July 1st, 2016 marks the hundredth anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
The Battle of the Somme (French: Bataille de la Somme, German: Schlacht an der 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 on both sides of the River Somme in France. The battle was one of the largest of World War I, in which more than 1,000,000 men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
The first day on the Somme was the worst day in the history of the British Army, which saw 19,240 deaths.
There is a very moving exhibit 19240 Shrouds of the Somme in Northernhay Gardens, Exeter to commemorate and remember the 19,240 British men who lost their lives on that day. The Shrouds of the Somme will be open to the public from 7:30am – 9:00pm each day from Friday 1st July until Thursday 7th July.
Each of the 19,240 soldiers who died during the first day of battle is represented by a 12 inch figure, wrapped and bound in a hand-stitched shroud and arranged in rows on the ground. Artist Rob Heard spent six months handcrafting each of the figures.
The purpose of this work is to physicalise the number – to illustrate the enormity of the horror which unfolded and the loss of life.
During the creation process Rob referred to a list of names of all of the British soldiers who fell on the first day of battle.
Each figure is associated with a name so that each soldier is individually acknowledged and remembered.
Rob worked his way down the list, crossing off one name each time a soldier is created as he reflected on their individual experience.
Rob created the figures unaided, cutting and hand-stitching their calico shrouds, covering and binding them in a ritual of creation, remembrance and personal introspection. As each soldier is wrapped they take on their own form, twisting and bending into their own unique shape – not only representing the dead – but death itself.
It is easy to say the number but almost impossible now, almost 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 or collectively, upon society as a whole.
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.
Each of the names of the 19,240 soldiers is being read out over the course of the exhibit, as well as WWI poetry and prose. One of the poems certainly read is ‘Before Action’ written by Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson who served with the 9th Battalion the Devonshire Regiment . He wrote the poem on 29th June, 1916, two days before the Battle of the Somme.
‘Smiler, May 1916’ from the pocket sketchbook of Captain John Upcott of the 9th Devons. ‘Smiler’ was the battalion’s nickname for Hodgson and this little sketch is almost certainly the last image of him.
Hodgson’s battalion was to advance across the downward slope of a hill, in full view of German trenches on three sides. They knew how slender their chances were.
Lt Hodgson was Bombing Officer in the attack. He was responsible for keeping the men supplied with grenades during the attack, which would be especially important if they got into the German positions.
On 1 July 1916, two days after penning ‘Before Action’, Noel Hodgson was killed in the opening minutes of the advance, as he had expected. Over half the battalion and all but one of the officers who fought that day became casualties with him.
He was aged 23. He would never again see a sunset.
By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, O Lord.
By all of all man’s hopes and fears
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.
I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.
– W. N. Hodgson