Very few moments in life touch your heart so significantly, leaving a lasting impression forever. This week was one where I experienced one such moment.
On Friday 1st July, I had a meeting next to Sunderland University where I studied for my masters degree. When I was walking back to my car, I saw a line of young men dressed in old style soldiers uniforms walking one behind the other, alongside the River Wear. Given that you would usually see mostly university students and runners along that stretch of path, they certainly stood out, not just because of how they were dressed but because of how they were walking, pausing momentarily and then carrying on with their journey and the calm, still air that they had about them. I was instantly intrigued by the sight that I had seen and how it had made me feel. I got out my phone to take some snaps.
I’d parked my car at the National Glass Centre and with the soldiers walking away from there, I checked their Twitter to see if anything had been posted on there; thinking they might have had an event or something. They’d posted saying they had been invaded by singing soldiers and used the hashtag #WeAreHere. When I got a closer look at the soldiers from the National Glass Centre’s photo, that’s when I realised that they were WWI soldiers as I could recognise the uniform from when I studied history at GCSE.
That’s when it clicked.
Friday 1st July 2016 marked 100 years since the Battle of the Somme that took the lives of an unthinkable amount of servicemen in an agonising, relentless struggle lasting 141 days.
I’d heard a little snippet about the centenary on the radio earlier in the week but I’d been that busy and on autopilot that when I’d woken up on Friday morning, it hadn’t been at the forefront of my mind. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I very much feel as though that is typical of modern day life. All too often we get wrapped up in our own lives, our bubble, that we don’t stop to think, feel and appreciate; feeling grateful not just for what we’ve achieved, what we have and who is around us but feeling grateful and thankful for those who came before us. Those who fought and gave their lives so that we could have ours now.
What a powerful realisation that really puts everyday life and troubles into perspective.
It was only when I searched the #WeAreHere hashtag, eager for more information, that I discovered that young men dressed as WWI soldiers were appearing all over the country, leaving an emotional footprint on the lives of whoever saw them. I felt so honoured and touched that I had been able to see them and couldn’t stop thinking about it and wondering more about #WeAreHere and who was behind it.
Not too long after this, I had popped to the shops in Sunderland City Centre when I came across the soldiers again, this time in the middle of a busy stretch of shops. Members of the public and workers nearby were stood around watching them and taking photos.
The First World War soldiers were dispersed all over the street, some standing, some sitting on chairs and some on the floor. Some were drinking water from old style bottles, others had a cigarette, some brushed dirt off their shoes and others were just still; creating a modern memorial to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and a powerful visualisation of ghosts of the dead soldiers walking amongst us.
What struck me the most was the silence and the still air that hung over the area. Considering the street is often busy with people getting on with their day, you could have heard a pin drop. The powerful, somber air that the soldiers had created really sparked a feeling of sadness and gratitude amongst the public from what I could see and everyone seemed to behave with a upmost respect.
A woman next to me approached one of the soldiers to ask what was going on and he didn’t speak but handed her a card with the name of a soldier on, the regiment he was in and how old he was at the time that he died on the 1st July 1916 in the Battle of the Somme, again with the #WeAreHere hashtag.
I was overcome with emotion and I’m not embarrassed to say that I cried. Seeing the soldiers really brought it all home to me; if this was now, that would have been my husband going off to war. The man I love going off to fight for his country involuntarily, without any certainty of his return.
I’ve never felt so thankful and grateful in all of my life and even writing this now, I feel so emotional. I’ve always been actively interested in learning about the past, especially World War One and Two but seeing the soldiers as walking ghosts in my own city really brought home just how heartbreaking war is. That could quite as easily have been any one of my friends or family going off to war, sacrificing their precious lives with only the hope that they’d make it back home alive.
As the day progressed, I kept searching the hashtag. It was all over the news and my Twitter was going crazy with others retweeting the photos I’d posted and me retweeting theirs. So many people were using and searching the hashtag and I really felt as though whoever was behind the performance, if thats even the right word, had done a sterling job at making the whole country stop, reflect and appreciate just how selfless the soldiers in the #Somme100 were.
That night, I saw an announcement on Twitter that said that the UK-wide event was commissioned by 14-18 NOW who are the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary. This work was conceived and created by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, in collaboration with Rufus Norris who is the Director of the National Theatre.
The event was officially called ‘we’re here because we’re here’ which is actually part of a song that some of the soldiers were singing, to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, in memory of the WWI soldiers singing in trenches before going over the top to meet their untimely demise.
Around 1400 participants took part in voluntarily dressing up as soldiers in First World War uniforms in what I think is an event that no one will ever forget. I certainly will never forget that day and the mark that it left on my life. All of the uniforms were historically accurate and represented 15 of the regiments that suffered losses on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
The walking ghosts appeared unexpectedly in locations all over the UK and 27 organisations, many of which were theatre companies, collaborated together to pull it off. The event started at 7am and ended at 7pm, covering the width and breadth of the UK, right from Shetland and down to Plymouth. The soldiers invaded train and tube stations, shopping centres, beaches, car parks and high streets; I even saw one person tweet a photo of the soldiers in Ikea! The idea was that they intervened in peoples daily lives where they were least expecting it which I think is so powerful as if these men were alive today, they could be leading similar daily lives.
A project on such a huge scale and reach took an incredible number of partners and participants to get involved in order to ensure it had the intended impact, which judging by the response on social media, it certainly did.
The participants who walked the streets were to serve as a reminder of the 57,470 men injured, of which 19,240 were killed, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. That figure is simply astounding. The volunteers were men aged between 16 and 52 which reflected the age range of men who would have fought in the Somme. They weren’t trained actors and instead came from a range of professions from a sheep farmer to a flight attendant and a shop assistant which makes it even more hard hitting as at the time of the Battle of the Somme, the men who were called up to fight hadn’t chosen the army as their job.
Each participant represented an individual soldier who had been killed on that day which is why they were handing out cards with small details on. The work that the participants were carrying out was partly inspired by tales of sightings during and after WWI by people who thought they had seen a dead loved one; very bittersweet.
Friday left me feeling a whole mixture of emotions from heartbroken to thankful but the one message that really came home with me was to NEVER FORGET. No matter how many years pass, how busy our lives get or how wrapped up we are in our own troubles, never, ever forget the sacrifice and selfless actions of those who went over the top that day and the heartbreak of those who were left behind.
It is so important to keep the memory alive of those who worked, fought and lost their lives in the world wars, especially as the years progress and those who lived through the war slowly start to pass away.
To all of the soldiers who fought and lost their lives in the Battle of the Somme; thank you for your service. Thank you for giving your day then so that we could have our tomorrow now.
Find out more about We’re Here Because We’re Here and 14-18 Now on their website here.