The final leg of the WW1 Shrouds of the Somme installation is at London’s Olympic Park for a 10-day tribute marking the Armistice centenary. The work, involving over 72,000 small shrouded figures, commemorates Britain’s bloodiest encounters of the First World War on the Somme. Patrick Gregory visited the team responsible for the artwork as they applied the finishing touches for the opening on November 8.
There is something arresting about the sight of 72, 396 bodies stretched out on the grass near London’s Olympic Stadium. Dolls they may be, but the mummified figures still tell of a past not to be forgotten.
It is a blustery Wednesday morning in east London, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park wearing its weekday face, no sporting events scheduled. Half a mile away, the transport hub of Stratford station bustles with people arriving for work or for shopping opportunities in the giant Westfield centre. But here, a group of soldiers is moving back and forth across a park in the shadow of the stadium.
They are men of 1 Royal Anglian Regiment, working under the instruction not just of their officer but of a tall bearded man in a black gilet, artist Rob Heard. Their mission, to cover the green grass of this park with the models of 72,396 12-inch dolls, all near identically wrapped in white calico. The number is quite deliberate: it is the number of British and Empire troops who died in the Somme sector – and recorded on the Thiepval memorial there – up to March 1918, and who have no known grave; the majority of the fallen killed in the Somme offensive of 1916.
Rob Heard has taken the exhibition, and variations and iterations of it, to a number of different towns and cities around the UK in the past two years. It is his way of attempting to visualise and bring home to people the scale of the slaughter involved.
It all began in early 2014 with the idea then – a different number and aspect of the Somme – of putting together 19,240 figures to mark the first day casualties of the battle. That was unveiled in Exeter in time to mark the first day of battle on 1 July 2016.
Since then Heard and his team of volunteers, which includes Shrouds of the Somme Chairman and principal financial backer Jake Moores, have used the Shroud figures to tell other aspects of the Somme or WW1 story.
One installation called Lost Lives lays out 1,561 Shrouds to represent each day of the war; behind each figure a sign with the date and the number of men who fell on each day. Another work, the Trench allows visitors to walk through a trench stacked 2 metres high either side with the figurines representing the story here: the dead of the Somme with no known grave. Along the outer walls of the Trench and with this main Shrouds of the Somme one can read all of the 72,396 names of the Thiepval memorial, which were provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), a partner in the initiative.
But Rob Heard has now reached the stage where he can finally, end to end, lay out all of the 72,396 bodies of the missing. All individually wrapped and bound by him in a last dash of creative endeavour, each figure stitched into its neatly fitted shroud; a labour of love and of respect for the dead, every one of them a real person to him, a real life.
“The fact that these soldiers never came home is what this is really all about”, says Heard. “It’s a small way of ensuring in some way that these figures lie on British soil again, which is important. But it’s also – because it’s big numbers we’re talking about here – to physicalise it, so people can understand what this is all about.”
The point of understanding, and of remembering, is a point taken up by Dr Lucy Kellet of the CWGC:
“When the question is asked ‘why is remembrance important?’, well, it’s about that sense of duty, of loyalty, of sacrifice, selflessness and camaraderie; virtues which are universal irrespective of the war context. It’s important for younger generations to understand that these are qualities to live by – as is the essential principle of equality, the foundation of what the Commonwealth Graves Commission does. That idea, regardless of who died, what class, military background, what race, that they are all going to be honoured equally.
“It’s interesting seeing the layout of the Shrouds. It is like one of our cemeteries with its uniform headstones. And although Rob’s work is a much starker confrontation of the reality of that loss, there is still that principle that we think of them all as individuals of equal merit.”