Ulster Tower

Memorial to 36th (Ulster) Division

The Ulster Tower is a popular stop on the Somme battlefields. It’s located just north-east of Thiepval where the Memorial to the Missing can be seen. The tower is a memorial to the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division, and was sited very near to the famous Schwaben Redoubt (Feste Schwaben) which that Division attacked on July 1st, 1916. Paul Reed’s Walking the Somme has an excellent walk that covers the area around here, and the Holt’s cover the Ulster Tower an nearby sites in their Somme Battlefield Guide.

The Schwaben Redoubt was a triangle of trenches with a frontage of 300 yards, a fearsome German strongpoint with commanding views. The tower is a copy of Helen’s Tower in County Down, where men of the 36th Division trained. The tower (plus a small cafe nearby) is staffed by members of the Somme Association which is based in Belfast, and it’s a friendly and welcoming place to stop on a battlefield tour. There are also toilets near the cafe.

The Ulster Tower in perhaps the 1920s

The Ulster Tower in perhaps the 1920s

At the entrance on the right hand side is a flagpole flying the Union Jack, whilst on the left is a memorial plaque to the nine Victoria Cross winners of the 36th (Ulster) Division during the Great War.  Of the men commemorated, four won the VC for actions on the 1st of July 1916; Captain Eric Bell (killed 1st July), Lieutenant Geoffrey Cather (VC awarded for actions on the 1st and 2nd of July, killed 2nd July), Private Billy MacFadzean (killed 1st July – see section on the trenches below) and Private Robert Quigg. Robert Quigg survived the War, but nearly died ten years later, when in 1926 he fell from a window of the Soldiers Home in Belfast. He only narrowly missed being impaled on railings beneath. He eventually died in 1955.

The tower, which is 70 feet high, was unveiled by Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson on the 19th of November, 1921, at a ceremony also attended by French dignitaries. The tower was dedicated by the Primate of All Ireland, the Moderator of the Irish Presbyterian church and the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland. At the time it was described as the most imposing monument on the Western Front; it was certainly one of the earliest. Trees from Ulster were planted here by survivors from the 36th Division.

There are various war-related items to be seen around the grounds, including shells and a section of light railway as shown below. Inside the Tower itself are some interesting items, including the memorial stone shown below. This was erected to remember Second Lieutenant Matthew John Wright, a clergyman’s son from Newtownards, who was killed on the 1st of July.

Matthew Wright enlisted as a Private in the 14th Royal Irish Rifles at Belfast on the 6th of October 1914. He applied for a commission only a few weeks later and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in January 1915. His enlistment papers, in his file at the National Archives, record that he was 5′ 6 ¾” tall, weighed 168 lbs and had blue eyes and brown hair. He had been on leave shortly before he was killed, and reported back to his battalion on the 27th of May 1916, and was to die just over a month later. The telegram announcing his death was sent to his father on the 5th of July 1916.

After his death, the Field Service form recorded that he was killed in action, and that his place of burial was “not forthcoming” – only too often this was the case. He is still one of the many with no known grave and his name is inscribed on the Thiepval Memorial nearby.

To the right of and behind the tower is the Orange Memorial. A small gate in a block built wall leads to it. Inside is a bench commemorating six men who won the Victoria Cross in both World Wars. The memorial itself,  dedicated in September 1993, is a black stone obelisk with the insignia of the Orange Order on it. There is an inscription commemorating those of ‘the Orange Institution worldwide’ who fought and who ‘finally passed out of the sight of man’.

Just a few yards away from the entrance to the Ulster Tower, down a small track leading downhill from the road across fields, the remains of a German machine gun post can be seen. This may well have been used during the Battle of the Somme; it would have been just about on the German front-line where it crossed the track. The track was also marked on trench-maps of the time, and leads downhill into St Pierre-Divion.

Machine Gun Post near the Ulster Tower

Machine Gun Post near the Ulster Tower

The front lines were at the edge of Thiepval Wood which lies to the south-west of the road between the Thiepval memorial and the Ulster Tower. Troops of the 109th Brigade crossed about 400 yards of No Man’s Land, and kept on going. They entered the Schwaben Redoubt, and advanced on towards Stuff Redoubt, gaining in all around a mile, though not without losses. To their left, the 108th Brigade were succesful in advancing near Thiepval, but less so nearer the River Ancre.

