2016 marks the Centenary of one of the bloodiest battles in history, The Battle of the Somme which started on July 1st 1916 and lasted for four and a half months, ending on November 18th 1916.
19,240 hand-stitched shrouded figures each representing a serviceman of the British Empire who died on the first day of the Somme were laid out on College Green, outside Bristol Cathedral in the centre of Bristol from 11th -18th November to mark the Centenary.
The Shrouds of the Somme display was created by Somerset Artist Rob Heard who wrapped and bound each figure in a hand-stitched shroud, crossing the name of every soldier who fell on that fateful first day off a list sourced from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
About the shrouds
Rob explained that the purpose of the work is to “physicalise the number– to illustrate the enormity of the horror which unfolded in the loss of life.”
He began the project on his own in December 2013. He made 500 prototype figures to see what the visual impact of that would be and to see if he could get anyone to support his project.
It took him nearly 3 years to complete the shrouds which are made from plastic figures covered in calico textile.
Rob crossed off the names of the fallen as he made the shrouds. This meant that each shroud is directly associated with a name so individual does not get lost in statistics.
Rob would work his way down the list, crossing off a name each time he created a soldier and reflected on their individual experience.
Alongside the 19,240 shrouds was a tent listing the names of all those who died at the Battle of the Somme. The list includes 43 Bristolians.
The shrouds were completed earlier this year which led to an initial display being shown in Exeter. Rob hadn’t realised the significance of the date until late 2015 which urged him to complete the final shrouds in time for July 1st marking 100 years since the Battle of the Somme started.
He explains the process and the importance of individuality and why this project is different.
The response has been positive and overwhelming as visitors took to social media to show the world.
The installation has received an enormous amount of support throughout the country. Whilst on display in Exeter, over 50,000 people visited the shrouds. The Shrouds in Bristol saw over 80,000 visitors, some coming from the far North.
‘The exhibition was one of the most powerful Acts of Remembrance I have seen throughout my military career and subsequent time as President of the Royal British Legion for Devon. The raw emotion it produced in countless numbers of people, many of whom were in tears, some kneeling and praying and others stood rigidly to attention, was extremely moving. Without doubt this exhibition touches the hearts of all those who are privileged to witness it.” Commodore Jake Moores OBE, Chairman of the Shrouds of the Somme.
Jade Orchard, who’s brother Steven was in the army describes her feelings about how Rob has affected people.
Other social media posts express people’s thoughts on the Shrouds.
The Centenary of the battle may be over but the world war ended 98 years ago. Rob has even created plans for the Shrouds in 2018 for the Centenary marking the end of the first world war. There is a high demand for the Shrouds to be displayed around the country, so we may see them again soon.
Visitors are still able to buy a shroud in a personalised frame. 2,050 shrouds have bene sold in Exeter and were replaced with wooden markers for the Bristol display. Each shroud is unique and made with careful consideration to match a name which Rob would concentrate on. He tells us they have been “brought back,” perhaps not to life but for a final goodbye.
Donations from the exhibition are being given to SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity.
Why is this battle important?
The Battle of the Somme, also known as the Somme Offensive, was a battle of the First World War fought by the armies of the British and French Empires against the German Empire. It took place between 1 July and 18 November 1916.
The battle lasted for almost five months and resulted in over 1 million casualties from multiple nationalities. The Franco-British alliance recorded an estimated 630,000 casualties while the German army reported from 460,000 to 600,000 men.
The first day of the Somme had been declared a serious defeat for the German Second Army. This was the worst day in the history of the British Army, which saw 19,240 deaths and almost 60,000 total casualties.
The Battle of the Somme is known as one of the bloodiest battles in history.
Here is a comparison of the battlefield then, and now.
Do you have any family members who were involved in the war or perhaps served on the Somme? Please get in touch with us below, we would love to hear your story.