The Trench is a vast, freestanding interactive sculpture by artist Rob Heard. It premiers in Exeter this weekend, where it will be on display in Northernhay Gardens from 30th June – 8th July in the same spot where Rob’s original 19,240 Somme figures were visited by more than 60,000 people, 2 years ago.

What is the Trench?

Shrouds of the Somme is a unique art project commemorating the Commonwealth servicemen who fell at the Somme who have no known grave. The fallen are represented by 72,396 shrouded figures, which will be laid out shoulder to shoulder to mark the armistice centenary in London this November.

The Trench presents the Shrouds of the Somme in a different way – as a mass, rather than individuals. The figures are stacked together in a 7.5ft (2.3m) high installation, which is 150ft (45m) long. Visitors are able to walk right through the structure – in amongst the figures – to get a feel for what it was like to be inside a trench, along with an appreciation of the devastation experienced during the British Army’s bloodiest battle. In the original ‘layout’ form, the Shrouds provide dignity and attention to detail, representing the individuals who perished, which is important to give a scale to the loss. The Shrouds in the Trench represent the mass loss. The distinctly uncomfortable and oppressive image of a huge number of people crushed together.

Rob with part of the Trench

Pictured above: Rob with a section of the Trench (Photo by Arthur Edwards)

It is hard to describe the emotions that people feel once they are inside the Trench. It is an intense and thought-provoking experience.

“Once you’ve walked down it, you’re going to know you’ve walked down it.” – Rob Heard

Inspiration for the Trench

For Rob, the Shrouds of the Somme project has always been about physicalising the number. To understand the sheer volume of loss – and why it is so important for us to remember those who fell – both as individuals and as a mass. When you see these huge numbers it is almost impossible to imagine them as individuals, which is why Rob set about creating this incredible artwork all by himself. To stitch the shrouds and wrap each individual figure, crossing them off a list as he goes to honour them all individually. Whilst working on this he formed the idea for the Trench as a way of exhibiting them in a different format:

“The idea for The Trench came to me one day as I was standing in amongst all the figures stacked up in bags.  I realised I was standing in what felt like a trench. It was very compressed and very claustrophobic in amongst all these dead bodies and I started to think about how we could actually represent that and it just came to me – the idea of a trench. Lines.”

Rob's Trench inspiration

Pictured above: Rob standing in amongst the Shrouds, having a lightbulb moment.

“It will be an unsettling experience to walk through and maybe that’s as it should be. It’s exactly the same piece but represented in a different way. It’s a much more hard-hitting image. It will be 45 metres long and two and a half metres high and I want to really get the feeling of being – like, when you’re in it, you can’t see the ends. This is really going to bring home the claustrophobic feeling of being in a trench – do you want to stay in this trench full of the dead or do you want to get out? For me personally it’s going to be quite an interesting feeling to be in that, having lived with these figures for as long as I have.”

Trench concept

Rob got a friend to create some CAD drawings of how the trench would look (pictured above) before developing a structure to house the figures and launching the concept at the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC) in London with a prototype section on 26th April (pictured below).

The Trench at the HAC

Last month ‘History Guy’ Dan Snow came to film a section of the Trench with a BBC TV crew for a future episode of the One Show, where he described Shrouds of the Somme as “The most remarkable First World War commemoration you will ever see.”

He is pictured here standing inside a section of the Trench, which was set up in Rob’s garden during construction. The finished structure will be 4 times longer than the section pictured.

Dan Snow

The Trench in Exeter

The Trench will not contain all of the 72,396 figures as Rob is still hard at work wrapping them all, with another 19,000 to go before November (at time of writing). The outside of the structure will feature all of the 72,396 names of those who fell along with some superbly detailed panels featuring information about the Somme and the Shrouds project created for us by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

1,561 Shrouds will also be laid out on the grass – in the same configuration as were recently displayed at Salisbury Cathedral – with one figure to mark each day of World War One. Individual signs detailing the losses on each day of the war will accompany the figures, again illustrating the sheer scale of the conflict and loss. This part of the exhibition is being organised by SSAFA Devon. Pictured below: The 1,561 being laid out at Salisbury – Photo by Ash Mills.

The 1,561 being laid out at Salisbury

The event is free and will be open to the public from 9am on 30th June with a formal opening ceremony on Saturday morning. The Deputy Lord Lieutenant, Lieutenant General Sir Andrew Ridgway KBE CB (President SSAFA Devon) will arrive at Northernhay Gardens at 9am. He will proceed to the viewing platform where Commodore Jake Moores OBE DL and the Lord Mayor willformally welcome him and those present. The RSM of 6 Rifles WO1 N Beresfordwill then march down the length of the trench and lay the final shroud in place. The last post will then be sounded followed by a one minute silence and Rouse. General Ridgway will then declare the exhibition open.

Visitors to the event will have the chance to pre-order a shroud or a copy of the commemorative Shrouds of the Somme book. It will also be the first time that the public will be able to buy one of our exclusive limited edition Shrouds of the Somme pin badges. Each badge is individually numbered (up to 72,396) and Rob has made the first 19,240 available exclusively for the people of Exeter to come and buy in person. They are not currently available for sale anywhere else.

“The reality is that literally thousands upon thousands of men perished together, en masse. The 72,396 represent only those with no known grave – a fraction of those who died in the whole battle. Walking through a 45 metre trench of bodies will be like nothing else.” – Rob Heard

Getting to the event:

  • Train station: Exeter Central (closest) or Exeter St David’s (less than a mile away)
  • Directions by road: Only a minute’s walk off the High Street, the main access is on Northernhay Gate off Queen Street.
  • Nearest Car Park: Harlequins Shopping Centre & Guildhall Centre car parks are the closest, but there are many more throughout the city within walking distance to the gardens. Find a car park.
  • Park and Ride: There are three Park and Ride sites – further information can be found on the Park and Ride site.

This event would not have been possible without the tremendous support of our project partners, detailed below and we would like to take this chance to thank them all again.

  • NEX for their incredibly generous donation which has allowed Rob to continue making the Shrouds
  • Exeter City Council for sponsoring the build of the Trench
  • SSAFA Devon for their constant support throughout and team of fabulous volunteers
  • 6 RIFLES who continue to provide a fantastic level of support to this project
  • Imagination who have created and produced the boards of the 72,000 names free of charge
  • VolkerFitzpatrick who supplied all of the wood for the trench free of charge
  • DHL for their unfailingly professional transport and logistics service which they are very generously providing free of charge
  • Hawerby Trust for a very generous donation
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission who have designed the interpretation materials and provided their invaluable historical knowledge
  • Warwick Events providing marquee and PA system free of charge
  • Rokk Media for our excellent website