Last weekend, I enjoyed watching Exeter Chiefs win their second pre-season warm-up game against Ulster at Sandy Park.
Before the game, I made a visit to a wonderful piece of artwork that had been installed in the club bar to commemorate the Battle of the Somme.
Back in July, this project was displayed in full in Northernhay Gardens in Exeter’s city centre – and consisted of 19240 hand-made shrouds laid out on the grass to represent the Allied servicemen who died on the first day of the Battle of Somme100 years ago. Each 12 inch plastic figure in a hand-stitched shroud was linked to an Allied fatality on July 1st, 1916 using records from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The smaller – but equally effective – installation at Exeter Rugby Club consisted of 3237 shrouds that represented the men of the Devon and Ulster Regiments who fell on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. That is why the fixture against Ulster was chosen for the display – and a sponsored walk of 19240 yards held in the morning before the game helped raise funds for the SSAFA Armed Forces charity.
The idea for the artwork behind the shrouds came to Somerset artist Rob Heard in 2013 while he was recovering from a car crash and watching TV images of British soldiers returning from Afghanistan. He linked up with ‘Show of Hands’ musician Steve Knightley, who helped him develop the ‘19240 Shrouds of the Somme’ into one of the largest WW1 commemorations in the country. Rob says his work is very different in its approach to the sea of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London in 2014 – “The interesting thing about the poppies is that the individual was lost in that sea of red: but in what I’m doing, the individual is everything.” Stories and images of those killed on the first day of the Somme have been sent into the project by relatives and researchers, and each of the 19240 has a record on the Shrouds of the Somme web site at:
This site has some excellent information about the Battle of the Somme, and a full searchable record of all of the Fallen. It fascinated me to read that one of Exeter Chiefs’ star players – England international winger Jack Nowell – discovered at a fund-raising dinner for the charity that his great, great Uncle Frank was among them. His father, Newlyn trawlerman Mike Nowell, knew that Francis Nowell had fought and died at the Somme because the Nowell family visit the war memorial where he is listed every year. What they didn’t know was that he was one of the 19240 who died on the first day.
The individual shrouds are available for purchase via the web site, to help raise funds for the Exeter Foundation and the SSAFA.
Meanwhile, ‘Show of Hands’ have released a single and video to mark the centenary. ‘The Gamekeeper’ tells of a young man from Devon sent to the trenches and the impact on his life.