The Story of the Shrouds

Shrouds of the Somme is an art installation which physically represents each of the 72,396 British Commonwealth servicemen killed at the Battle of the Somme who have no known grave, and whose names are engraved on the Thiepval Memorial.

For five years – with barely a day off – artist Rob Heard hand-stitched calico shrouds and bound them over small figures. It took him 13,000 hours and around 1.6 million stitches.

Rob started creating the Shrouds after a car accident in 2013 badly injured both of his hands. Despite  a series of operations, 
he lost much of his grip and was in constant pain. Unable to continue his work carving his intricate wooden Bough Houses, Rob felt increasingly depressed.

“I was in that dark place that a lot of people go to. But it was a time when the lads were coming back from Afghanistan with their arms and legs missing and I just thought, ‘This is ridiculous. There are a lot of people worse off than me’. I got thinking about the numbers and then about those in previous wars. For some reason
I focused on 19,240, the number killed on just the first day of the Battle of the Somme. I tried to count the number out loud, but ran out of steam at 1,500. I realised how difficult it was to visualise these huge numbers and thought through ways I could physically represent them.

“I was always fascinated by the shrouded figure. The director Ridley Scott featured them in some of his films and I eventually came up with the concept of thousands of small shrouded figures to represent the dead. They each needed to be individual and different. After trying options with wood and metal, which would have meant I chose the shape, I settled on jointed plastic figures which would move on their own into unique shapes as I bound them into the shroud.

“It was very important that one person created these figures, that it didn’t become a factory line. That person just happened to be me. One day I wasn’t making them and the next I was, and once I had started I couldn’t stop.”

Rob constructed a purpose-built shed at the bottom of his garden in rural West Somerset where he could create and store the Shrouded figures:

“If there was ever a space that is haunted, it’s that shed. But if you stand there at quarter past two in the morning then you just know you are doing the right thing by them. When you’ve been in the company of these men for as long as I have, it is a humbling experience.”

In 2016 the first 19,240 figures were laid out in Exeter on the hundredth anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 2016 – the single day on which they were all killed. The reaction from the public was beyond anything Rob had ever imagined and over 60,000 people came to see them. Many tears were shed, people knelt, prayed and laid flowers by them.

Among the many people who turned up was a man who talked to Rob about his great Uncle, one of those killed on that first day and represented by a Shroud. He explained to Rob that this man’s body had never been recovered, that he had no known grave and that there were tens of thousands more like him. He told Rob that in essence this was the first time his Uncle had lain on British soil for one hundred years. This really got to Rob and he realised that there was a far greater number – those who were still missing.

The 19,240 Shrouds were laid out a second time in 2016 in Bristol to mark the armistice, and again tens of thousands of people came to visit.

As soon as the figures had been cleared from the ground, Rob started on an even greater challenge – he began making shrouded figures to represent the 72,396 missing of the Somme. He acquired a list of names from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and set to work. Over 12,000 of those killed on the first day were in this larger number, so he had ‘just’ 60,00 more to make. His goal was to have them finished in time for the centenary of the armistice.

With no official funding and a team of two – Jake Moores and Mel Bradley – determined to help Rob see the project to fruition, it appeared an impossible task. However, a groundswell of support both from the public and an array of individuals and organisations, meant that they were able to achieve their vision.  During  production, the Shrouds were on display in smaller configurations in Salisbury, Exeter, Belfast, Bristol and Thiepval in France. The final London exhibition was the first and only time that they were all laid out together. They were visited by more than 80,000 people and seen on TV by millions of people around the world.