“ Address: 233 Bangor Road / Newtownards / County Down / BT23 7PH / Tel: Tel: (028) 9182 3202 „
--- title quotation from Winston Churchill.
1, July 1916 - The Somme - over 60,000 British Casualties in one day would set the scene for 18 days of conflict in a battle that would eventually see over 1,000,000 men dead or wounded. The 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish would be among those units suffering the heaviest losses. The 36th would lose over 5,000 men on the first day alone, and over 32,000 nearly half of their total number would be lost or wounded in total . Because of the enlistment practice of the day, men could enlist together and remain together in what was known as "Buddy Regiments". The unfortunate result of this was that when all the young men from a particular village joined up together, they could all be killed together as well, leaving some smaller towns almost entirely bereft of young men. The Somme has been referred to by some as "the death of a generation", for many in Ulster, it was just this. The battle left a lasting impact on Ulster, which can be felt even today. Unfortunately, the gallant sacrifices of the Ulstermen probably did not have a major effect on the battle itself. The shattered remnants of the Ulster Division would be withdrawn after only a few days due the incredibly high number of casualties, but the battle itself would rage on for months. But at least the men from Ulster who did make it home, came home as heroes. The brave men from the 10th and 16th Irish, would be largely forgotten, ignored and even treated as traitors when they return home. A sad fate for brave and gallant men.
The Somme Heritage Centre was built in 1994 and focuses primarily on the roles of the 36th Ulster division and the 10th and 16th Irish Divisions. It attempts to preserve the history of these brave men, but also focuses on the cross community involvement in both wars. The tour guide on the day I visited speculated on whether men like John Redmond and Edward Carson, having shared the horrors of the battlefields in France, might have come to terms without bloodshed, had they been given a bit more time. Of course that is only speculation now, but the Somme Heritage Centre makes a special effort to focus on shared history and inclusion rather then conflict and division between all those who served, in this war and others.
I have copied this statement from the Somme website:
"Vision Statement of the Somme Museum
To assist in bringing the people on the island of Ireland to a mutual understanding through the commemoration and interpretation of the experiences of men and women who lived, served, fought and died in two World Wars." http://www.irishsoldier.org/museum.htm
The museum itself is really more of a combination of museum and interactive experience. As you walk through the doors you will come into a very very small gift shop, and where you can buy tickets for the tour. If you do not wish to take part in the tour, you can explore the museum itself free of charge, but the tour really is the main part of this exhibit. There is usually a small exhibit of WW2 artifacts, but most of this was away temporarily to make room for a temporary exhibit on the Korean War when I visited. We spent about 20 minutes browsing this section of the museum waiting for the tour to begin, which was more than adequate.
The tour itself lasted for roughly 40 minutes. We visited during the school term time in April, and there was only one other couple taking the tour, plus myself and husband and two children. I found the tour itself absolutely outstanding. We viewed a number of artifacts, and would stop at various points to sit down and hear brief lectures on the events, and explore different exhibits as well as brief film section. My sons especially enjoyed the recreation of the recruiting office, where they were allowed to try on and be photographed in a very small, but authentic uniform. We were told that many of the boys who served were well below the required age of 18, with the youngest known British soldier to serve being only 12. We also viewed a picture of another boy, who did not look so very much older than my own son. I understand he was believed to be 9 and served in the Prussian Army. The thought of children so young fighting in such a brutal conflict is absolutely chilling. We also walked through recreations of a base camp, the trenches and a darkened area with simulated explosions which made an incredibly realistic recreation of No Man's Land. Of course the smell and the rats were missing, ( except a few toys) as well as the gore and screaming, but I am happy enough to have done without this. The children also enjoyed this section quite a bit. I understand much of this has been added recently. The entire exhibition is extremely modern, high tech, and realistic.
I checked prices for admission prior to visiting and was surprised to find that the actual Somme Heritage Site does not give admission prices. Various other sites list incorrect admission charges. The current prices are
£4.75 child (5+) or concession
Please confirm opening hours yourself before a visit, but at the moment they are:
M-Th 10:00 - 4:00
Saturday 11:00 - 3:00
I would reccomend arriving a minimum of 1 hour before closing for the last tour.
The centre is fully accessible to wheelchairs, disabled. I have some mobility problems myself and would note that the tour included several chances to sit down and rest before moving on to the next phase. My sons are army mad and so enjoyed this, but the 2 year old was getting a bit bored in a few parts. I do think this would be better for older children and would really recommend it for ages 8+ unless the child has special interest in the military.
There is a tea room, which looked lovely, but we were planning a picnic at a farm park later in the day, and did not try this. There were plenty of toilet facilities which were easily accessible and spotless. I found the over all experience extremely educational and moving. I will certainly visit again when the children are older. If you live in or visit Northern Ireland, I can not recommend a visit highly enough. I feel my description is inadequate, but it is an experience you will not forget.
The Somme Heritage Centre is located at:
233 Bangor Road
and is roughly a 30 minute drive from Belfast.