The Ulster Memorial Tower stands on what was the German front line during the Battle of the Somme, July to November 1916. It is opposite Thiepval Wood from where the 36th (Ulster) Division made its historic charge on the 1st July 1916, and is in close proximity to the village of Thiepval.
The Tower itself is a replica of a well-known Ulster landmark, Helen’s Tower, which stands on the Dufferin and Ava Estate at Clandeboye, County Down. On the completion of Helen’s Tower in 1867 it was dedicated by Lord Dufferin to his beloved mother Helen, Baroness Dufferin, who was the grand-daughter of the playwright Richard Brindsley Sheridan. It was in the shadow of Helen’s Tower that the men of the newly formed Ulster Division drilled and trained on the outbreak of the Great War. For many of the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division the distinctive sight of Helen’s Tower rising above the surrounding countryside was one of their last abiding memories of home before their departure for England and subsequently the Western Front.
When demands grew for the construction of a publicly funded battlefield memorial at Thiepval in honour of Ulster’s fallen, Sir James Craig, (later Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister) backed by many others, proposed at a meeting of subscribers, held in Belfast’s Old Town Hall on 17th November 1919, that the monument should take the form of a prominent Ulster landmark.
The proposal struck a popular chord and Helen’s Tower seemed the ideal choice. The architects chosen for the task were Messrs Bowden and Abbot of Craven Street, London. The work itself was carried out amid the still battle ravaged terrain around Thiepval by the Hammersmith firm of Fenning and Company Ltd in conjunction with the Société de Construction et Travaux Public d’Arras.
On Saturday 19th November 1921 the completed Ulster Memorial Tower was opened by Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff and Ulster’s most famous soldier.
The principal room inside the Tower is a sixteen foot square memorial chamber, faced throughout in stone, with an inscription tablet in statuary marble. The inscription reads:
“This Tower is dedicated to the Glory of God, in grateful memory of the Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and Men of the 36th (Ulster) Division and of the Sons of Ulster in other Forces who laid down their lives in the Great War, and of all their Comrades-in-Arms, who, by Divine Grace, were spared to testify to their glorious deeds.”
AROUND THE WALLS INSCRIBED IN GOLDEN LETTERS ARE THE WORDS:
Helen’s Tower here I stand
Dominant over sea and land
Son’s love built me and I hold
Ulster’s love in letter’d gold
These words with only one alteration had been written on request by the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1861 and had been engraved on one of the walls of the original Helen’s Tower at Clandeboye. Given the circumstances that had led to the construction of the Ulster Memorial Tower at Thiepval, the opening words of the final sentence that had originally began, “mother’s love” was accordingly changed to “Ulster’s love”. On every wall are plaques and tributes from Local Authorities and organisations throughout Northern Ireland.
From 1921 up until the early 1970’s the Tower had a resident caretaker and served as a focus for pilgrimages to the Somme Battlefields. By the late 1980s however the Tower had fallen into disrepair and public access was limited.
In 1988, a cross community group known as the Farset Somme Project began to raise public awareness of the Tower and lobbied government to have the memorial refurbished. On 1st July 1989 the Tower was rededicated in the presence of HRH Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester and The Somme Association was founded to manage the Tower and enable it to be open for visitors. In 1994, a Visitors’ Centre, adjacent to the Tower, was opened and a full-time caretaker appointed. The upper portion of the Memorial Tower provides accommodation for the Somme Association’s staff.