Alderman Graham Warke has just returned from an emotional visit to the Western Front in France, where he visited the spot where his great Grandfather died 100 years on the first day of The Battle of the Somme.
James McBride was just 33 years old, and was among the first of the Allied soldiers serving with the 10th Inniskilling Fusiliers, to emerge from Thiepval Wood when they were cut down by machine gun fire from the German trenches.
“That day was very emotional day, because standing at the Ulster Tower looking over the poppy fields, it was so peaceful with the poppies swaying from side to side.
“It hard to believe 100 years ago to the day the scene would have been so different...so different that nobody could ever imagine, nearly 50,000 British Soldiers were killed or wounded by this time.
“It was a honour to go there and to remember my great grandfather and to represent the Londonderry and Strabane areas at Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of The Somme. It was such an important event, and it was a privilege to meet the VIP guests, which included Prince Charles.
“He spotted my tie as he was walking past and he questioned me about it and shook hands with me. He said ‘Can I ask you a question? Can you tell me about that tie you are wearing?’ It was my Royal Irish Regiment tie, blue, green and red and I told him I was a former member of the 4th Battalion and also told him about representing the council and how that day was the day my great grandfather was killed. He was very interested. He had a long chat with me he is very much a gentleman, so he is. He shook hands again before he walked off.
“I think, for myself, the experience of going to the Somme was about getting an opportunity to pay my respects to the members of the 36th Ulster and 16th Irish Division while I was over there,” said Graham.
“The atmosphere was very, very emotional. It was also really good to see lots of people from Londonderry over from there particularly the members from the Maiden City Somme Society, who all travelled over from Londonderry for the event.
“It made me realise it did not matter if people were Protestant or Catholic, they all fought together and died together, and it important to remember them 100 years on, and that we remember, in the very fields of France where they died, that we should remember the sacrifice they made for us,” he said.
“When you go round the war graves you really get the sense of it being a lost generation of young men, who all died fighting for freedom side-by-side.
“What made the event very special for me would have been the Royal Irish Regiment’s presence there, because the 1st and 2nd Battalion had representatives there and that made the event more pertinent to me. It brought home to me the effect of war.
“My great grandfather has no headstone, but going out to the poppy fields and seeing where he died, it reinforced my respect for what he did for people of all denominations, people who never knew him. It also made the meaning of the poppy more special for me too. For me, Thiepval Memorial is a headstone for not just my great grandfather, but for all the young soldiers who were never found.
“What shocked me and really brought home the horror of what happened there was when I noticed as I waked around, that as my feet moved the ground the ground beneath me was still covered in bits of shrapnel from the battle,” he said.
“One of the best highlights in addition to meeting Prince Charles, was on the Saturday night, when I was with the Colonel of the RIR for the Beating of the Retreat at the Ulster Tower.”