A Somber World War I Memorial in London Seeks to Finally Lay the Fallen to Rest
Posted November 9, 2018 1:22 p.m. EST
LONDON — A lawn at the Olympic Park in London has taken on the appearance of a mass, open-air graveyard, with tens of thousands of shrouded figures laid out in neat rows — one of Europe’s many commemorations of this weekend’s centennial of the end of World War I.
The figures, each the size of a child’s doll, make up an art installation called “Shrouds of the Somme” that went on display at the park Thursday, symbolizing the 72,396 British and Commonwealth servicemen who died on the Somme battlefields in France from 1916 to 1918 and who had no known graves.
British artist Rob Heard spent five years hand-sewing calico shrouds to the thousands of small figures so that the bodies of the soldiers could symbolically be laid to rest on British soil in time for the anniversary on Sunday of Armistice Day.
At first, “I focused on 19,240, the number killed on just the first day of the Battle of the Somme,” he said. “I tried to count the number out loud, but ran out of steam at 1,500.”
“I realized how difficult it was to visualize these huge numbers and thought through ways I could physically represent them,” he added.
The main Battle of the Somme, initially a joint British-French offensive against German armies in northern France, came to represent the brutal futility of what became known as the Great War, achieving little but mechanized slaughter. It lasted for more than five months and became one of the worst battles in history, killing or wounding more than 1 million soldiers but barely moving the front lines.
The first day of the clash, July 1, 1916, remains by far the bloodiest day in British military history, leaving 19,240 British and Commonwealth troops dead and twice as many wounded. (By comparison, in the deadliest single day for U.S. forces, at the Battle of Antietam in 1862, during the Civil War, the death toll for both sides combined was less than 4,000.)
Heard said he had started to think about the loss and impact of war in 2013 after he got into a car accident and lost mobility, hindering his ability to carry out his work carving the fanciful wooden edifices he calls Bough Houses. He said he had become increasingly depressed but had later realized that some of the British soldiers returning from war in Afghanistan were far worse off.
He then started considering previous wars, he said, and became fascinated by shrouded figures and ways that they might be used to represent the dead.
“It was very important that one person created these figures, that it didn’t become a factory line,” he said. “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.”
Heard has spent over 13,000 hours in a shed at the bottom of his garden in southwest England, stitching shrouds onto the plastic figures.
The initial installation featured 19,240 figures and went on display in 2016 to mark the anniversary of the first day of the battle.
It received more than 60,000 visitors, including family members of some of the men who were killed a century earlier, and that inspired Heard, he said, to make more figures to represent all the men whose bodies had not been recovered.
Jake Moores, chairman of the “Shrouds of the Somme” project, said in a statement during the opening of the installation that, “Bringing the individual to the forefront of these unimaginable numbers will help the nation to truly understand the scale of the loss of those who gave their all.”
The installation will be on display in London until Nov. 18.