On 1 July 2016, thousands of volunteers took part in a modern memorial to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. ‘we’re here because we’re here’ saw around 1,500 participants dressed in First World War uniform appear unexpectedly in locations across the country. Commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, the work was conceived and created by Deller in collaboration with Rufus Norris, Director of the National Theatre. It was produced by Birmingham Repertory Theatre and the National Theatre, as part of a collaboration between 27 organisations.
The men who walked the streets were a reminder of the 19,240 men who were killed on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. 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 fifteen 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’, to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, which was sung in the trenches during the First World War. They handed out cards to members of the public 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.
Of this Deller said: ‘If they speak they become re-enactors, living history... They’d have to assume a character for a day. We didn’t want that – we wanted them to have a detached quality to them. There is no narrative. They are not playing or acting the men who fought. They are a presence.’
Throughout the day, photographs began to spring up on social media, under the hashtag #wearehere. Public response to the work was immediate and profound, with one review stating that the work ‘surely ranks as one of the most ambitious public art works and commemorative events ever staged in the UK.’
In 1916, at the end of the battle, four and a half months later, there was a casualty count for the British of 420,000, for the French of 200,000 and for the Germans of 500,000. The battle, fought in France’s rolling northern hills, remains the ultimate symbol of the futility of war.
Further addressing the commemorative aspect of Deller’s work, artist, writer and philosopher Penny Rimbaud returns to Firstsite on Friday, 13th January 2017 to perform poems by celebrated English First World War poet Wilfred Owen, accompanied by Liam Noble on piano and Kate Shortt on cello. This event will begin with a short talk and slide show of images from the Somme taken over the last two years by photographer Toby Webster (7pm).
Says Firstsite Director Sally Shaw: ‘When Jeremy Deller’s World War One Centenary Art Commission was enacted across the UK this summer, on July 1st, the one hundredth anniversary of the first Somme offensive, it was applauded as a thought- provoking work, one that not only conveyed respect but also allowed us to meditate on the atrocities of any military conflict, regardless of the justness of its cause. That he will be discussing this work on Remembrance Sunday at Firstsite is of particular significance, and more so because the Essex Regiment participated in the first battle of the Somme.’
She adds: ‘Jeremy Deller’s art practice, from his 2001 film work The Battle of Orgreave, which recreated the 1984 clash between miners and police in Orgreave, Yorkshire, to the 2006 film Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode, is defined by its engagement with real events and the people associated with them, and Firstsite is grateful he has agreed to give this talk at the gallery, which we know will be illuminating on many levels.’