I rarely blog about anything non-technical but after the events last Friday (1st July) I wanted to say something about the pride that I shared with several hundred parents around the country as they saw the effect their offspring created through a living memorial of the terrible waste of life that happened a hundred years ago on 1st July 1916 when some 70,000 soldiers (a very large fraction of them British) were killed or injured on the first day of the battle of the Somme.
While a memorial service was being held at Thiepval – a monument to 72,000 British (Empire) soldiers who died in the battle of the Somme but have no known grave – 1,500 “ghosts of the Somme” were silently wending their way in small groups through the streets, shopping centres, and train stations of cities across the UK, pausing to rest from time to time and occasionally bursting into the song of the trenches: “We’re here because we’re here”.
Each “ghost” represented a specific solder killed on the first day of the Somme and if you approached one of them to ask what was going on their only response was to look you in the eye and hand you a card stating their name, rank, regiment and, where known, the age at which they died.
Although many of the posts and tweets about the event mention the collaboration and assistance of various theatre groups around the country almost all of the soldiers were simply people who had responded to an advertisement for Project Octagon and had spent time over the previous 5 weekends rehearsing for the event. My son Simon was one of the volunteers who was on the London beat, starting with the morning commuters at Kings Cross then trekking around London all day – in hobnailed leather boots – to end at Waterloo station for the evening commuters.
After hours of walking this was how he appeared at Waterloo at the end of the day:
Like me he normally sports a beard and moustache but he’d shaved the beard off and trimmed the moustache to the style of an older era. The absent, dazed, look is in character for the part but also, I think, an indication of exhaustion, both physical and emotional. I wasn’t even sure he’d realised I was crouching six feet away to take this photo until I asked him about it the following day. When I showed the picture to my wife it brought tears to her eyes to think that 100 years ago that might have been the last sight of her son she’d see before he went off to die – it’s a sentiment that appeared more than once on Twitter through the day.
Shortly before 6:00 pm several more groups converged on Waterloo for a final tableau giving us a rendition of “We’re here because we’re here” that ended in an agonised scream:
It’s a gut-wrenching thought that a group that size would have been killed roughly every 6 minutes, on average, on the first day of the Somme though, realistically, the entire 1,500 that volunteered for the day would probably have died in the first few minutes of the first wave.
Behind the Scenes
There was no announcement of this living memorial so throughout the day people were asking where the soldiers came from and who had organised the event. Finally, at 7:00 in the evening 1418-Now identified themselves as the commissioning body, with Jeremy Deller as the artist in collaboration with Rufus Norris of the National Theatre.
Like any military operation, though, between the generals at the top and the troops at the bottom there was a pyramid of personnel connecting the big picture to the final detail. Under Jeremey Deller and Rufus Norris there was a handful of key characters without whom the day would have been very different. I can’t tell you who they all were but I’m proud to say that one of them was my daughter Anna who, along with a colleague, spent a large fraction of the last 16 months in the role of “Lead Costume Supervisor ” preparing for the day. Under the pair there were several regional costume supervisors, and each costume supervisor was responsible for several dressers who would have to help the volunteers put on the unfamiliar battledress.
Despite working on the project for 16 months Anna told me very little about what was going on until the day was over, and this is a thumbnail sketch (errors and omissions are my fault) of what she’s told me so far.
Amongst other things she selected a list of names from the soldiers who had died on the first day of battle, recording their rank, regiment, battalion and, where known, age. She then had to find out exactly what kit each battalion would have been wearing on the day, allowing for some of the variation that would have appeared within each battalion and catering for the various ranks; then she had to find a supplier who could make the necessary uniforms in a range of sizes that would allow for the variation in the build of the (as yet unknown, unmeasured) volunteers.
As batches of uniforms arrived each one had to be associated with its (historic) owner and supplied with 200 cards with the owner’s details – and it was really important to ensure that the right name was attached to a uniform before the uniforms could be dispatched around the country. Ideally a uniform would arrive at a location and find a volunteer who was the right size to wear it, with the right apparent age to match the card that went with the uniform; inevitably some uniforms had to be moved around the country to match the available volunteers.
The work didn’t stop with the uniforms being in the right place at the right time, of course. There aren’t many people alive who know how to dress in a British Army uniform from 1916 – so Anna and her colleague had to create a number of videos showing the correct way to wear webbing, how to put on puttees, etc. The other problem with the uniforms was that they were brand new – so they had to be “broken down”. That’s a lot of work when you’ve got 1,500 costumes. In part this was carried out by the volunteers themselves who spent some of their rehearsal time wearing the costumes while doing energetic exercises to wear them in and get them a little grubby and sweaty; but it also meant a lot of work for the dressers who were supplied with videos showing them how to rub (the right sort of) dirt into clothes and how to rough them up and wear them down in the right places with wire brushes etc.
One of the bits of the uniform you probably won’t have seen – or even if you saw it you might not have noticed it – was the T-shirt: the army uniform of the day would have been rather sweaty, itchy and uncomfortable on a hot summer’s day, so the soldiers weren’t wearing the real thing. Anna and her colleague designed a T-shirt that looked like the front of the shirt the troops should have worn under their battledress made of a material that was thinner, softer and much more comfortable than the real thing. In the end the day wasn’t as hot as expected so very few volunteers seemed to unbutton their tops – but if they had done so the T-shirts would have appeared to be the real thing.
Walking the Walk.
Apart from the authenticity of the uniforms another major feature of the day was the way that the ghosts made their way around from place to place silently, in single file, with no apparent references to maps (or satnav). Every group had a carefully planned route and timetable and two stage managers wearing brightly coloured backpacks so that they could be seen easily by the soldiers but, since one who walked 50 metres ahead and one 50m behind, were unlikely to be noticed by anyone who wasn’t looking. The stage managers were following carefully planned and timetabled routes – allowing the soldiers to stay in character all the time.
You may have seen pictures of the troops on the various underground trains – that’s just one demonstration of the level of detailed planning that went into the day. With a tight timetable of action and previous communications to station masters and other public officials to ensure that there would be no hold-ups at critical points the lead stage manager could (for example) get to a station guard to warn them of the imminent arrival of a squad, show them the necessary travel cards, and get the gate held open for them. No need for WW1 ghosts to break character by fumbling for electronic travel cards, just a silent parade through an open gate.
Just as Anna was the Lead Costumer Supervisor, there was a Lead Stage Manager with a cascade of local route masters beneath her. She was based in Birmingham and was responsible for working out how to make the timetabling and routing possible, using her home town as the test-bed for the approach, then briefing the regional organizers who applied the methods to prepare routes and handle logistics for their own locations.
To the people of London and Manchester and Belfast and Swansea and Penzance and Shetland and half a dozen places around the UK, it just happened: hundreds of ghosts of the past appeared and wandered among us. The uniforms were “real”, the journeys from place to place were “spontaneous” and “unguided”, and the ghosts were haunting. To most of us “it just happened” but behind the scenes the effort involved in preparation, and the attention to detail was enormous.
Between the “headline” names at the top of the pyramid and the highly visible troops on the ground at the bottom, it took the coordinated efforts of about 500 people to turn a wonderful idea into a reality that moved millions of people in their daily lives.
If you want to see more images and comments about the day you can follow the hashtag #wearehere and there is a collection of instagram images at http://becausewearehere.co.uk/ and if you’re in the London area on 11th July and want to hear more about the instigation and implementation of the day there’s an evening event on at the National Theatre on Monday 11th July featuring Jenny Waldman, Jeremy Deller and Rufus Norris discussing the event with a BBC correspondent.