This week we have been exhibiting the Shrouds of the Somme in a new format. – the Trench – in Exeter.
The Human Cost of War
One of the driving ideas behind the Shrouds of the Somme is to create a physical representation of the numbers involved in World War 1. When you hear a figure like 72,396, it is almost impossible to imagine what that many people would look like, let alone that they were lost over the course of a few months. And those 72,396 are just a fraction of the total losses. The Shrouds represent the Commonwealth soldiers who fell at the Somme whose bodies were never recovered. Their names are on the Thiepval memorial in France, but their broken bodies remain scattered beneath the battlefields. By the end of the battle, which lasted 141 days, over a million people on both sides had perished. By the end of the war, at least 9 million military personnel and 6 million civilians had died – followed by many more deaths caused by the knock-on effects of the war.
The Somme 19,240 and Beyond
The first public exhibition of the Shrouds of the Somme was in Northernhay Gardens in Exeter exactly two years ago. It marked the centenary of the beginning of the battle, on July 1st. Artist Rob Heard created 19,240 Shrouds, to commemorate the commonwealth soldiers who fell on the first day of the battle. Rob felt that it was important to create each one himself, in a personal act of remembrance. After the event he felt compelled to keep going and honour all of the fallen recorded at Thiepval – which includes 12,000 of the 19,240 (this is why some of the figures in the Trench appear weathered and some do not). He now has around 19,000 shrouds left to make and is working for ten hours a day – almost every day – wrapping and binding the figures. They should be ready by November when all 72,396 will be laid out for the first and only time. Shoulder to shoulder in the Olympic Park in London, marking 100 years since Armistice – the end of the Great War.
A New Perspective
The Trench gives a new perspective of the Shrouds – as a mass, rather than as individuals. The big number that we try to imagine when we read about the losses in history books. It contains around 53,000 shrouded figures – getting on for three times as many as were laid out in Northernhay gardens two years ago. Seeing them arranged in this way – with bodies stacked upon bodies, over seven feet high – is having a huge impact on everyone who comes to see them.
On the approach to the Trench, SSAFA Devon have laid out 1,561 Shrouds in an installation called ‘Lost Lives’ with one Shroud representing each day of the war. Behind each figure is a little sign with the date and the number of men who fell on each day. You can see the number jumps significantly when you get to the first day of the Somme on 1st July 1916 – and the count remains high for many months after.
Along the outer walls of the Trench you may read all of the 72,396 names of those who fell on panels created for us by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Imagination. There is also a viewing platform so that you can walk up and gaze down into the structure as well as walking through it. The 72,396 are primarily British but are known to include 829 South African Infantrymen, 65 Canadians, 42 Australians, 13 New Zealanders and 2 Americans who were believed to be fighting with British units at the time.
The Impact and Importance of the Shrouds
Visitors to the Trench have been moved to tears by the scale of the loss conveyed in this unique format. They have lingered and observed, moving amongst the figures, searching for the names of fallen kin and talking to Rob and our volunteers about the display. As you walk around the exhibit you hear conversations about art, long lost relatives, modern military service, life, death and physical or emotional scars. Individual stories that show how this affects us all – both as individuals and as a mass. This work resonates with everybody. The loss of these men directly affected families and communities throughout the UK and those losses still have an impact on many of us today. If you’re driving to visit the Trench – every town or village that you pass through has a memorial to those who fell. Everyone in those communities felt the consequences of the conflict. Some returned home, but many did not. This is why it is so important for us to remember them as individuals as well as a mass – not just a figure on a piece of paper or a name carved in stone. Remembering them all with honour and respect and ensuring that we all comprehend the scale of their sacrifice.