Remembering the ghost soldiers of the Somme

As an exhibition of photographs of Jeremy Deller’s project We’re Here Because We’re Here begins its tour of the UK, Jenny Waldman reflects on how this modern memorial caught the nation’s imagination

By Jenny Waldman

People all over the UK, from Plymouth to Belfast, from Swansea to the Shetland Islands, became part of an unusual and moving phenomenon at 8am on 1 July 2016. Hundreds of “ghost soldiers” wearing First World War uniforms appeared, unannounced, in public spaces—at railway stations, bus stops and shopping centres. They did not speak, but occasionally burst into a song: “We’re here because we’re here.”

All day the soldiers moved around, from one public space to another: on foot, on trains, on the London Underground. Each wore the uniform of one of the British regiments that went into action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, on 1 July 1916. If approached, they said nothing, but handed out a small card. Each one gave the name, rank and regiment of a soldier who had died on that day.

Commissioned by 14-18 NOW, an organisation set up to use contemporary art to connect people with the centenary of the First World War, and devised by the artist Jeremy Deller, this modern memorial to the bloodiest day in British military history, when 19,240 men were killed and a further 40,000 injured, offered a new approach to the long cultural tradition of memorialisation.

The public’s response was emotional. People wept on reading the name-cards, they hugged the soldiers and, by putting images and thoughts on social media, they made it a national shared experience. Some two million people encountered the “ghosts” that day, and a further 30 million became aware of them through press, television and social media.

Working with Rufus Norris, the director of the National Theatre, and 26 theatres led by Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Deller recruited volunteers from all walks of life to research and become the “Somme soldiers”.

They were sworn to secrecy while training, but their appearance on 1 July was not a simple re-enactment, more a highly choreographed social experiment. The public’s response became part of the event. This was an essentially democratic work of art—art for everyone, where everyone plays a part in making something of the highest quality and originality.

War memorials are, of course, nothing new, but we wanted to rethink them. After 1918, nearly every parish acquired its own memorial, and in many cases, the long list of the fallen was added to with the names of those who died during the Second World War. The official national war memorial is the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London, designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1919. Originally made of wood and plaster, it was replaced by a stone version in 1920. Lutyens designed 44 other memorials in Britain, as well as the powerful memorial to the missing of the Somme at Thiepval in France. These imposing structures are designed to inspire awe, and are part of a tradition of war memorials that goes back, in the UK, to the 15th century.

As part of such a strong tradition, how should we create modern memorials? Paul Cummins’s and Tom Piper’s installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red flooded the moat of the Tower of London with ceramic poppies in 2014. We are now touring two key elements of the installation to sites all over the UK.

Cummins’s and Piper’s installation reanimated the traditional iconography of remembrance. In another project, the artist Susan Philipsz created a sound installation (War Damaged Musical Instruments, at Tate Britain) that captured the feeling of mourning, and Ciara Phillips is the latest artist invited to paint a Dazzle Ship – huge floating works of art that tell the story of the First World War Dazzle Ships, seen by millions of people in London, Liverpool and Edinburgh.

As with the 17,500 volunteers who helped to install poppies at the Tower of London, and the 2,000 volunteers for We’re Here Because We’re Here, the public has shown a strong desire to feel part of the process.

At the end of the centenary, the two poppy sculptures will enter the collections of the Imperial War Museum. Founded in 1917, the museum is itself a form of memorial. It boasts an incredible collection, and from its inception has commissioned war artists, including in contemporary conflicts.

As we plan our final season of commissions in 2018, we will continue to rethink the memorial. By giving artists the freedom and the power to lead, we have moved from the monumental to something more intensely human, both personal and collective. 14-18 NOW is bringing a contemporary vision to the age-old need to remember.

Jenny Waldman is the director of 14-18 NOW