members Maurice Clements from Cookstown and Niall Grant from Belfast the travellers set off for the Evensong Service at St. George's Memorial Church in Ypres. The service was conducted by the Reverend Canon Raymond Jones (Ypres) with the assistance of The Reverend Canon RJN Porteus M.A., Rector of Derryloran Parish Church, Cookstown & Chaplain to Cookstown Branch, Royal British Legion, who delivered the sermon. The readings were read by Marjorie Harvey (Cookstown) and John Ritchie (Larne).
The Prayers of Intercession were led by Rita Hawkes (Ypres), Churchwarden. A poppy cross was laid by David Shaw (Ahoghill) who also pronounced the exhortation. Piper Rodney Dillon (Magherafelt) played the lament.
The following members of the group sang in the choir, Hazel Mullan (Stewartstown), Kathleen Price (Lisburn), Rita Espie (Cookstown), Eileen Boggs (Cookstown), Jack Price (Lisburn), Walter Mullan (Cookstown), John Ritchie, David Shaw, and the trip coach driver, Brian Eardley. The collection was lifted by Rita Hudson (Magherafelt) and Marguerite Johnston (Newcastle).
Here the members met with their good friend Dame Patricia McBride-Windsor Hawkins M.B.E. before marching to the Menin Gate led by piper Rodney Dillon for the 'Last Post Service' where a wreath was laid on behalf of the group by Ronnie Smyth (Newmills), escorted by Brian Johnston (Newcastle), and Jimmy Gallagher (Dungannon).
The exhortation was pronounced by Ronnie Curry, Chairman of Castledawson Branch, Royal British Legion, while Rodney Dillon played the lament. After the service the group enjoyed a social evening in the Royal British Legion in Ypres before returning to their hotel.
The next morning, Saturday June 30, the members set off for the Somme area where their first port of call was Dernacourt Military Cemetery. Here the members assembled at the At the grave of Sgt. P.J. Weir and held an emotional service of remembrance for two of their members who died earlier in the year, Roy Weir M.B.E. (Fivemiletown) and Harry McKinney (Cookstown).
John Ritchie paid a lovely tribute to these two founder members of the group while piper Rodney Dillon played a Hymn and a lament as Kathleen Price laid a poppy wreath from Joan Allen (Leeds), cousin of Roy. She was accompanied by Maurice Clements and Brice Espie (Cookstown) who placed poppy crosses beside the wreath in memory of Roy and Harry.
From here it was on to the Ginchy Cross at Guillemont where members paid tribute to the 16th Irish Division before moving on to Thiepval Visitors Centre and the Ulster Tower where they enjoyed a tour of the trench system at Thiepval Wood courtesy of Teddy Colligan, who along with his wife Phoebe are the caretakers of the Ulster Hall.
After stopping at Connaught Cemetery, Ancre Cemetery and Pozières British Cemetery, the group's last call of the day was at Albert Communal Military Cemetery.
Sunday, July 1, marked the 91st Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and in keeping with this the members made their way to the Thiepval Memorial for the 'Missing of the Somme Service' before moving on to Authille Military Cemetery and then to Ulster Memorial Tower for a further Remembrance Service.
Immediately afterwards the members attended a Service at the Orange International Memorial. Wreaths were laid on behalf of various Lodges and Districts. Visits were then made to Englebelmer Communal Cemetery and Arras Memorial to the Missing and War Cemetery while the last visit for the day was to the Mur De Fusilee.
The next morning, July 2, saw the group leave Arras for the journey down to Normandy. En route they stopped at Marseille French Military Cemetery in Beauvais and held a service in memory of the men of "The Garstin Stick" (S.A.S. Paratroopers executed by the Nazi's on 9th August 1944).
The Padre's conducted a moving service and the exhortation was pronounced by John Rogers (Magherafelt). While Rodney Dillon played a lament, poppy crosses were laid on the five graves.
The members then travelled onto the city of Rouen to St. Sever British Military Cemetery where various graves were visited before continuing on to their base for the next four nights, the Hotel Mercure, St. Lo.
Tuesday July 3, was the first day of the group's Normandy phase and took them to Pegasus Bridge where they visited the Air Landing Museum and saw the original Pegasus Bridge on display, the landing zone where Major Howard's gliders landed to capture the Bridge over the Orne Canal.
While here they were also able to visit the Gondree Café, the first French building to be liberated in the opening minutes of D Day.
Their next stop was Ranville Military Cemetery and Church where the Padre's spoke from the gospel and various poppy crosses were laid at graves.
They then travelled to Cambes-En-Plaine to the memorial in memory of the Royal Ulster Rifles. In the adjoining Cemetery John Ritchie visited the grave of R. McAllister (Royal Ulster Rifles)Their next stop was the costal town of Arromanches where members visited the Circular Cinema and the '6th June 1944 Museum", and were able to see the remains of "The Mulberry Harbour" on the beach before returning to their base at St. Lo.
To mark American Independence Day, July 4, the group assembled at the Normandy American National Cemetery for a wreath laying service. Here they were met by Dan Neese, Superintendent, and his assistant Paula. Branch Chairman Wesley Wright presented a copy of the book 'Passing Through' by Moneymore man John McCann.
This book tells the story of the 82nd Airborne stationed in N. Ireland before their deployment to the Normandy Beaches, and this copy has now been placed in the library of the recently opened Visitors Centre to help those researching the exploits of this famous unit. During this Service, Cookstown woman Maureen Graham laid a wreath on behalf of the group an Tommy Swann from Dungannon pronounced the exhortation, following the Piper's lament John Ritchie paid tribute to the American dead by singing the Star Spangled Banner.
Following an introduction to the Cemetery an 'Act of Remembrance' at the memorial was carried out. From here it was on to Pointe De Hoc to view the cliffs which the American Rangers had to scale on 'D Day' before proceeding to St. Mere Eglise where members visited the Airborne Museum, the Chapel and the John Steele Hotel as well as the many souvenir shops and hostelries.
Wesley Wright and Dessie Gordon presented an extract from the Mid Ulster Mail telling the story of John Steele visiting the pub in Tullyhogue while he and his comrades were stationed at Desertcreat, Cookstown to the owner of the John Steele Hotel, which was renamed in honour of this famous Paratrooper.
On Thursday, July 5, the group headed to St. Charles De Percy Military Cemetery where various poppy crosses were laid before
moving on to Bayeux Memorial and Military Cemetery where Stuart Kerr (Cookstown) laid a wreath in memory of his uncle. Canon Porteus and John Ritchie took part in this last cemetery/memorial visit and piper Rodney played a lament.
The members then visited the Battle of Normandy Museum and their next visit was to Longues Gun Battery before travelling on their last port of call in the Normandy area was at the fascinating "Museum of Underwater Wrecks."
The next morning the travellers began their return journey to Zeebrugge via La Harve and Calais and arrived back in Larne on Saturday, July 7.
Thanks are extended to Canon Norman Porteus and John Ritchie for their willingness and ability when called upon to provide words and prayers from the scriptures and to Piper Rodney Dillon who played a Hymn and a Lament in a professional and dignified manner adding extra poignancy to each visit.