Ulster Tower centenary remembers the complicated history of the first World War

Memorial to the 2,000 men killed in one day was the first to be erected on the Western Front

The Ulster Tower is a replica of Helen’s Tower, a Victorian folly built in famine times by Lord Dufferin on the Clandeboye estate in Co Down. Photograph: myLoupe/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Ulster Tower is a replica of Helen’s Tower, a Victorian folly built in famine times by Lord Dufferin on the Clandeboye estate in Co Down. Photograph: myLoupe/Universal Images Group via Getty Images


The Ulster Tower is untypical of the traditional masculine solemnity of most first World War memorials on the Western Front. With its high tower and narrow slit window at the top, it is akin to something out of a fairytale, an edifice in which one might imagine a princess asleep for 100 years.

The Ulster Tower is located in the Somme on what was the old German front line on July 1st, 1916. It marks roughly the midpoint of the assault by the 36th (Ulster) Division on that day. The 36th spent only one day fighting and one day retreating at the Somme. In that period 2,040 men were killed and a further 3,000 injured or taken prisoner.

The tower gives clear views of the surrounding valley of death which still bore the scars of war when it was opened in 1921. “Its awful surroundings strikes one at once. It reigns, graceful and majestic, over a realm of hideousness and death,” The Irish Times reported at its opening on November 19th, 1921.

The tower is a replica of Helen’s Tower, a Victorian folly built in famine times by Lord Dufferin on the Clandeboye estate in Co Down.

It was the first large-scale memorial on the Western Front. Captain James Craig, one of the founders of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister, advanced the idea of a memorial to the men of the 36th less than a week after the war ended in November 1918.

He and Sir Edward Carson, the Dublin-born lawyer turned crusader of Protestant Ulster, were unanimous that the location “should be secured and the monument erected on a suitable plot to the spot where so many gallant men laid down their lives and where the Division began its glorious career.”

It had a political imperative too. Northern Ireland was created in 1920 when the British Government brought in the Government of Ireland Act partitioning Ireland into separate political entities.

At the end of the war, some £5,000 was raised within a couple of months after Craig announced his plan for a suitable memorial to the men of the 36th. A Hammersmith-based contractor was contracted to do the work and local tradesmen were hired. It was a difficult project to undertake in the context of a devastated local economy and landscape.

The tower was finally opened on Sunday, November 19th, 1921. A party of some 150 people, half from Ireland, half from Britain, arrived by boat-train from Victoria Station and were taken to Amiens and from there to Thiepval for the memorial service.

The Somme region was still ruined three years after the war ended. The countryside would take generations to repair. “To right and left, before, behind, everywhere so far as the eye can see, there is a vast sea of black despair,” wrote the unnamed Irish Times reporter who attended the unveiling.

“A few gaunt skeletons that once were trees stick crazily out of the pock-marked earth. The earth is littered with barbed wire, old helmets, bits of broken tanks, even bones obstruct the feet, and a frosted November sun smiles on this withered land as if to enhance its heart rendering misery.”

Conspicuous by their absences were both Carson and Craig. The latter was ill with influenza; the former was just ill. Carson was a hypochondriac whose public resolution was matched by a private obsessiveness with his health.

Only a dozen people could fit into the room where the memorial tablet was unveiled by General Maxine Weygand, the French general who had read out the armistice terms to the Germans, and by Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, then in his final months as Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), the professional head of the British army.

Wilson like Carson was a southern unionist. Born in County Longford, he was a staunch opponent of both Home Rule and the Anglo-Irish Treaty which followed it. He became a Unionist MP in 1922 but was assassinated in June of that year by the IRA.

An unnamed mother was present who lost three sons on July 1st, 1916. After the ceremony, the parties toured the trenches. It was a melancholy group which returned to a still-ruined Albert that evening. “We drove back to Albert in pregnant silence. Women were sobbing, men were trying to look unconcerned, but as the motor cars bumped and jolted along that ruined road that leads through Beauon-Hamel, hearts were heavy and eyes were dim,” The Irish Times reporter observed.

The Ulster Tower went through many vicissitudes over the years. It was taken over by the Germans in 1939 and used for observation of the surrounding countryside. By the time the Troubles broke out in 1969, it had fallen into a state of disrepair. No caretaker was employed to look after it. Philip Orr recalled visiting it in 1988. He had to hunt for a key in the local village. One regular visitor stated that just 40 people turned up to a July 1st service during the 1980s.

Increasingly forgotten and neglected, the campaign to rescue it from obscurity began with a rededication ceremony in 1989. The Somme Association, set up the year before, was given the task of managing it. In 1993 an obelisk memorial to members of the Orange Order who had died with the 36th (Ulster) Division was opened in a little garden to the right of the tower.

If the memorial to the Orange Order was exclusive, the adjacent museum opened in 1994 is more inclusive in sentiment. It pays tribute to all the Irish regiments, north and south, that fought at the Somme.

On July 1st every year, since the Colligan family took over the running of the Tower, those present for the memorial service, most from Northern Ireland, also visit the Guillemont Cross in the Somme where the men from the 16th (Irish) Division fought in September 1916. .

The Ulster Tower is now a confident memorial, one of the most impressive on the Western Front, just as Craig and his followers had intended.

The centenary of the Ulster Tower will be marked on Friday with an ecumenical service in the Somme involving the Methodist, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian Church at the memorial in the Somme

The Minister of State for European Affairs, Thomas Byrne, will represent the Government at the event and will lay a wreath in honour of all Irishmen who died in the First World War.

“I feel privileged to represent the Government of Ireland at this event. We have come a long way indeed in ensuring that this chapter of our history is fully recognised and better understood as part of our shared heritage,” he said.