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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 July, 2003, 20:53 GMT 21:53 UK
Sacred land of Ulster's brave
BBC NI's Stephen Walker
Reports from Thiepval

More than one million soldiers were killed at the Somme
The government has given the Somme Association a grant to buy Thiepval Wood in France.

The site is where members of the 36th Ulster Division fought during the Battle of the Somme.

So why does this land mean so much to people from Northern Ireland ?

Thiepval Wood is sacred land and when you walk into this small forest you quickly get a sense of what life was like in 1916.

This was home to the 36th Ulster Division and in eight decades it has remained largely untouched.

Grenades, unexploded shells and bodies lie buried, hidden away. The trenches are visible - dozens of them criss-cross the forest floor.

Each has a name - here you will find places like Elgin Avenue, Sandy Row and Paisley Avenue to remind the men of home.

Government help

It was from here on the first of July 1916 that the men began their ill-fated attack on German lines.

The wood recently came up for sale and keen to preserve it, the Somme Association approached the government for help.

As he marked the Battle of the Somme's Anniversary, the Secretary of State Paul Murphy obliged. He has offered a grant of 400,000 so the Somme Association can purchase the site.

Speaking in Thiepval, he said: "The people of Northern Ireland have a strong emotional attachment to the Somme and it was important when Thiepval Wood came on the open market that the new owners respect its historical legacy."

WWI battle graves
World War I battle graves

He added that this was a golden opportunity and he was delighted to help.

The Somme Association will manage the site and plan to preserve the wood and open part of it to the public.

Billy Ervine, from the association welcomed the government's intervention.

Speaking in Thiepval, close to the wood, he told BBC News Online that he thought this day would never come.

He said: "Ever since the Somme Association was founded it has always been our intention to buy Thiepval Wood."

He is thrilled the wood will be preserved because of what it means to the people of Northern Ireland.

Victoria Cross

To the relatives of those who fought in the First World War at the Somme, the news is particularly pleasing.

Billy McFadzean from Lisburn was one of many relatives at the commemoration services in France.
Thiepval Wood is a little piece of Ulster and it's important that everything in there remains preserved and untouched
Mary Stone

His uncle also called Billy, was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross for his bravery in Thiepval Wood. His nephew said he was thrilled that the site would be looked after by the Somme Association.

"I normally don't have time for politics and politicians but Paul Murphy should be congratulated for what he has done. I think in a way my uncle Billy would approve."

Other relatives attending the commemoration in France were also pleased with the government's decision.

Mary Stone's father served with the 13th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles at the Somme. She said her late father regularly talked about the wood and how important it was to the men and their families.

She told BBC News Online: "It's great news. Thiepval Wood is a little piece of Ulster and it's important that everything in there remains preserved and untouched."

The Somme Association hopes to buy the woods soon, although the group doesn't know when the sale will actually go through.

The past has shaped the land around Thiepval - now history is turning full circle as a corner of a foreign field will soon be back in Ulster hands.


SEE ALSO:
Reid confident of graves reprieve
10 Jul 02  |  Northern Ireland
The Somme: Hell on earth
03 Nov 98  |  World War I


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