Since starting this blog, I have been presented with some incredible opportunities. There have been moments where I have had to pinch myself to make sure that I’m not dreaming. There have been moments when I have sat myself down and just taken a few minutes to take it all in. I’m a lucky, lucky girl.
Today, however, may very well have blown all the opportunities so far out of the water. I don’t belittle anything that I have been able to do thanks to this blog, but what I have spent the past 18 hours doing has been inspiring, humbling and motivating all in one, and I still can’t quite believe that it happened.
For those of you who don’t know, today marked 100 years since the first day of the Battle of the Somme in World War One. On this day, 100 years ago, over 57,000 men were injured and nearly 20,000 of them died. In one day. It was, officially, the bloodiest day in British military history.
Many of you may have already seen online or on the news about the incredible #WeAreHere tribute today. All across the UK there were hundreds of men in WWI military uniform, each representing a man who lost his life on that first day. These ghost-like figures were walking through our cities, in train stations, shopping centres and through the main streets, handing out small white cards with the name of the person whose lost life they were representing. It was truly spectacular to see.
The group started at 8am by heading to Bristol Temple Meads train station. Seeing these WWI soldiers, all standing or sitting outside the front of this gorgeous old station building was truly incredible. To be able to watch the reactions of the general public as one of the young men, most of whom are budding actors though some of whom are simply willing and enthusiastic volunteers, handed them the card representing the life that had been lost. Seeing these members of the public moved to the verge of tears by the eye contact from these young men, and the knowledge of the fate that their counterpart had met was truly captivating.
The soldiers didn’t speak, but they didn’t need to. The communication with their eye contact and body language was enough, and it seemed to add an air of silent remembrance to the day from the simple fact that none of these ghost-like figures uttered a single word from beginning to end.
What I hadn’t expected was the stories that would come out of this silence. Several times throughout the day I observed a member of the public greet one of the soldiers, receive their card, and, after realising that the boys wouldn’t be speaking, simply told their own story of their experience of this gruesome battle to the soldier. Whether grandparents, parents or great-grandparents, so many people had a close personal connection to this date, and seemed moved to open up and tell their own story by these brave and silent characters.
Following the group for the day was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. Seeing people moved to tears by the group of young men breaking into song on a bustling street in Broadmead, people moving from man to man, collecting the cards from each to attempt to grasp the scale of this catastrophe, or else simply sitting in silence to watch and remember – it was, for me, a truly incredible experience.
Come 3pm, having walked miles (literally) through the centre of Bristol for hours (we left at 8am), we headed back to the train station and boarded a train to Salisbury. We would be coming together with the groups from Salisbury and Southhampton for a large group tribute to end the day.
Seeing the vast square in Salisbury full of groups of these soldiers really hit home with me. Having followed the men for the day, the one thing that hadn’t really hit for me was the scale; the huge numbers of losses on the day. This square was full of strapping young men, with their whole lives ahead of them, and the idea that each one of them represented a man of a similar age who had lost his life on that one day 100 years ago really choked me up.
In the final moments, as the rain clouds that had been threatening us all afternoon finally decided, in a moment of sympathetic irony, to begin to pour down on us all, the groups all came together in the middle of the square, formed a large group and sang, for the final time, a rousing chorus of “We’re here because, we’re here because, we’re here because we’re here….” before walking off together as a group. I cannot even put it into words properly. It was absolutely stunning in a very very literal sense of the word – I was stunned.
The whole tribute was created by Turner-prize winner Jeremy Deller, in collaboration with Rufus Norris, Director of the National Theatre.
Deller explained his inspiration as, “I wanted to make a contemporary memorial to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, one that moved around the UK with an unpredictability in which the participants took the work directly to the public.”
For me however, I think it did more than just that. Yes, it was contemporary and unique and it took the work directly the the members of the public, but another aspect that I think has been hugely important in the success of today has been the digital aspect. This project is absolutely perfect for viral footage, photos and messages, which was proved by it becoming the number 1 UK trending topic on twitter for the majority of today. Just have a look at the things that come up under the hashtag – it is actively engaging both young and old, and being shared across the world. Now that is truly a contemporary act of remembrance.
I don’t feel that I can summarise the day into words, but I will just say this; it has been awe-inspiring, moving and very humbling. I feel completely honoured to have followed this day as it unfolded, and it has been a day I will never forget. It has been a day of incredible juxtapositions, seeing these soldiers from 1916 on escalators or walking past the apple store; a day of tears from being moved by the stories of these brave young men; a day of creativity and bravery; and, above all, a day to remember all of those lives that were lost on this day 100 years ago.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning; we will remember them.
For more information, visit the “we’re here because we’re here” website.
p.s. There are more photos to follow – I took nearly 1000 on the day so I need to filter through the rest!