Art installation honours 73,000 Commonwealth soldiers killed in the Battle of the Somme

Art installation honours 73,000 Commonwealth soldiers killed in the Battle of the Somme

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

An art installation in London will commemorate the almost 73,000 Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Battle of the Somme, but have no known grave.

The installation features 72,396 plastic figures wrapped in hand-stitched shrouds, to represent the soldiers whose bodies were never returned home.

Artist Rob Heard spent 18 months making the shrouds, and had the figures, which he describes as “like Ken dolls” made to order.

“I’d put the figure within the shroud, tie it up and it would take its own shape,” he explained. “It’s been 10, 12, 14 hours a day [of work].”

The idea came to Mr Heard when he saw the poppies installation at the Tower of London in 2014, which marked the beginning of WWI.

“It stemmed from when I first saw the poppies four years ago, which was an extraordinary exhibit,” he said.

“We started in the June sunshine four years ago and here we are in the cold and wet November, it’s the appropriate bookend for the conflict.”


'A reminder of the sacrifice'

Artist Rob Heard. Image: Thea de Gallier

Volunteers from the 1st Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment and the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), an all-female charity whose members provided medical assistance during the First World War, helped to lay out the shrouds on a green in the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London.

Using a tape measure to ensure the figures were evenly spaced, they began work on Monday November 4, ready for the exhibition to open to the public on November 8.

Captain James Pugh of the 1st Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment called it “a reality check as to what the sacrifice is [of joining the armed forces]”.


'I suffered to do this'

Volunteers help to lay out the shrouds. Image: Thea de Gallier

Mr Heard told talkRADIO he’d applied for several grants from arts organisations but was refused, and sold some of his possessions to fund the making of the figures.

He designed them himself and had them made by an external company, but as the project gained more publicity, companies stepped in to assist.

DHL provided a truck free of charge to store and transport the figures.

“I wasn’t paid at all, I suffered to do this,” said Mr Heard, who described the stitching process as “painful” due to injuries on his hands.


'Very touching'

The shrouds on the grass. Image: Thea de Gallier

Ten-year-old Ewan Woodhouse, whose mother Yvette lost her great-great uncles Arthur and Henry Pyatt in the battle of the Somme, was at the display with his family.

“It’s very touching to see how he’s taken all his time to do this for all the soldiers who were taken in the war and weren’t brought back to their home country,” he said.

Shrouds of the Somme is open from November 8-18