VIDEO: Somme centenary marked with street art memorial

A National Theatre of Scotland event saw participants dressed in First World War uniform appear unexpectedly in locations around Shetland.

The street art performance was organised to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and to remember the 19,240 men who died on the first day of the battle.

Around 1500 volunteers participated in the event which saw the soldiers popping up unannounced in locations from Shetland to Penzance.

In Shetland the participants could be seen in areas including the NorthLink Ferry Terminal, the Anderson High School, Clickimin Broch, St Ninian’s Isle and Mareel.

Somme memorial at the Shetland Museum. Photo: Ben Mullay
Somme memorial at the Shetland Museum. Photo: Ben Mullay

The work, titled We’re Here Because We’re Here was conceived and created by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller in collaboration with Rufus Norris, Director of the National Theatre.

Each participant represented an individual soldier who was killed that day. The work is partly inspired by tales of sightings during and after the First World War by people who believed they had seen a dead loved one.

The participants wore historically accurate uniforms, representing 15 of the regiments that suffered losses in the first day of the Battle.

The soldiers did not speak, but at points throughout the day would sing the song We’re Here Because We’re Here, which was sung in the trenches during the First World War.

If engaged by the public they handed out cards with the name and regiment of the soldier they represented, and, where known, the age of the soldier when he died on 1 July 1916.

Mr Deller said: “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.”

Mr Norris, director of the National Theatre, said: “This work by Jeremy Deller is a truly national piece of theatre and is a powerful way to remember the men who went off to fight 100 years ago.”

Meanwhile, Shetland Islands Council also marked the centenary of the Battle of the Somme by flying the Union Flag at half-mast over the Town Hall.

SIC convener Malcolm Bell said: “Shetland, like communities across Britain, the Commonwealth and Europe, paid a high price in lives in the ‘war to end all wars’.

“We may never know how many Shetland families were affected by the traumatic events which played out in those months in 2016, but today we mark the sacrifice of the dozens of local men who died during the battle.”

The soldiers march down Commercial Street. Photo: Ben Mullay.
The soldiers march down Commercial Street. Photo: Ben Mullay.

Willem John Cluness, 24, was among those who donned a uniform, with a family connection to the harrowing tales of the trenches.  

His great granddad and great grand uncles – the three Smith brothers from Uyeasound – all fought in the great war, with Gilbert (Gibbie), Andrew (Addie) and Francis (Francie) making the ultimate sacrifice in France aged only 32, 30 and 24.

Mr Cluness said there had been a mixed reaction from the public, some paying little attention and wanting to get on with their day, while others being moved by the sight of soldiers marching through Lerwick.

“There was an old wife who was crying when we were walking by, sobbing almost in the street,” he said.

Walking around during the day with fellow soldiers gave him time to reflect.

“Every time we were marching, we were marching in silence,” he said.

“That amount of time is a lot when you’re walking to think about what the guys must’ve been going through, like Francis the youngest Smith brother.

“Everyone when they are talking about remembering World War One, they want to remember the soldiers as heroes and brave men….There are heroes and brave men among them for sure but there’s also men who had no choice.

“Francis was injured five times and he was sent home five times, and then sent back each time.

“The fifth time his neighbour asked him when he would be back and he said he could never be back.

“He barely had a choice, he could barely carry a rifle and he had to go to war. He was just a guy from Uyeasound.”

History teacher Jon Sandison was also taking part and said the response from the public was “pretty overwhelming”.

“I think it really just shows how much the Great War still has an impact on people. I think there’s still and underlying current of emotion on the impact it had in on losses [of life] and the impact on the community.”

“Our granddad was part of the territorial unit that was based in this building,” added Mr Sandison, speaking at the Garrison Theatre.

“Prior to the First World War he was one of over 200 territorials that left Shetland in June 1915.”

Over 100 of the men that travelled south went for further intensive training in Perth, with about 40 men heading to France.

Mr Sandison’s grandfather was among them.

Three Shetlanders were killed on the first day of the battle, he said and his grandfather was involved in the latter stages of the battle.


To be part of the project gave an insight into the camaraderie of the troops, he said.

“It’s quite emotional to be in this building.”

National Theatre of Scotland associate director Simon Sharkey travelled from Glasgow to Shetland to witness the event.

“I started in Glasgow this morning at 6am,” he said.

“From the moment the boys came in to pick up their uniform it really just came home that this was the day that over 20,000 people lost their lives and the boys carried that out into the street with them.”

In Shetland he said there was “a bit of a different vibe because people know the participants a lot better”, he said women were struck moved by the realisation in Tesco.

“It really doesn’t feel like it was a long time ago here in Shetland,” he said.


Add Your Comment
  • Sarah Ashmead

    • July 2nd, 2016 11:16

    Wow! So moving and deeply meaningful. I can’t watch it without the tears flowing. Thank you so much to everyone involved.


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