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French village remembers the Irish who came as liberators

Some 1,200 men from 16th (Irish) Division were killed at Guillemont and Ginchy

Commemorations have taken place to remember the Irish who liberated the French village of Guillemont during the Battle of the Somme 100 years ago. Photograph: Irish embassy in Paris
Commemorations have taken place to remember the Irish who liberated the French village of Guillemont during the Battle of the Somme 100 years ago. Photograph: Irish embassy in Paris
Commemorations have taken place to remember the Irish who liberated the French village of Guillemont during the Battle of the Somme 100 years ago. Photograph: Irish embassy in Paris

Commemorations have taken place to remember the Irish who liberated the French village of Guillemont during the Battle of the Somme 100 years ago.

Visitors from France, Ireland, Britain and the Channel Islands poured into the village on the exact centenary of the Battle of Guillemont. The battle occurred on September 3rd, 1916.

The green space around the church in the village was festooned with little wooden crosses, one for each for the 1,200 men from the 16th (Irish) Division who died liberating Guillemont and the neighbouring village of Ginchy. The Battle of Ginchy took place on September 9th.

The crosses were arranged into the shape of a shamrock, the symbol of the division, and they were overlooked by a billboard which stated: “We will remember them 1916-2016, Guillemont.”

Both the British and Irish armies were represented at the ceremony which took place around the cross at Guillemont which commemorates the men from the 16th (Irish) Division who died liberating the village.

The cross was unveiled in 1926. Then the villagers hung out a banner across the main street, Vive l’Irlande. They hung out a banner with the same message on Saturday.

Soldiers from both the British and Irish armies stood at the four corners of the railings surrounding the Guillemont cross.

An Irish Army piper played Limerick’s Lament, while the VIPs lay wreaths at the base of the memorial. The wreath on behalf of the people of Ireland was laid by Minister for Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys, who said afterwards it was “incredibly important” to reflect on the totality of Irish experience 100 years on.

The Battle of Guillemont took place only four months after the Easter Rising.

“In 2016, this complex historical narrative is being fully explored,” she said.

She also remembered Private Thomas Hughes from her home county of Monaghan who won the Victoria Cross at Guillemont when he took out a German machine gun placement on his own and was wounded in the process.

Mrs Humphreys was followed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire and the French minister Pascale Boistard who is also a deputy for the Somme.

Mr Brokenshire said afterwards: “Just as in Great Britain, so across the island of Ireland there was virtually no corner left unaffected by the Battle of the Somme. The contribution and sacrifice of the men who fought in the battle was immense, and we should never forget it.”

Serving Irish soldier Colonel Dr Brendan O’Shea said the most famous Irish casualty of the Battle of the Somme, Tom Kettle, would have “settled for this”.

Col O’Shea who was at the Guillemont commemorations, said: “Irish soldiers of all traditions honouring Irish soldiers who gave their lives for the glory of God and the honour of Ireland. So sad it took us 100 years to get here...but better late than never.”

Among those who were remembered were Private Robert Barry from St Finbarr’s in Cork who was with the 6th Royal Irish Regiment when he was killed at the Battle of Guillemont.

His granddaughter, the former Labour TD and minister Kathleen Lynch, tweeted: “Remembering my grandfather Robert Barry who died on this day 100 years ago at Guillemont, the Battle of the Somme.” His body was never found and his name is on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.