Saturday 1 July 1916 was the first day of the Battle of the Somme, one the deadliest battles of the First World War. On this day, 15 regiments suffered losses and 19,240 British soldiers were killed.
One-hundred years later, on Friday 1 July 2016, men in historically accurate First World War uniforms were seen marching and resting around Bolton town centre. In Queens Park, at the market, in the shopping centre, these men were representing individual soldiers who were killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
They did not speak; instead, they handed out cards documenting the name and regiment of the soldier they represented, and, where known, the age of the soldier when he died on 1 July 1916. At points, they sang ‘we’re here because we’re here’, which was sung in the trenches during the First World War.
Commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the work was conceived and created by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller in collaboration with Rufus Norris, Director of the National Theatre. The event saw around 1400 voluntary participants dressed in First World War uniform appear unexpectedly in locations across the UK. Octagon Theatre Bolton was one of 27 organisations which collaborated on the work, alongside LeftCoast (Blackpool), Oldham Coliseum, Royal Exchange Theatre and Storyhouse (Chester).
Volunteer James Haslam was initially concerned that the project may not be received in the way that it was intended:
"After hearing what we were going to be doing on Friday 1 July, I wasn't sure how people were going to react and what the general response would be. I was a bit concerned that older people might take what we were doing to be slightly disrespectful to those who had lost their lives in such a horrifying way a hundred years ago, and likewise I was concerned that younger people might not respect or understand the point we were trying to get across. I didn't have to worry, people both young and old were overwhelmingly positive about what we were trying to do and I was a bit surprised at how much strong feeling these still is regarding the First World War and the Somme in particular.”
The volunteers were men aged between 16 and 52, reflecting the men who would have fought in the Somme. They were not trained actors but come from a range of professions, including a sheep farmer, flight attendant, doctor, lawyer, and GCSE student.
Volunteer Barney Cooper felt the poignancy of the project on the day of the dress rehearsal:
"The uniform was more built onto you rather than put on. Modern t-shirts were replaced with caterpillar fabric, green tunics bedecked with a myriad of eye catching insignias denoting various ranks. The weight of the uniform is the first thing you really notice, your posture subtly changes as you shift to accommodate a downwards force you are not used to on your shoulders. The braces that pull the trousers into place straighten you, the boots reshape your feet and the starchy jacket pulls you in tight; you are literally physically altered, pulled by your body back in time.”
"As I looked on, my friends and colleagues transformed into men from one hundred years past, fresh-faced recruits all full of laughter and games, off to play at soldiers and come back as valiant heroes to their sweethearts, their chests blazing with medals and their hearts full of victory. It was a harrowing and humbling experience; there they were, right before me. Far, far too young to know what they faced, and far, far too full of hope and happiness to have any room for doubt or fear.”
The work was partly inspired by tales of sightings during and after the First World War by people who believed they had seen a dead loved one.
Volunteer Adam Bolton was related to soldiers who fought in the First World War and was moved by one woman’s story of her father:
"A lady approached us and said "My dad said he was collecting shells on Blackpool beach because he daren't say what he really did." This really highlighted the Hell that the men of the Somme walked through, a pain so intense it couldn't even be discussed to loved ones. Both of my Great Grandfathers served in the First World War, Edward Beavin was a messenger and George Walton from the Engineers. They both survived the War, and I am lucky to be here, but so many did not survive to have great grandchildren to remember them; it is those unknown soldiers, heroes and angels we must keep in our hearts.”
The project ran from 7am to 7pm and covered the width and breadth of the UK, from Shetland to Penzance, breaking new ground in terms of its scale, breadth, reach and the number of partners and participants involved. The volunteers took the memorial to contemporary Britain and brought an intervention into people’s daily lives where it was least expected.
James Haslam reflected on the effect the project had on the public:
I think the aim of the project was to remind people that we should never forget the awful conditions and unimaginable casualties that these ordinary people experienced both in the trenches and on the battlefield. From the reaction we experienced last Friday I think it is unlikely to be forgotten for a long time.
‘[H]opefully’ Adam Bolton concluded "our work will not only pay tribute, but also serve as an image to lay in the minds of the free generation, so that we will always remember what the brave Pals did for our future.”
Produced by Birmingham Repertory Theatre and the National Theatre, working in close collaboration with partners including: Lyric Theatre Belfast, National Theatre of Scotland, National Theatre Wales, Northern Stage, Playhouse Derry-Londonderry, Salisbury Playhouse, Sheffield Theatres and Theatre Royal Plymouth.