It was a trip that brought the history books to life and gave Ballynahinch teenager Michael Colligan an insight into World War 1 in the year of its centenary.
A five day tour of the battlefields, graveyards and memorials of Belgium and France made a huge impression on Michael, an enthusiastic and accomplished member of the 2004 Ballynahinch Air Training Corps Squadron who joined Cadets and Adult Volunteers from across Northern Ireland on a unique journey into the past to pay their respects and find out more about a conflict which shaped the modern world.
The five day ‘Exercise Mons 100’ started at the sites where the first and last contact between the British and German armies occurred and took in the Somme area with its particular resonance for the Northern Irish Cadets, given the high toll which the Battle of the Somme took on the lives of Ulstermen one hundred years ago.
The first day of the Somme offensive was the bloodiest in the history of the British Army. Between 7.30am and midnight over 19,000 men died and more than 60,000 lay injured. Over four months later, when the battle finally ended on 18th November, the allies had advanced only 5 miles at the cost of over half a million lives.
The young people visited many of the battlefields they had learned about in history lessons and paid respects at cemeteries and memorials which commemorate the losses. They themselves also became part of the ongoing memorial at the world famous Menin Gate.
In front of 1,200 hushed onlookers, the uniformed Cadets and their Adult Instructors paraded and had the honour of being part of a ceremony which is conducted at 8.00pm every night of every year, with a representative from each Cadet unit, the ACF, ATC, CCF and SCC forming the wreath-laying party. The two minute silence brought a tear to almost every eye as the Cadet’s Padre Jack Moore voiced the sombre words of the Exhortation:
‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.’