19,240 Shrouds at Exeter


Earlier this evening, I travelled to the Northernhay Gardens in Exeter’s Rougemont Castle to see the 19,240 shrouded figurines depicting the men from the British Army who had died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. I had seen this display featured in news reports and what I’d watched had been terribly moving, but I was unprepared for my first sight of this field of the dead as it loomed into view over a castle wall.

From where I stood as I made my way to see the display, I could only see about a third of the shrouds, as the rest were shielded by trees. All the same, I was stunned by what I saw and as I made my way down the pathway and through a gate in the castle wall, I encountered two ‘ghosts’ in the form of a young man and a young woman in WWI dress. I wanted to mark this occasion by having my photograph taken with them, but I had to walk past these young people because I had a lump in my throat and my eyes were welling up, so I doubted very much I could make myself understood if I tried to speak.

Instead, I wandered slowly across to the huge lawn upon which the 19,240 shrouded figures had been carefully laid out. I do not remember a work of art in the shape of an installation or at a push, a sculpture, having such a profound effect upon me as this one did. Each shrouded figure was different, so it was very easy to imagine that I was gazing upon rows and rows of the dead, while the sheer amount of butchered bodies on silent display made me catch my breath.

My mind reeled at the realisation that before me were representations of those poor souls who had lost their life on just the first day of the battle. I could easily write for hours more about this, but all the credit must go to Somerset artist Rob Heard, who came up with the idea of creating all these shrouded figures and putting them on display. In our modern age, with its media that can instantly transmit the sights and sounds of all manner of horrors, we can easily become immune to the evil that men do, but these shrouded figures of the dead have somehow managed to bring 19,240 young men back to life.


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2 Responses to 19,240 Shrouds at Exeter

  1. G. B. Marian says:

    I’m sure seeing it in person would be even more impressive, but from where I’m sitting at least, that seems like a very beautiful display. It’s a smart an effective way to represent the horrific reality of war.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Angela Lake says:

    Living fairly near Exeter made it easy for me to visit, too, Dennis. I thought it was amazing. It must have been even more moving when they closed the exhibition on Thursday evening and the trumpeter sounded ‘the Last Post’. I don’t know why it didn’t have more national coverage (or perhaps it did?) During the daytime someone was reading out the names of the soldiers who died while visitors surveyed the scene. Also, a lovely touch was having a display of the photos of many of those young men with lists of their names in a marquee on the site.
    I went to the Devonshire Regiment chapel in the cathedral after my own visit, and looked for my uncles’ names in the book, then lit candles for them. Private Percy Manning in the 9th Battalion died on 6th July 1916 [the 9th were at the Somme], and his brother, Frederick William (Bill) in the 2nd Battalion, in August 1918, though I’ve seen it written elsewhere that it was 1915. They came from Eggesford where my granddad, who worked on the railway there, and my gran (who both died long before I was born), brought up their 10 children in a tiny end of terrace cottage. My dad was next-to-youngest, but I remember him saying that their favourite elder sister, Flossie, also died as a result of the ‘flu epidemic when the soldiers returned home after the war. So my poor grandparents lost three children as a result of WW1. Their names are engraved on a war memorial at Eggesford Fourways, near the cottages, together with at least one more person from that terrace.
    We owe them so much, and also those who perished in WW2.

    Liked by 1 person

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