Two years ago, I went to see the breathtaking Shrouds of the Somme in Bristol. Artist Rob Heard made 19,240 hand-stitched shrouded figures each representing a serviceman of the British Empire who died on the first day of the Somme, which were laid out on College Green. As well as the Shrouds, the names and details of all 72,396 Commonwealth servicemen killed at the Somme who have no known grave were displayed in alphabetical order. It was one of the most affecting sights I had ever seen and it will stay with me for the rest of my days. For the last week or so, the Shroud of the Somme has come to Filton and today I paid a ‘return’ visit.
The Shrouds now form a Trench, the kind servicemen fought in during World War 1. The names are on the outside of the Trench, the millions of Shrouds are inside. In the Trench, the Shrouds represent, as Rob Heard puts it, “a much more uncomfortable and oppressive image of a huge amount of people crushed together”. And that is exactly how it feels as you walk through it, which I did a number of times.
The exhibition works on a number of levels. It gives the sense of being in a trench, the numbers if you imagine real human beings are overwhelming, it is a fitting tribute to all those who fought and died at the Somme.
There were a good many visitors for a Thursday afternoon and there were different accents, different languages present. They were there to witness something quite wonderful, yet at the same time something awful, horrific and still today, over 100 years on, something very upsetting.
If you miss this magnificent exhibition, then fear not because in November it will be at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic park.
If the honours system still has any meaning – and I rather think it doesn’t – then Rob Heard should be knighted for his contribution to our country and its history. His work is the stuff of true greatness.