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Armistice 100: Moving artwork dedicated to 72,000 Battle of the Somme soldiers unveiled in Stratford

PUBLISHED: 18:00 07 November 2018 | UPDATED: 15:42 08 November 2018

A moving tribute to the thousands of men whose bodies went unrecovered after the Battle of the Somme has been unveiled in Stratford. Pic: JON KING

A moving tribute to the thousands of men whose bodies went unrecovered after the Battle of the Somme has been unveiled in Stratford. Pic: JON KING

Archant

A moving memorial to thousands of missing soldiers whose bodies weren’t found after a First World War battle has been unveiled.

A total of 72,396 12-inch human figures wrapped in cotton shrouds have been laid in rows beneath the ArcelorMittal Orbit in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford, to mark the end of the 1914-1918 conflict.

The Shrouds of the Somme exhibit took Somerset artist Rob Heard five years to complete working up to 12 hours a day with each figurine individually wrapped in a hand-stitched covering.

Asked how it felt to see the piece take shape, Mr Heard, 53, said: “It’s extraordinary. I’ve never seen it laid out like this. It’s amazing. Working with serving soldiers has been brilliant.”

Servicemen from the Royal Anglian Regiment based in Woolwich spent three days arranging the figures.

The exhibit was the idea of Somerset artist Rob Heard and took him five years to complete. Pic: JON KINGThe exhibit was the idea of Somerset artist Rob Heard and took him five years to complete. Pic: JON KING

Vehicle mechanic, Sgt Michael Jenkins, said: “You feel emotionally tied knowing that each figure represents someone with no known grave.

“It’s important we recognise the sheer bravery of the men who went over the top.”

Originally a wood carver, Mr Heard started the project after recovering from a car accident in which he broke both wrists.

He was shaken out of feeling sorry for himself and inspired to mark the Battle of the Somme’s centenary after seeing soldiers return limbless from military service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Each figure was individually wrapped in a shroud by the artist. Pic: JON KINGEach figure was individually wrapped in a shroud by the artist. Pic: JON KING

The project grew out of an initial exhibit in Bristol and Exeter of 19,240 figures representing the number of fatalities on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Each figure is based on a name taken from the Thiepval Memorial in France which commemorates the British and South African forces who died in the Somme offensive of 1916 who have no known grave.

On the location, exhibition chairman Jake Moores said: “We looked at a lot of places in London but this is such an iconic site.”

Dr Lucy Kellett, a Commonwealth War Graves Comission heritage officer, said: “It was one of the bloodiest battles and came to define our understanding of the war.”

Many of the war dead were from Pals battalions – men from the same neighbourhoods who fought together.

“The shrouds not only represent individuals, but also the families and communities who lost so many,” Dr Kellett said.

The exhibit is on display until Sunday, November 18.

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