Sunday Times bestselling author Rowan Coleman writes about her personal connection with Rob’s artwork and her great uncle Aubrey who is one of the 72,396 missing of the Somme.
When I first became aware of the Shrouds of the Somme project I was so moved by the idea to make an effigy for every soldier lost in that bloody battle whose remains were never recovered, because for me the fate of those dead had become a very personal story.
This is a photograph of my great uncle Aubrey, the older brother of my late granddad, although like so many of his comrades he would always remain forever young. He died, aged 18 on 18th August 1916.
His name is listed on the monument at Thiepval, but whatever remains of him is lost somewhere in the fields where he died. His mother Mary had no trace of him left to mourn, nothing except for this image and an empty grave in Shepherd’s Bush. It was a loss she never recovered from.
When Aubrey joined up he claimed to be older than he was. Like so many young men he was eager to be part of the action and serve for his country, no matter what the cost. Hardly surprising, for a young man who could have no real idea of what that cost would be.
For most of my life I had never heard about Aubrey, not until in 2011 when I was deciding what to name my soon to be born twins sons. After much discussion my husband and I chose two names, one of which was Aubrey. It’s an unusual name in 21st century UK, but it really struck a chord with us, partly because we always loved the work of artist Aubrey Beardsley.
But when I told my Mum the names we had chosen I was amazed by her emotional response and the name we had chosen took on a new and much more personal significance. When I asked her why she was so moved she found this photograph and gave it to me. ‘Aubrey is the name of you great uncle who was killed in the Battle of the Somme.’
When I looked at this image of a very young man, suddenly Great Uncle Aubrey became a real person to me, living and breathing in this captured moment. I see a teenager; a boy who is hardly more than a child, holding a cigarette as this photo is taken, maybe to steady his nerves, maybe to seem older than he is. I see a sweet clear expression, light probably blue eyes and a sense of shy awkwardness. Like any boy his age he doesn’t feel comfortable having his photo taken. I see a little bit of me in him, and a little bit of my children and I mourn the violent full stop that brought his life to such an abrupt end.
When I look at him I wonder; had he ever been in love? Had he ever even kissed anyone? What made him laugh? What made him angry? Did he cry out for his mother as he died? It doesn’t bear thinking about, and yet it is still so important that we do think about the horrors that Aubrey and the thousands of others like him endured, that we remember.
Even though I never knew him, I mourn him. I mourn the loss of potential, of unborn cousins, of stories and possibilities. Aubrey was mown down before he had to chance to know who he really was.
And that’s why The Shrouds of the Somme is so important. Not only as an act of commemoration for those that were lost, but also to serve as a reminder of the cost of conflict. Progress isn’t inevitable, or irreversible. Indeed in recent times its felt as if the global willingness to work towards peace and community is being wilfully thwarted by some. When I look at those tens of thousands of representations, crafted with such care and laid out with such dignity, I see my Great Uncle Aubrey remembered and my determination that his namesake should not grow up in a world of conflict and violence is renewed a thousand fold. And even now one hundred years and more as passed, we shall remember them.
If you have a relative or someone you have researched who was killed at the Somme and whose name is on the Thiepval Memorial, you can upload your photos, memories and stories to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s digital archive – a lasting legacy of these men.