Friday July 1st saw the 100th anniversary marking the start of the battle of the Somme, which saw 57470 British casualties on the first day alone, and over 600000 allied deaths by the end of fighting.
The faces of those who died 100 years ago seem far away, like the distant sound of church bells on a Sunday morning, easily confined to the peripheral. That’s why Friday’s #WeAreHere tribute was so very powerful. The faceless and the lost walked amongst us again, handing out cards commemorating the dead all over the country, from Scotland to Plymouth, the vision of Jeremy Deller and Rufus Norris
My Great Grandfather was a professional soldier, and as far as I can ascertain from his medal card, served in the 1st Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders, who landed in France immediately following the declaration of war. He fought at the Somme during the Battle of Albert, Bazentin Ridge, Flers-Courcelette, amongst others. He also fought and survived at the First Battle of Ypres, and the Second Battle of Passchendaele. He left the army in 1920. The horror he must have witnessed must have been unparalleled, and I wonder how much guilt he felt having survived it all. As is the cruelty of life, he was taken in the 1930s by a bout of Tubercolosis, just a year after his youngest son lost his life to Meningitis.
It’s hard to imagine the unimaginable, what our forefathers suffered through, the conditions that precipitated the death of so many. We’re the product of peace, the raging forces of Europe quiet for nearly 70 years. Anyone who has studied European history will know that’s virtually unprecedented.
When I studied Art, I recall being moved by the work of commissioned artists during the First World War; particularly the work of Paul and John Nash. To be confronted with the attire, and demeanour of the soldiers the Nash brothers would have stood amongst, that men that my Great-Grandfather would have fought alongside and mourned, was extremely powerful. As a photographer, although I only documented the beginning and the end of proceedings, I found myself in a unique position of capturing the jarring juxtaposition between the soldiers and our modern world, something that felt most poignant as the rain fell hard quickly followed by sunshine, accompanied by the bellowing song of "We Are Here".
During these troubling times, it served as a powerful reminder of the sacrifice made by a generation. In the words of my favourite war poet, Edward Thomas, himself killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917:
“The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.
— In Memoriam (1915)
Find below further information and some videos for your viewing pleasure. Thanks to Ross Jukes for hosting the videos.
'we're here because we're here' was commissioned by 14-18 NOW, and conceived and created by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller in collaboration with Rufus Norris, Director of the National Theatre. It was produced by Birmingham Repertory Theatre and the National Theatre with the following partners:
Lyric Theatre Belfast
Manchester Royal Exchange
National Theatre of Scotland
National Theatre Wales
Theatre Royal Plymouth