Shrouds of the Somme at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Shrouds of the Somme at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

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The artist Rob Heard has devised possibly the most graphic way of commemorating the dead in the First World War. His astonishing Shrouds of the Somme comprises a staggering 72,396 miniature corpses, each one wrapped in a calico shroud and strapped head and toe, and each one representing a body that was never found, either blown to pieces or buried under the Flanders earth. Seventy-two thousand! This is one of the most powerful and poignant memorials ever produced. It underlines the complete and utter futility of war in a way that no permanent structure ever could, even Charles Jagger’s brutally honest memorial to the Royal Artillery at Hyde Park Corner. The bodies are laid out in serried ranks, inches apart, across a great expanse of grass, which was beginning to grow up between the corpses. The sheer scale of the carnage is all too evident, as the rank and file of the soldiers stretch out into the distance. At one end of the arrangement is a viewing platform, and the lines taper down to a single figure, totally alone and isolated in death. At the other end is Anish Kapoor’s ugly great metal mess, the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower, from which one can get a drone’s eye view, but it is at ground level that the impact is greatest. Near to the walkway, people have laid poppies on some of the little bodies, possibly by relatives of the dead. The 72,376 dead represent a fraction of the total number of British Empire troops killed in the Great War, which amounted to 953,104, with soldiers from Australia (62,149), Canada (64,996), India (73,905), New Zealand (18,166), Newfoundland (1,570) and South Africa (9,726), and the largest number coming for the the UK, with a staggering 744,000. Throughout the day, a list of the dead is sonorously and deliberately read out at the platform end and audible through loudspeakers. The same names are carved into the Lutyens designed Thiepval Memorial to the Missing on the Somme near Albert in northern France. Over 90% of those commemorated died between July and November 1916.

There is a further display called simply Lost Lives, again by Heard, showing the number of soldiers killed for every day from 1914 to 1918, plus another 75,676 from November 1918 until August 1921. Most days have a few hundred, or thousand, even on Christmas days, but the total killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme,1 June 1916, was an unbelievable 19,240. Again, these senseless losses are brought home in eye-watering reality. Two years ago the display of thousands of ceramic poppies spilling over the walls at the Tower of London was a moving tribute to the fallen, which captured the public’s imagination. In this Centenary year since the signing of the Armistice, the shrouded figures of the Somme, laid out as in a vast cemetery or outdoor morgue of non-Action Men, are a chilling reminder of something we should never, ever, forget.

It is also worth remembering that the German toll amounted to 1,773,700 war dead, 4,216,058 wounded, 1,152,800 prisoners, for a total of 7,142,558 casualties; over half of the 13,000,000 soldiers Germany mobilized for the war. David Lloyd George said during the conflict, ‘This war, like the next war, is a war to end war.’ How wrong he was.

Shrouds of the Somme
By Rob Heard
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

 

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