The Northern Ireland Secretary has paid tribute to the sacrifice of soldiers from Ulster and elsewhere in Ireland who fought at the Battle of the Somme.
More than one million soldiers were killed at the Somme
Peter Hain is attending this weekend's commemorative events to mark the 90th anniversary of the World War I battle.
The 36th (Ulster) and 16th (Irish) Divisions were in the thick of the fighting between 1 July and 13 November 1916.
The battle claimed the lives of 420,000 British soldiers.
French casualties were estimated at 195,000 and the German loss of life was around 650,000.
Mr Hain told the BBC that he had visited the Somme battlefield before and "was just struck at the wanton futility of these young Ulstermen and Irishmen being sent over the top to just be killed in their thousands".
He said he wanted to pay tribute to "both the courage but also the appalling sacrifice involved".
"And just saying, well they showed that courage and made those sacrifices for my freedom for all our freedom and those of our children and grandchildren," Mr Hain said.
A number of local politicians, including the DUP leader Ian Paisley and the Ulster Unionist peer Lord Maginnis, are travelling to France to take part in the 90th anniversary events.
The Irish government will be represented by minister Mary Hanafin.
Orange Order members march to the Thiepval memorial
The Irish government is holding its own commemoration at the Irish National War Memorial at Islandbridge in Dublin.
The event will be attended by southern politicians and by SDLP leader Mark Durkan and Ulster Unionist Alan McFarland.
Two representatives of the DUP, Lord Browne of Belmont and Jim Wells, will also be there.
The loyalist paramilitary organisation, the UVF, claims to trace its roots back to the 36th Ulster Division.
It took the name of the original Ulster Volunteer Force founded by Lord Carson in 1912, thousands of whose members were recruited into the 36th Division.
The 90th anniversary of the Somme falls as the UVF is considering how it should respond to the IRA decision to disarm and end its campaign.
Questioned about how loyalist paramilitaries should best mark the anniversary, Mr Hain told the BBC: "I think it's right and we should respect the fact that people in loyalist communities in the different groups want to go to the Somme to remember the sacrifices of those of their ancestors, and in many cases the antecedents, for their organisations.
"But I think we should also be looking forward and asking questions about why is it they are still involved in the paramilitary and criminality activity that they are, and they should now be bringing that to a close, as I hope they will."
Many of the men of the Ulster Division were members of the Orange Order and on Friday Orangemen laid wreaths at the Thiepval monument.
David Hay attended the ceremony and said that his father was among those who fought that day.
"My father was here and fortunately he got home," he said.
"But these men didn't get home. It's just emotional to be here and look at these graves and this is just one wee bit and how it's looked after - it's absolutely beautiful."