The 107th Brigade supported them, but although the men of the 36th Division held out for the day the Germans mounted counterattacks, and as their stocks of bombs and ammunition dwindled many fell back, with small parties remaining in the German front lines. The casualties suffered by the 36th Division on the 1st of July were over 5,000 in total – almost half of their strength.

Trenches in Thiepval Wood

The Somme Association now own 58 acres of Thiepval Wood. The Wood is private; however in conjunction with the ‘Friends of Nomansland’, the Somme Association have excavated a section of the frontline trench just behind the cemetery. Some finds include a Sherwood Foresters epaulette, and a SMLE rifle (which can now seen on display in the left-hand glass case in the Ulster Tower museum, just off from the cafe). These trenches have been excavated over a number of years.

A  guided tour around the trenches can be booked in advance through the Ulster Memorial Tower Visitor Centre. The tours are usually daily, except for Mondays, from March until November. A contemporary map reproduced near the entrance shows some of the trenches which are visited in the wood. This map (made by the 16th RIR Pioneer Battalion of the 36th Ulster Division) shows the wood as it was in June 1916, and the circles near the front line were gas cylinders, in four sets of four, ready for use in the attack on the 1st of July.

The entrance to the trenches is just to the left of Connaught Cemetery (see later on this page). The Somme Association have already spent around £25,000 in laying paths, constructing fences around the excavated trenches and on associated work. Some of the money has been spent on a series of useful information boards, which include contemporary wartime pictures to help illustrate how the trenches would have looked during wartime.

The front line trench here on the 1st of July was named Whitchurch Street, and a section of this is now excavated and preserved. One of the communication trenches, ‘George Street’ which ran up to the front line has also been excavated. You can see the shallow outline of the trenches running from the excavated portion. Remnants and relics from the war are still being found throughout the wood, with food tins and other artefacts coming to light.

 

A bunker which was probably originally made by the French when they held these lines has also been excavated. There are shellholes to be seen in the wood, and one particularly large crater near the dugout. Red stone chip paths run around the site, and further into the wood hunting lodges can be seen. In another section of excavated trench, the entrance to a dugout has been uncovered.

The site where 20 year old Billy McFadzean won the Victoria Cross, for throwing himself on some grenades just before they exploded is nearby, and there are several memorial crosses. This story is told in Martin Middlebrook’s The First Day on the Somme, but briefly, from the VC citation, ‘a box of bombs being opened for distribution prior to an attack slipped down into the trench, which was crowded with men, and two of the safety pins fell out. Private McFadzean, instantly realizing the danger to his comrades, with heroic courage threw himself on the top of the bombs, which exploded, blowing him to pieces, but only one other man was injured. He well knew the danger, being himself a bomber, but without a moment’s hesitation he gave his life for his comrades‘.

Connaught Cemetery

Leaving the Ulster Tower and turning left leads you to the nearby Connaught Cemetery. This has two entrances and a low hedge along the front, with brickbuilt walls along the sides and back.  The cemetery was started in the autumn of 1916, originally comprising 228 graves, but was increased after the Armistice. It now contains 1,268 burials, around half of which are unidentified.

The cemetery has an attractive layout, with two grass walkways and conifers flanking the rows of graves. At the back right are special memorials to five soldiers killed in 1916 and buried in Divion Rd Cemetery No. 2, whose graves were destroyed in later battles. There are special memorials at the back left to men who are believed to be buried here in Connaught Cemetery.

In March 1926, an explosion occurred very near to the cemetery, at a dump of shells located about 20 yards away. Although some headstones were damaged, the graves themselves were not.

Behind Connaught Cemetery is Thiepval Wood, from which men of the 36th Division attacked on the 1st of July, 1916.

Sources & Acknowledgements

Teddy Colligan for the tour around the trenches
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
Major & Mrs. Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Somme
Chris McCarthy: The Somme – the day by day account
Martin Middlebrook: The First Day on the Somme
Martin & Mary Middlebrook: Somme Battlefields
Paul Reed: Walking the Somme
Times online archives