Casting a Fierce Light on the Battle of the Somme 100 years on

Norfolk and Norwich Festival exhibition Fierce Light at NUA's East Gallery. Caroline Fisher from NUA

Norfolk and Norwich Festival exhibition Fierce Light at NUA's East Gallery. Caroline Fisher from NUA and Sam Ruddock from Writers' Centre Norwich.Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

It was the most bloody of battles that saw more than one million men from all sides killed, wounded or captured. Now, as its 100th anniversary draws near, contemporary poets and film-makers are reflecting on the infamous Battle of the Somme in a new exhibition called Fierce Light. Arts correspondent Emma Knights finds out more from Sam Ruddock.

NNF16. Fierce Light. Image from Still by Simon Armitage.Aerial ‘before and after’ of Pozières, 17 Ju

NNF16. Fierce Light. Image from Still by Simon Armitage.Aerial ‘before and after’ of Pozières, 17 June / 16 July 1916.© IWM (Q 63993), © IWM (Q 63990) - Credit: © IWM (Q 63993), © IWM (Q 63990)

Following in the footsteps of the poets of the First World War and their poignant words about the battlefields, an exhibition called Fierce Light is using poetry and image to consider the Battle of the Somme a century on.

The exhibition, itself named after a war poem called The Fierce Light by Major John Ebenezer Stewart, is one of a number of events nationwide marking the centenary of the First World War battle in France.

Six contemporary poets feature in the show, which opens today at Norwich University of the Arts' East Gallery and is part of Norfolk & Norwich Festival.

'It [Fierce Light] is a fresh exploration of what the Somme means to us 100 years later and how it's influenced the development of our society and culture since, and also looking at our world today and wars we are fighting now and their lasting impact,' said Sam Ruddock, programme manager at Writers' Centre Norwich and producer of Fierce Light.

NNF16. Fierce Light. Image from Still by Simon Armitage.Aerial ‘before and after’ of Pozières, 17 Ju

NNF16. Fierce Light. Image from Still by Simon Armitage.Aerial ‘before and after’ of Pozières, 17 June / 16 July 1916.© IWM (Q 63993), © IWM (Q 63990) - Credit: © IWM (Q 63993), © IWM (Q 63990)


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Among the writers is Simon Armitage, one of the country's best-loved poets. His work, Still, was inspired by images of the Somme from the Imperial War Museum archives. Many are aerial photos taken by members of the Royal Flying Corps who risked their lives flying over the battlefields to gather intelligence using a camera strapped to the side of a two-seater plane.

Mr Armitage previously explained he was captivated by them because of the unique perspective they gave.

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He said: 'There are many thousands of aerial and reconnaissance photographs of the First World War that offer an unfamiliar and rarely-seen visual perspective of the conflict. Map-like images of cratered fields and hieroglyphic trench patterns; dreamlike 'obliques' showing landscapes of sepia-toned towns and ghostly villages; panoramas of apparently tranquil meadows and country lanes that disguise more macabre details.'

Two photos picked by Mr Armitage of a village called Pozières starkly show the devastation of war – the first depicts a village unscathed but in the second it is completely obliterated by battle.

NNF16. Flat. Photo: Vincent Lucas.

NNF16. Flat. Photo: Vincent Lucas. - Credit: Vincent LUCAS /le facteur d'imag

These and others are used as backdrops to the Yorkshire poet's carefully crafted words – translations of the agricultural work The Georgics by Latin poet Virgil – which have been printed on glass as a reference to the original glass negatives of the photos.

'Simon liked the contrast between the poems about the bounty of the earth and the photographs about the destruction of that earth,' said Mr Ruddock.

Mr Armitage himself described his work as 'a dialogue between military documents of the day and the poetic responses they provoke one hundred years later'.

The five other Fierce Light writers have penned poetry that has been set to film.

NNF16 - Fierce Light - Paul Muldoon. Photo: Michael Potiker.

