“Good morning. It is 7am on Friday 1 July 2016. Here are the news headlines. With the United Kingdom coming to terms with the referendum vote to leave the European Union just a week ago, David Cameron has already announced his intention to resign. After months of campaigning, the country now faces another political battle. Who will be our next Prime Minister, the person who must deliver Brexit? In sport, England’s footballers have begun their summer holidays earlier than expected after being knocked out of the European Championship in France by unfancied Iceland on Monday evening. Now, let’s see what the weather has in store for us this weekend…”
As thousands of people embarked on their final commute of the week, small groups of soldiers were arriving at railway stations and other transport hubs across the United Kingdom. The soldiers were fresh-faced, dressed in clean khaki uniforms and had packs on their backs. They looked ready to cross the Channel and confront the enemy, only none of them had a rifle and they didn’t appear to be going anywhere. Most were standing, almost loitering, others sitting. A few were smoking. All were silent.
When approached by curious members of the public, or if you caught their eye, the soldiers offered what appeared to be a white business card. Printed in black lettering was a name, rank, regiment, the chilling words ‘Died at the Somme on 1st July 1916’, and their age. Most were in their twenties, but a handful were teenagers, and some were almost middle-aged. At the bottom of each card was the hashtag, #wearehere.
Occasionally the soldiers would burst into song, a rousingly repetitive verse of ‘We’re here because we’re here’ to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. At the end of the song the soldiers roared, an almost primeval howl. The public reached for their phones and began taking photos and videos and posting them on social media. Many included the hashtag printed on the cards, without specifically being asked to do so or knowing why. Word of what was happening spread rapidly; it went viral.
Once the working day started, the soldiers moved on. They took up positions on bridges and beaches. They jumped on the Tube and visited large stores including IKEA and Tesco. They travelled by train to town centres where they occasionally walked in random circles rather than the straight line marching that we expect of the military. Then, twelve hours after they appeared, the soldiers returned to their original location, sang their song and roared for a final time before fading into the evening. Only then did the full story emerge.
The first day of the Somme Offensive on 1 July 1916 resulted in 57,470 British casualties. Of these, 19,240 men lost their lives. How should the nation commemorate the centenary of what remains the bloodiest day in British military history? This was the challenge posed by commissioning body ‘14-18 Now’ to Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller two years earlier. Deller had experience of creating large set pieces having re-enacted one of the most infamous episodes of the miners’ strike, the 1984 ‘Battle of Orgreave’. For the 1916 commemoration, the artist was well aware that he could not present anything so overtly political. Little did he know that the Somme centenary would fall just days after one of the most divisive votes in recent British political history.
Deller’s concept was to quietly place soldiers, almost ghost-like, in contemporary spaces across the four nations. He drew inspiration from a widely reported phenomenon during the Great War where women saw apparitions of their dead loved ones in the street. Deller’s soldiers were to be living, modern memorials who went and found their audience, whether the unsuspecting public liked it or not. They deliberately avoided places already associated with remembrance such as churches and war memorials. Although an ephemeral event, it was to reside in the memory and of course on the internet too.
For his concept to work Deller needed volunteers, and plenty of them. He teamed up with Rufus Norris, Artistic Director of the National Theatre, and together they enlisted the support of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and a network of theatres up and down the land. But just as for the battle in 1916, secrecy was key. The volunteers, most of whom were not professional actors, were required to take a leap of faith. Something interesting would be happening, but they didn’t know what. They had to be fit, enthusiastic and prepared to take orders. Over 1,400 signed-up.
Much of the early planning involved discussions about who should be represented as it soon became evident that this would visually resemble a masculine exercise. Deller tested a few female volunteers, but he felt that women dressed as men created an unnecessary distraction from his original shadowy narrative. Including German soldiers was also considered and quickly rejected as their uniforms were too reminiscent of those worn in a later conflict. This was potentially too emotive even after more than 70 years. Most but not all the young men were white. They would wear authentically re-created British uniforms which were deliberately tidy. These were soldiers who were about to enter the fray.
What if the public reacted badly? Deller has said that on an early list of aspirations for the project, he wrote that he wanted to make a child cry. This was not out of callousness, but because he wanted younger people to feel moved as children are frequently the victims of conflict. Yet little consideration was given to how to respond if adults wept, which they did. Members of the public were often overwhelmed. The soldiers were not permitted to say anything. All they could to do was hand over a card, although some offered a hug.
Each soldier and therefore each card represented one of the men who died on the first day of the Somme offensive. The soldier or his regiment usually had an association with the location where the card was handed out. The cards were rigid and of high quality, intentionally designed to be retained rather than dropped on the ground or thrown in a bin. An aide-mémoire.
Yet memories were already being formed, both for first-hand witnesses and those who saw what was happening via social media. Once the soldiers took to the streets, there was no controlling the message as the public could post whatever they liked. Deller and his team were keen to avoid the perception of this being an artwork or piece of street theatre, and during the day asked a few people to take down social posts which mentioned the National Theatre. At 7pm with the news embargo lifted, BBC local stations started broadcasting the official version of what had occurred in their areas.
For something that had no supporting messaging until it was over, the digital impact was impressive. The day generated over 340 million impressions on social media, far exceeding the target of 65 million. The #wearehere hashtag trended continuously for more than 14 hours. Two million people witnessed the soldiers in person with a further 30 million via the media. Overall awareness of what had occurred reached 63% of adults in the United Kingdom.
What became known as ‘We’re here because we’re here’ resonated powerfully with the public. It was visual, tangible and profoundly moving in almost every sense of the word. But it also affected the volunteers who reported an esprit de corps reminiscent of the Great War. For twelve hours, they could not speak. Every march, every song, any hint of a problem, required non-verbal communication and teamwork. These groups of men who had spent weeks training together felt like they were looking out for their pals.
The unexpected appearance of 1,400 soldiers on Friday 1 July 2016 touched the lives of millions. Coming a week after the country had narrowly voted to loosen its ties with Europe, here was a reminder of an era when we wholeheartedly supported our continental neighbours. Just four days earlier, a group of the fittest and most cosseted young men in Britain had been sent packing from France. Not by a major Central European power but by a Nordic nation with a population only slightly larger than Leicester. Without speaking a word, and perhaps unintentionally, the soldiers provoked uncomfortable questions about the United Kingdom’s position in the world.
Find out more about ‘We’re here because we’re here’ on the ’14-18 Now’ website
This review forms part of my postgraduate studies in Public History at Royal Holloway University of London 2020/21.