The Story of Shrouds Of The Somme.

The idea for the artwork behind the shrouds, in which figures representing the dead are laid out in rows on the grass, came to Somerset artist Rob Heard in 2013 while he was recovering from a car crash. He got thinking about military fatalities in history and how impossible it was to visualise the huge numbers involved, “I tried to count out loud the number killed in just one day at the Somme, but ran out of steam at about 1,500.” He realised he needed to ‘physicalise the number’.

Each of the 12 inch figures in a hand-stitched shroud is linked to a fatality at the Somme using records from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. “As I go through the process of putting the figure within the shroud, I cross a name off.  It’s vitally important that each is associated with a name, otherwise the individual gets lost in the numbers.”

The initial 19,240 shrouded figures took Rob three years to craft. He has now begun creating an additional 60,000 shrouds so that each of the 72,396 British men whose bodies were never recovered from the Somme are represented. “All these men are laying on the battlefield to this day and in some small way I would like to bring them home“. He plans to complete this enormous challenge in time to display the shrouds in November 2018 to mark the Centenary of Armistice Day. “It would be like nothing else – quarter of a kilometre of bodies laid out in rows, hopefully somewhere central where they will be seen by hundreds of thousands of people, reminding them of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

About The Shrouds

British servicemen killed on the Somme battlefields are represented by a 12 inch figure, wrapped and bound in a hand-stitched shroud and laid out individually in rows on the ground. The purpose of this work is to physicalise the number – to illustrate the enormity of the loss of life, but also to remember each as an individual. It is easy to say the number but almost impossible now, 100 years on, to imagine the physical reality of the bodies and the impact that these deaths had on the friends and families of these individual soldiers and collectively, upon society as a whole.

Rob began the project on his own in December 2013, making 500 prototype figures to understand the visual impact. A chance meeting with Steve Knightley, of folk band Show of Hands, in 2014 led directly to the creation of the ‘19240 Shrouds of the Somme’ project in Exeter in July 2016.

The Process

During the creation process Rob refers to a list of names of the British soldiers whose bodies were never recovered and who are listed on the Thiepval Memorial in France – data sourced from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  Each figure is associated with a name so that each soldier is individually acknowledged and remembered. Rob works his way down the list, crossing off a name for each figure created. He cuts and hand-stitches their calico shrouds, then covers and binds the figures in the shrouds in a ritual of creation, remembrance and personal introspection. As each figure is wrapped they take on their own form, twisting  and bending into their own unique shape – not only representing the dead – but death itself. The sight of the figures both individually and collectively presents a poignant and provocative experience for the viewer, providing a moment for reflection within themselves about the physical reality of the war, in approximately 1:6 scale.

Inspiration

Prior to this art project, Rob worked primarily in wood, creating intricate ‘Bough House‘ sculptures which his three young daughters refer to as ‘Fairy Houses’. These have been displayed in galleries throughout the UK and are robust enough to be used as toys or simply admired as incredibly intricate artworks.

Following a car accident in 2013, Rob injured his right arm so badly that he was unable to continue with such detailed, physical work. This incident was followed by a very dark period for Rob. He became concerned about how he could continue creatively as he adjusted to the continuous physical pain and limited mobility in his hand. During this bleak time, he thought of others who were worse off than himself – those returning from current conflicts without limbs or with mental or emotional trauma and he reflected on the impact of war both on individuals and humanity. As the centenary of the first World War approached, topical news programmes featured politicians and commentators squabbling over whether to celebrate or commemorate the event and Rob considered the importance of illustrating the true impact of the conflict. He devised a new outlet for his creativity which could be achieved within the abrupt limitations of his physical ability – embarking on the five year journey to create this large scale artwork.