In these difficult weeks we all pull our children in tighter, give them an extra kiss and remind ourselves how lucky we are to hold them safe. We worry about them as they grow up and venture into the world for themselves.
Part of equipping them to go out into the world has to be about teaching them about things we would rather not; darkness, fear, loss, pain. We must teach them as best we can how to deal with life’s difficulties, even though some feel too large and difficult to explain.
Over the last few months I have been working on a fascinating and inspiring Arts Remembrance project called Shrouds of the Somme. It depicts thousands of small figures, carefully bound and hand stitched into death shrouds. They represent all the bodies of men who died in the Battle of the Somme in the First World War but who have no named grave. All 72,396 of them laid out in neat rows. The exhibition will be a quarter of a kilometre long.
I find this project deeply moving, and because of my involvement, it has become a large part of my life. As such I have needed to explain the project to my son Tom. Pippa is only 2, and is blissfully unaware of anything more scary than me telling her she can’t have that chocolate bar. Tom on the other hand is 8, he is curious, intelligent, sensitive. He asks questions I find difficult to answer. Some are philosophical:
“Why did so many men die?” “What did that mean for everyone else?” “Why was it allowed?”
Some just gruesomely practical:
“But how did the battlefields fit all the bodies in?”
I find it difficult to answer the questions satisfactorily enough for him; we rarely talk openly about death in this country. There are few tools to equip us mothers for explaining large scale death. He has a pet gecko partly so that he “learns about death” when it dies, which when the time comes will be a rather inadequate explanation of death.
He also asks about wars that are taking place now, whether soldiers still die and why. I have realised that this project is helping me explain to him the importance of remembering our past, so that it has an impact on how we live our today. As long as the memory stays true, we will never again make so many of the mistakes that were made 100 years ago. Terrible terrible things have happened. We learn from them, we make sure it never happens again.
As the centenary of the end of WW1 approaches we have a responsibility to teach our children about remembrance and to honour those who died 100 years ago – many of them were teenagers and young men. The fear and pain those mothers must have felt sending their sons off to war, with many never returning is something most of us can hardly bear to contemplate. Yet as first-hand recollection of WW1 is all but gone, we need to find a way to keep their memories and sacrifice alive.
Shrouds of the Somme carries resonance because it doesn’t try to protect us from the reality of the deaths. It shows us in a heart-wrenching and devastating way the huge scale of the losses, bodies lying on the ground as far as the eye can see. The poppies whilst poignant and beautiful simply do not have the same impact as a shrouded figure; they have never provoked questions from my son.
The artist, Rob Heard is hand stitching each and every of the 72,396 shrouds, each one to a name from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. He is crowdfunding at the moment to pay for the materials and to bring the project to London in 2018, for the Centenary of the end of the First World War . If he doesn’t raise the money, the project won’t happen so I urge you to support this project and pledge.
Let’s connect those names and those men with our children, let’s remember what they fell for, let’s think of their mothers whose babies never came home and let’s keep their memory alive.
Naomi Griffith, is Director of Onion Collective and working with the Shrouds of the Somme Team to help fundraise.