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.