100 years ago today



From 2014 to 2018 there have been and will be a number of different moments when people remember and commemorate the tragedy that was the First World War. For military historians the 15th September 1916 saw the first use of tanks on a battlefield. Tanks were deployed and active in the fighting at the Battle of Flers–Courcelette. This battle was part of the long and infamous Battle of the Somme that had begun over two months before. It is hard for us to appreciate 100 years later the desperation of those times. Nobody could have imagined in 1914, at the beginning of the war, that two years later 19,240 British soldiers would lose their lives on the fist day of any battle, but that is what happened at the Somme on the 1st July 1916.


Remembering heroes, battles and wars is part of human culture. How we commemorate various aspects of World War One says as much about how we view war, violence and sacrifice today as it does about how we think about the horror and carnage of the past. Perhaps somewhere an artist is marking the arrival of the tank into warfare, but it is a tricky subject. Today we don’t want glorification. National memorials are seldom hard, enduring sculptures instead they are fleeting events or services, or, ephemeral installations attempting to capture the vast, incomprehensible loss of life. Such an art project was the ‘19240 Shrouds of the Somme’ by Rob Heard that was set out in the Northernhay Gardens in Exeter, Devon.

The work showed 19,240 figurines each laid out in its own handmade shroud. The artist obtained the seven volumes of the War Graves Commission’s lists of those who died on the 1st July 1916 and recited each soldier’s name as he wrapped a figurine in its shroud and crossed that name off the list.

The overall work has a desperate, poignant appearance and the scale allows the observer to see each discrete form, each individual death, repeated over and over again. It isn’t remotely pretty – why should it be. It is marking a terrible event. The work looks wretched, pitiful and sorrowful without being sentimental. It works in all the ways that the over-hyped, simplistic and incredibly sentimental ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ did not. That was the poppy installation that filled the Tower of London moat with gaudy, ceramic poppies in a trite representation of the carnage of war.

Sentimental – how to make the blood of war acceptable. Not 21st century art’s finest hour.


Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

16 thoughts on “100 years ago today”

  1. This is incredibly moving – what an effective way of portraying this slaughter. Great photos too. I was very interested in your reaction to the poppies since I saw them as a representation of the oceans of blood so unnecessarily spilled.

    1. Yes, you are spot on with the ‘representation of the oceans of blood so unnecessarily spilled’, but flows of red flowers/petals is such a cliché. Only this very morning I have seen a photo of a new display for Lady Macbeth in the Selfridges Shakespeare Revisited windows showing Lady Macbeth with red petals flowing from her hands.

      I know the red poppy has a symbolic significance in our ‘war’ culture, but that installation at the Tower looked too pretty. Perhaps less attractive metaphors would makes us stop and think too as well as emote. Francis Bacon’s ‘meat works’ considering life and death pack a disturbing punch without being cloying. I just think that contemporary art can offer a more truthful response to the tragedy of WW1 and I think ‘19,240 Shrouds’ has made a more honest attempt.

      1. Gosh – hopefully more people did see it like you did. Sadly, listening and looking at the commentary at the time, many people had that contemporary ‘ah’ thing rather than your more appropriate, visceral repugnance. There were huge crowds and maybe ‘ah’ was partly a ‘group’ response. Of course the Tower of London is a busy tourist attraction and Northernhay Gardens down in Exeter didn’t have thousands standing round and the setting also contributes to how one responds to an installation.

      1. Thank you. I can’t get over the sheer effort involved in making this memorial and I find it very interesting. Here in the US WWI memorial events are not on the radar since we had such a different experience of this war from Britain and Europe, so I find this interesting to reflect on history and how differently it can be perceived. My grandfather fought in the war, coming in at the end, but I know little about what he did (and now never will since he has been dead for almost 35 years).

  2. What an incredible memory through art. Your images are fantastic Agnes. We have also been doing memorials of WW1 battles and events here in Australia as each centenary comes up

  3. That really packed a punch. I would never have imagined such an installation. I wonder how it affected the artist mentally, as well as the physical effort in making the shrouds and figures. I was extremely moved also by the poppies which I saw in progress a couple of years back. On the other hand, I have read many files on Australian soldiers, so perhaps I had a deeper feeling for the significance. The Australian archives has digitised all the WWI records, and the percentage of population who participated was high. It is so difficult to conceive the number of deaths, injuries and illness. The devastation was so immense. This artist is to be commended for putting it into a perspective people can relate to.

  4. The best we can hope for is that practitioners of art, music and drama attempt to fathom the numbers and give the rest of us thoughtful and meaningful commemorations.

  5. Wow! I am blown away by this! This post is a timely read for me as I just finished Ken Follett’s trilogy that detailed the war in Europe and I had a mental picture, but this….wow! This is truly as you say a meaningful commemoration!

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