Artist fights back tears as he visits for the first time memorial that inspired his 72,396 shrouds of Somme
It is a poignant moment for the dad of three who, despite spending the past five years ensuring the memories of tens of thousands of soldiers killed in the Battle of the Somme live on, had never visited their memorial.
Ahead of the 100th anniversary of the end of the war next month, we took Rob to Thiepval in northern France, where the 72,396 Commonwealth soldiers unaccounted for in the battle are remembered.
Fighting back tears, Rob, 52, read the seemingly endless list of names he has come to know so well.
He said: “I’d avoided coming here for five years because I feared it would be too emotional for me.
“Finally, standing on the same soil where so much blood was shed, and they are physically here under our feet, is the oddest feeling.”
Rob knows every name on the list, which begins with Pte James Aaron and ends with Rifleman Charles Zwisele.
Each one is carved into the towering walls of the memorial, built in 1932 on a ridge near where almost 20,000 British troops were killed on July 1, 1916, the first day of the four-month offensive.
Rob added: “I’m so familiar with their names. I’ve looked at them closely for years, individually, every single one of them.
“To come to a place where they are etched in stone is emotional but also very positive.”
Rob has hand-stitched shrouds on to 12in plastic men to mark the unidentified Commonwealth soldiers who fell at the Somme.
He hopes to have finished all 72,396 by November 11 — Armistice Day, a century after the end of the war.
Each one will then be laid out side by side in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, East London, covering almost an acre of grass.
Rob, from Watchet, Somerset, said: “Throughout the summer we have shown some of them in cities from Exeter to Belfast, and everywhere people have been moved to tears. But the emotion they feel, the tears they have already shed and will shed at the Olympic Park, is a positive thing.
“The men I have lived with for the last five years will never be forgotten.”
With four weeks to go, Rob still has 4,400 to complete and is in a race against time to finish what TV historian Dan Snow described as “the most powerful depiction of the losses in World War One that I have ever come across”.
Rob said: “It sounds a lot but if I have to work all day and all night, I will get them all there for the Olympic Park. Emotion takes its toll but it’s very difficult to say I’m feeling tired or don’t want to do this any more because, however challenging my task, it’s nothing to what these young men had to go through.”
Rob’s tribute, called Shrouds Of The Somme, is raising money for Armed Forces’ charity SSAFA and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).
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He took 1,500 figures to Thiepval, where they lay next to crosses, each marking a day in the four years of World War One, in which 978,648 Commonwealth servicemen died.
On each cross is the number of men from Britain and the Commonwealth who died that day.
The bloodiest by far was the first day of the Somme. Rob said: “Some days you have 200 or so deaths and then, on July 1, 1916, you see it leap to 19,240.
“Under no circumstances can we forget what those men did. They stepped out, they died. They were that brave. Very few got to fire a shot.”
Following a car crash which left him no longer able to work as a carpenter, Rob began his remarkable odyssey by making 19,240 shrouds in tribute to those killed in the Somme on that horrific first day.
Glyn Prysor, chief historian at CWGC, said: “Rob’s work confronts you with the reality of what that war really meant.
“Each of the names on this memorial is not just a life lost. It’s a family shattered, a community devastated and a legacy that continues through the generations even today.”
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