At exactly 7.28 a.m. in France on Friday 1 July 1916, Frank John Preece, his fellow soldiers in the Queen Victoria’s Rifles and 332,000 other British, French and Commonwealth soldiers, went over the top towards a supposedly decimated German front line. DWP’s Adam Lilley describes how he and hundreds of other volunteers commemorated the events of a century ago.
After a week-long artillery barrage, with over 1,700,000 shells fired, the Allied generals expected troops to walk unopposed towards deserted trenches. Within moments of the whistles being blown, it was clear this was not the case and wave after wave of machine-gun fire sprayed over no-man’s-land. By the end of 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the Allied armies had suffered almost 60,000 casualties in a battle that would eventually claim a million casualties in all.
On 1 July this year, amid the widely publicised centenary commemorations for the Somme, I and 1,500 other volunteers in First World War-era uniforms began quietly moving through stations and cities around the UK.
At each location we stood resolutely in silence, every one of us carrying cards with a name, regiment and the date ‘July 1 1916’, and the single instruction that this should be handed to anyone who took an interest in us.
#WeAreHere soon became the top trending topic on Twitter and the message got out that this was in memory of those who’d died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
The whole project was the brainchild of Jeremy Deller and Rufus Norris, who together created #WeAreHere.
At the end of the war, there were numerous reports of people glimpsing relatives and friends who had died during the war in public spaces, only for them to disappear on a second glance. These ‘ghost soldiers’ were unsettling and upsetting for those who so desperately longed for their lost loved ones to return from the Front, and it was from these stories that #WeAreHere was born.
Each of us would be a fallen soldier and stand silent in their memory. I represented Frank John Preece and alongside hundreds of other volunteers, spent eight weeks rehearsing in secret to create this 'living art' project. Having studied the First World War at school and visited Thiepval, I have seen the endless gravestones and casualty lists, but something about commemorating a specific soldier brought all of that into sharp relief. Frank was a real person. Aged 21, five years my junior, he left Twickenham, crossed the Channel, climbed out of the trenches and died on the battlefield of the Somme.
During #WeAreHere, I led our line of soldiers and later followed from the rear. At the front, you saw people’s initial reaction, but at the back, you heard it. It was listening to those snippets of conversation and the stories of people’s own families’ involvement in the war that was most moving about the day.
My own great-great-grandfather, Robert Dan Bird, fought at the Somme in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He was injured and transferred to the Labour Corps, but ultimately survived to work as a decorator and later father six children. According to family legend, during the battle, he was blasted against barbed wire by an exploding artillery shell and remained trapped in no-man’s-land for two days – an experience that he never truly recovered from, nor spoke about openly.
Almost no household in Europe escaped the devastation of the First World War, which saw 40 million casualties in 4 years. The Somme remains one of the bloodiest battles in human history, and accounts for the single biggest loss of life during the war. As an onlooker at the commemorations said, it demonstrates the need for remembrance and more than justifies the special status it still holds.
If you want to see and learn more about #WeAreHere, the National Theatre has created www.becausewearehere.co.uk.