Saturday, 17 November 2018

Shrouds of the Somme

Yesterday Sue and I went to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, East London, to have a look at the SHROUDS OF THE SOMME installation.

This work of art was the brainchild of artist Rob Heard, who has made a clay model of every British Commonwealth serviceman who was killed during the Battle of the Somme and for whom there is no known gave. Each model has been wrapped in a hand-stitched shroud.

Rob began work on this installation in 2013 after he suffered injuries to both hands during a car accident. He originally planned to make 19,240 figures, one for each soldier killed on the first day of the battle, and these were displayed in Exeter on the one hundredth anniversary of that first day. They were subsequently displayed in Bristol in 2016 ... and then he began work on making more figures, one fore each of the men named on the Thiepval Monument. With the help of Jake Moores and Mel Bradley, he managed to complete the 72,396 figures in time for the centenary of the Armistice.

Yesterday was cold and damp, with low grey clouds blotting out any sunshine. We arrived at Stratford not long after 10.30am, and reached the section of the park where the figures were on display just before 11.00am. There were several school parties visiting the site as well and numerous middle-aged and elderly people, and the only sound that could be heard was the voice of a volunteer who was reading out the names of the dead in alphabetical order.

The sheer scale of the installation was quite breathtaking, as the following images show.

Some of the figures had been decorated with poppies and others with African marigolds, the latter to commemorate the Indian soldiers who were numbered amongst the dead.

Adjoining the main display was a section where there was a single shrouded figure for each day of the war. At the head of each was a small wooden notice which stated how many men were killed on that day, and at various locations there were further notices that recorded the dates of the major battles.

At the end was a single figure with the number of men who died of their wounds after the war had ended on its notice ...

... and then one last figure and notice that showed the total number of dead.

This whole display, which also included a number of wreaths, ...

... was a very sobering sight to see, and this was further reinforced by a series of boards that were in the marquee by the exit. These recorded in alphabetical order the name of every single man whose name is inscribed on the Thiepval Monument.

SHROUDS OF THE SOMME will remain in place until 18th November, and can be seem in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford.


  1. I have started reading Arthur Conan Doyle's history of the "British Campaign in France and Flanders" - not your usual sort of account, and something of a hagiography. Most of what I have read of that campaign have tended to the 'lions led by donkey's' school of thought, with which, on the whole, I'm inclined to agree. 'Attrition' was (is) a bankrupt strategy that came near to bankrupt a generation of its people.

    1. Archduke Piccolo,

      From what I can remember - and it was over fifty years ago - my school had a complete set of bound magazines that were published during the Great War. It was out-and-out propaganda, full of heroic images and descriptions of Hunnish brutality. I've never read Conan Doyle's history of the war in France, but I suspect that it will not be too dissimilar.

      'Lions led by donkeys'? Certainly lions, but as the war progressed, I think that there were fewer and fewer donkeys, and that 'Chateau Generals' - whilst they existed - tended to be those at the very top of the command pyramid. One only has to compare the number of British generals killed or captured in action during the First and Second World Wars to see that. (I think that the numbers are 243 for the First World War and approximately 28 for the Second World War.)

      Attrition was a totally flawed concept, but it was driven by a desire to end the war quickly and a belief that the Germans were suffering heavier casualties than the Allies. What would have made sense (its a wonderful thing, hindsight!) would have been to sit tight, let the Germans do the attacking, and rely on the blockade to starve the Germans to the negotiating table. The war would have lasted years longer, but the number of Allied deaths would probably have been much lower.

      All the best,



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