THE Rev. Canon Alex. Cheevers, former Rector of Magheragall, has led many tours to the Battlefields of Europe - but none more poignant than the tour he led to the 95th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme on July 1 - and where he was privileged to lead the Commemoration Services, both at the Ulster Tower - dedicated to the memory of the 36th (Ulster) Division and all the men of Ulster who fell at the Somme - and also at Guillemont Church, the memorial to those who fell from the 16th (Irish) Division.
Canon Alex Cheevers with his wife and daughter
The Band, Bugles, Pipes and Drums of the Royal Irish Regiment were very much to the fore at both services, and Her Majesty the Queen's representative was His Royal Highness The Duke of Gloucester. The tour took in more than just the Battle of the Somme. The group left home by coach, spent their first night near London, then crossed to France via the Channel Tunnel. They visited the sites of the Evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, including the evacuation Mole, the Beaches, the shell-pocked Cathedral and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing - before visiting a cow shed where over 80 soldiers were massacred by the S.S.
They then spent a full day in the Ypres Battlefields, visiting famous places like Passchendael and Messines, and attended the Menin Gate Evening Act of Remembrance. By that time they were ready for their free day in Bruges, where many availed of the canal boat rides, as well as the horse-carriage tours of the city - and the shopping.
Travelling down to the Somme the group visited the area of the Christmas Truce of 1914, as well as paying tribute to Royal Irish Rifles soldiers Shot at Dawn in the First World War. One of the highlight of that day was to walk through a genuine First World War tunnel used for both communications and attacks.
Early on July 1 some of the group visited original First World War trenches - and met a small group of German men dressed in First World War German uniforms. They also visited a village with a memorial to 23 County Down Volunteers, mostly from the Hillsborough, Dromore and Banbridge area, all killed by one shell. Others of the group chose to attend the Commemorations at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, where the names of their family members are carved in stone. The whole group came together for lunch and the Commemorations at the Ulster Tower and the Loyal Orders parade to their own memorial in the grounds.
Afterwards the whole group went to the Commemorations at Guilleniont Church, beautifully repainted and refurbished with redundant pews from Oldpark Presbyterian and Castlerock Churches. It was a day - and a tour - the participants will never forget.
The next day a tired but contented group headed for home. Someone said: "A memorable tour. I wouldn't have missed it for anything. I couldn't have gone and seen it all on my own."
Canon Cheevers's next Battlefield Tour is an eight day tour starting September 10 to the Somme - and the D Day Airborne Landing Areas and all the Landing Beaches of 6th June '44 - visiting the Ulster Tower, Thiepval Memorial, Newfoundland Park Trenches, Pegasus Bridge, Omaha Beach and American Cemetery and so many other famous and moving sites. For a brochure with full details contact Canon Cheevers on 9269 0701.