Battle of the Somme: First day's dead marked with 19,240 figurines

Figurines representing each of the 19,240 British soldiers who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme have been laid out.

The figurines, each clad in a hand-made calico shroud, mark the anniversary of the start of the battle 100 years ago.

They were placed on the grass next to the World War One memorial in Exeter, by artist Rob Heard.

The artwork was opened at 07:30 BST, the exact time the whistle was blown 100 years ago for the battle's start.

Mr Heard, 50 and from Somerset, said he wanted to make physical the number of soldiers who died.

The 19240 Shrouds of the Somme - in the town's Northernhay Gardens - forms part of events around the UK marking the battle.

Mr Heard, with help from volunteers and serving soldiers, laid out each of the figurines, which will be on display until next Thursday.


Mr Heard began creating the work while recuperating from a car crash.

"I was in a dark place," said Mr Heard, whose injuries ended his career building adventure playgrounds.

"Then I heard a story on the radio about soldiers who had died in the Somme.

"We talk too often about the large numbers of the losses in war.

"We have had the poppies at the Tower of London, which was a great thing, but the individual was lost in that sea of colour.

Rob Heard WW1 figurines project

"I wanted to make people understand the number is made up of individual people."

He found the names of each man in military archives and used them for each figurine as he clad it in the shroud.

The project began last December and Mr Heard has spent more than 5,500 hours making the display.

"I feel this is a real privilege to have had a relationship with these men," he said.

"It's not a comfortable image, but when you associate it with a name it's very powerful and denotes the individual in each number."

Battle of the Somme:

WW1 Allied troops leave a trench before the Battle of Morval, which took place as part of the Battle of the Somme in 1916

  • One of the bloodiest conflicts of World War One. For more than four months the British and French armies engaged the Germans in a brutal battle of attrition on a 15-mile front.
  • The aim was to relieve the French army fighting at Verdun and to weaken the German army.
  • In total, there were over one million dead and wounded on all sides, including 420,000 British casualties, about 200,000 from France, and an estimated 465,000 from Germany.
  • On the first day of the battle alone 19,240 British soldiers were killed capturing just three square miles of territory - the bloodiest day in the history of the British army. However, the French had more success and inflicted big losses on German troops.
  • Fighting was finally suspended after 141 days, as winter was closing in and British commander Gen Douglas Haig decided the offensive should be resumed in February.
  • At the end of hostilities the British had advanced just seven miles and failed to break the German defence.
  • However, in March 1917, the Germans made a strategic retreat to the Hindenburg line rather than face the resumption of the Battle of the Somme.

Rob Heard WW1 figurines project