NNF16 - Fierce Light - Paul Muldoon. Photo: Michael Potiker. - Credit: Michael Potiker

Irish poet Paul Muldoon's poem July 1st 1916: With the Ulster Division, played with a film by George Belfield featuring landscapes of the Somme, is about an Irish recruit remembering a woman and the landscapes of Ireland.

'It's the first day of the Somme. He's just arrived. He dreams of being back with his lady Giselle as he mounts the firing steps,' said Mr Ruddock.

'You get to the horrors of war by looking at the beauty of what could have been or what was until the mounting of the firing step.'

Yrsa Daley-Ward's poem, When your mother calls you, come, is accompanied by Matt Kay's film Paid to Fight which juxtaposes the reflections of the Somme with footage of a modern day boxer preparing to fight.

NNF16 - Fierce Light - Yrsa Daley-Ward. Photo: supplied.

NNF16 - Fierce Light - Yrsa Daley-Ward. Photo: supplied. - Credit: supplied

Ms Daley-Ward, who is of West Indian and West African heritage and grew up in the north of England, looks at the experiences of Caribbean soldiers who travelled from Britain's colonies to fight for the British Empire's 'mother country', and her poem ends with the poignant line that 'everyone burns the same.'

In KNOWN UNTO GOD Bill Manhire, New Zealand's inaugural Poet Laureate, draws parallels between the lengthy, and in some cases fatal, sea voyage faced by soldiers from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps before they reached the European battlefields, and the journeys of refugees fleeing from war today.

'He has written 14 epitaphs, most are to soldiers but then, because we are looking at the Somme 100 years later, he's also looking at sea crossings of refugees and those that lose their lives at sea, wasted young life,' said Mr Ruddock, adding NUA professor Suzie Hanna had created a 'striking' accompanying animation using mud.

A tribute to one of the great war poets, Siegfried Sassoon, who fought in the Battle of the Somme, is paid by British poet Daljit Nagra in his poem On Your 'A 1940 Memory' which reflects Siegfried Sassoon's poem A 1940 Memory and provides the text for NUA graduate Tim Davies' film, Across Fields, set in the Somme.

NNF16 - Fierce Light - Bill Manhire. Photo: submitted.

NNF16 - Fierce Light - Bill Manhire. Photo: submitted. - Credit: submitted

'Daljit Nagra has looked back on Siegfried Sassoon looking back on the Somme,' said Mr Ruddock.

'Siegfried Sassoon sees a butterfly and is transported back to a war he has never been able to escape from.' The final poem and film collaboration, Private Joseph Kay, sees mother and son Jackie and Matt Kay work together on a project about their grandfather and great grandfather who served in the war. In her poetry Ms Kay, who was born and brought up in Scotland, features her father's memories of his father, and her son has created the accompanying documentary-style video.

All the exhibition's works are different, but all are equally moving, and together the poets and filmmakers cast a thoughtful spotlight on the famous battle.

Mr Ruddock said: 'All are looking at how to cast a fresh light, a fierce light, on the Somme. How can words think anew and how can images broaden that?

NNF16 - Fierce Light - Daljit Nagra. Photo: supplied.

NNF16 - Fierce Light - Daljit Nagra. Photo: supplied. - Credit: supplied

'They sit alongside each other and at the same time are complete on their own. There's different voices but it is a linked commentary on the Battle of the Somme 100 years later.'

n Fierce Light was co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, Norfolk & Norwich Festival and Writers' Centre Norwich, and supported by the National Lottery, Arts Council England and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The free exhibition is at NUA's East Gallery from May 10 to June 4. Tuesday to Saturday 12pm-7pm.

n There is a world premiere Fierce Light performance at Norwich Playhouse on Friday at 7.30pm, featuring live readings by many of the poets including Simon Armitage and excerpts from the films. Tickets £18 – visit www.nnfestival.org.uk or call 01603 766400.

Do you have a festival story? Email emma.knights@archant.co.uk

NNF16 - Fierce Light - Jackie Kay. Photo: Mary McCartney.

NNF16 - Fierce Light - Jackie Kay. Photo: Mary McCartney. - Credit: Mary McCartney

War Graves Commission – Page 21

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