Somerset artist Rob Heard began a new project in December 2013. He wanted to find a way to illustrate the scale of the loss of life on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. He started creating 12 inch figures, each wrapped in a calico shroud, ready to be placed on the ground and lined in rows. He made 500 prototypes to assess their visual impact, and set about gathering the necessary support to make a public display on the centenary of the Somme, 1st July 2016.
Having committed to the project, Heard then needed to make a model for each one of the British soldiers killed on that day: 19,240, an astonishing undertaking. Furthermore he worked to a vast list of names of the soldiers who had been killed, named each figure, and crossed it off the list. His project was realised in time for the centenary, and the figures were all carefully placed on the lawns of the Northernhay Gardens, Exeter, ready for the official opening at 7:30am on 1st July – the identical time and date of the order to go ‘over the top’.
When we visited on Saturday there were large crowds of people walking quietly around the display, while the names, ranks and regiments of those killed were read out by a retired Serviceman. The brilliant warm sunshine alternated with an irritating drizzle every few minutes. It was impossible not to be deeply affected by the scale of the loss; I counted the ‘bodies’ in the very last row of the display and they numbered 67. Taking that as an average meant there would be in the region of 287 rows of 67 bodies, which I find almost incomprehensible. Most of these men were killed that morning in 1916.
There are already many photographs on social media of the rows and rows of figures; they are stark and bleak, and so do their job in relating the ‘shock’ factor of the display. I wanted to do something different here. The gardens are rich with the colour of summer flowers, including poppies, and the (1923) Exeter War Memorial itself is prominent near the entrance. I thought I would try to include these elements in my photographs, but the long lines of shrouded figures would be a constant presence in each one. I decided to make (in-camera) multiple exposures to blend these elements in as meaningful a way as I could, where the poppies blurring with the ‘bodies’ might represent blood loss, the ‘larger’ figures superimposed on smaller massed figures infer the individual horror amid the overall horror, and so on.
There are other, more nightmarish metaphors in here, but I’ll let people take from the photographs whatever they will, just as people will come to their own conclusions when seeing the scale of the display in the park.
Heard’s achievement here is profoundly moving, but the display is strictly temporary and will be removed after Thursday 7th July; I urge you to see it, if you possibly can. The figures are available to buy, and profits will go to the Exeter Foundation and the SSAFA Armed Forces Charity. There is more information here at the official 19240 Shrouds of the Somme website.
Five of these images were displayed throughout November 2016 at the Barnfield Theatre in Exeter, as part of their Gratitude exhibition.
You may also be interested in my slightly more recent Poppies: Wave post.