I have been creating a series of art commemorating people places and events from The Great War a hundred years on since the beginning of the centenaries in 2014. This year I have been commissioned to create THE SKY OF POPPIES and THE LONELY ANZAC A MAN FAR FROM HOME, both commemorating the Somme in different forms. So when the opportunity came to be immersed with 60 men and 7 women in a camp run as if on the Somme a hundred years ago I didn’t hesitate. This is probably the point when I mention that many years ago I used to belong to the Sealed Knot-an english civil war re-enactment and living history group which is as far from the discipline of WWI military that you could possibly get. I met my husband Tom at a multi history group event 20 years ago- he was a member of The Great War Society and yes he was an officer and yes it was the uniform….and he was a gentleman too….This was a long time ago and I have not been involved in re-enactment for many, many years. But I had an inkling of what to expect…….or I thought I did ….I have seen Tom go off to ‘play soldiers’ on many occasions understanding the interest but not immersing myself in it.
Preparations including sorting period dress….do I have a posh dress as they are gorgeous from that period but would be totally impractical. The dress from this era is actually very difficult to achieve from a position of zero knowledge and no time-if I could have found a pattern that would have helped!! And then packing well throwing stuff in a bag last minute as I was focussed on the installation of THE SKY OF POPPIES the following week a couple of days after we would hopefully return from the front-line-How amateur my packing turned out to be-so chaotic etc…note to self-should you ever go again pack with much greater thought and sort out a corset……I duly carefully packed my painting materials including using a period metal trunk and basket-waste of time!!! Wind and sudden heavy showers meant I quickly abandoned the idea of painting…..so photographs it was- the worry of not enough batteries and no power to charge batteries was an issue but I managed to get through by charging my phone on the odd occasion we drove anywhere and I had 2 cameras with me….
We arrived at Mailly Maillet The Somme-on the evening before the 1st July-the centenary of when the men went over the top and I was billeted with Helen an ambulance driver in a tent full of amazing kit including a comfortable bed-the church chiming every 15 mins day and night however meant I had virtually no sleep the whole time we were there.Still I am not a great sleeper anyway so no change there!!
There were also a number of nurses portraying a field hospital complete with all the equipment and doctors. Tommy’s nurses are a group from Holland who worked with some English nurses to show the public how troops who were injured were treated. Those who were very serious were often ignored as not worth treating as they would die whatever happened. What a sign of hope the sight of these women would have been in such a vicious and cruel world.
Dinner and every meal was provided by the cook and his team of which I became one the following morning -from an incredible replica field kitchen. Tea was usually on the go as I had charmed Wayne and John early on-I do love my cuppa as many of you will know. It was an amazing experience helping feed 60 men in such basic but detailed conditions. Lots of french bread, ham and cheese with stews of various types, all filling and delicious!It became very clear early on how much food, the quality or and quantity must have affected morale a hundred years ago particularly when weather conditions were cold and wet.
There were a number of marches and laying of wreaths during the weekend-marching and then standing can lead to men keeling over-with exhaustion, de-hydration, illness. The care of an officer (or not) was probably carried a lot of men through terrible times (or not). A caring, thoughtful officer holds the respect of his men and they would probably go beyond the call of duty for them. There would have been poor officers and it doesn’t bear thinking about what effect this would have had on the men below him…
Zero hour on the 1st July found a group of us on the frontline at Gommecourt awaiting the whistle that would signal the advance, the ‘going over the top’ from the chalky trenches here. The previous evening the birds had been so loud and yet here the silence seemed deafening. Waiting and thinking of those men a hundred years ago as they waited was emotional-the thoughts of family, of surviving, of your friends stood to your side and along the trenches nearby….waiting….waiting….For us a whistle signalled zero hour and a piper played along the front line (there is a short video on my FB ART page). For those men chaos and carnage followed….tears filled the eyes of all of us thinking of those men and what happened to them in the next few mins………………………..Words are not enough to describe such an immersion in such a place-seemingly unscarred as nature has healed but the haunting energy lingers on………
In camp routine activities give structure to days that could seem endless……mealtimes,football, parades, training, polishing all provide something to focus the mind on-in the trenches the days waiting must have seemed endless punctuated by shelling, snipers and death. Food would have been cold and barely edible, nights were cold and wet if it rained. Relentless boredom and noise were understandably too much for some!
The characters that you see in a modern camp of men echo those that must have been present a hundred years ago. The one who has constant cheeky quips, the one with the cigarette constantly hanging from his lips, the older one with the haunted face that has seen it all, the constant chatter of one and the silence of another ……they are all there united in comradeship and for a cause many have no idea of what it is….
Because I was coming back to install THE SKY OF POPPIES a few days later I took 3 poppies from the tower of London with me as I was going to use them in the installation with the kind permission of the artist Paul Cummins. When they came out of the box the interest was immediate which made me think any change of routine would have been a relief to the men in camp or the trenches. Anything out of the ordinary would have made life less tedious-maybe more connected to life back home?
Hospitality from our French hosts was fabulous including a meal one night after a wreath laying ceremony where the troops marched around the village beforehand. Nothing was too much trouble. This of course had me wondering about hospitality behind the lines. Troops were sometimes free to partake of local cuisine and pleasures where they could find them. Prices were high for some items which made them doubly precious.How wonderful a trip home to family and home must have been for these men.
These men and women are committed to remembering the fallen -they gave me an understanding of why its so important to them and others and including myself-these men of a hundred years ago gave everything and the ultimately the only thing they had to give for their country.
A beautiful part of remembrance are the flowers that you find in the lovingly cared for cemeteries that are scattered across the haunted lands of the Somme. Those of nature and those planted with the spades that tenderly place them in the scarred soil-these will be captured on canvas in the next few weeks-THE FLOWERS OF THE SOMME 100.
Friendship was evident with all the men in the camp. How important this must have been 100 years ago as they went into battle comrades in arms, and remembering the love of family left at home wondering if they would ever feel the sweet love of their wife or mother again.
What an amazing experience to be immersed in life 100 years ago with a group of men and women so committed and dedicated to the memory of these men and a period of history not so far away. 100 years and circumstances could have meant we were there in their shoes!Words actually fail me when I try to describe how incredible an experience it was. The day after we got back I totally struggled to get back to modern life-that how immersive it was….
Thank you to everyone of those men and women for making me so welcome and a part of their special weekend. It became mine too and I cannot wait to be invited back…please?
Please see my Facebook Art page for some videos from the weekend- Charron Pugsley-Hill Art
Check out my other WWI artworks on FB ART page and blogs on my website www.charronpugsleyhill.com