Almost a year ago my son Joe and our daughter Lily set off at 3:00am, wrapped in blankets and half asleep, with Robert, hoping to reach Exeter as the sun came up. Robert and I had timed 2 people laying out 1000 figures so we had a rough idea how long it would take to lay out 19,240. It would be a push but we were fairly sure we could get it done by 20:00 that evening for the preview event. If we were quick…and roped the children in…and maybe some volunteers?
The figures had been collected from our home the day before, to be delivered to Northernhay Gardens by 6th Battalion The Rifles. We watched the last truck bump its way up the drive and both felt a tangible shift in emotion. For two years these figures had filled our home. My dining room table held the first 500 for months, only being moved so that we could eat Christmas Dinner! Robert cutting, stitching and wrapping. White thread everywhere! Loving it, loathing it. But when that last truck moved off, it felt so empty. Even the girls felt it when they came home from school. No snacks, no tv, no phones?? They just sat for ages talking about how it didn’t feel right, asking if we were sure they were in a safe place? They couldn’t be damaged or lost? What if they got wet? All questions that would have been asked 100 years ago. The irony was not lost on us.
So, the sun was indeed up as they arrived at Northernhay Gardens. A viewing platform was almost finished at one end. The scaffolders and security were enjoying their first coffee.
Even at this point, at this exact time, no one knew what was coming…not even us.
The Rifles arrived and started to unload the figures. They said they were staying to help lay out. Fantastic! And so it started. Robert, Joe, Lily, soldiers, moving bags, laying out, non-stop. After a short while, people started to arrive. They had heard of the project and wondered if they could help? All ages, all walks of life, all with a story to tell of a relative who had marched off to war.
By the time I arrived with our other daughters the ground was covered! I couldn’t believe it! Soldiers, off duty police, off duty firemen, cadets, retired wrens, members of the public who had just chanced upon it…the job was almost done! They had to stop laying out and wait until the BBC and ITV film crews arrived. In the end, the figures were down in record time.
Robert was astounded, I was astounded. We started to get a hint of how the public was going to react to this.
You see, one of the things you have to deal with when you have led a pretty insular life for two years is the public. When you’ve invested blood, sweat and tears in to something for so long. When you’re so close to it, failure is just not an option. We talked at length about the pitfalls. Poor attendance, the weather, protest? Can we handle it?
As luck would have it, we needn’t have worried.
At 7:30 the next morning, July 1st 2016, 100 years after the event, crowds stood in silence as whistles were blown to commemorate the exact time when the troops went over the top on the first day of the battle of The Somme. The emotion hung heavy in the air. It was a once in a lifetime moment.
I can’t tell you how proud of Robert I was. From the minute he wandered up to me in the kitchen and said “I think I’m going to make 19,240 figures to represent the dead of the first day of The Somme” to that point then, stood there, watching him patiently talking to the public, shaking endless hands, signing autographs?! A constant flow of people thanking him. So, so, patient. A consummate gentleman.
The 19,240 project was a huge success. It was attended by thousands of people each day. The sun shone and there was not one protest.