Thousands of people have already visited the world’s biggest art project to commemorate the 19,240 allied soldiers who fell on the first day of the Battle of the Somme…

The 19240 Shrouds of the Somme project has been created by artist Rob Heard who hand-stitched every one, reciting out loud the name of each soldier as he finished their shroud. An emotional ceremony saw soldiers, veterans, charity VIPs, the 19240 Shrouds of the Somme Committee, Her Majesty’s Lord Lieutenant of Devon and the French Consul from Plymouth bear witness to the official opening of the project. Actors Imelda Staunton and Jim Carter also attended.

After speeches by the Lord Mayor of Exeter, Commodore Jake Moores and Her Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant of Devon, the final shroud was laid by Warrant Officer 2 Elliot Drake from 6th Rifles whilst the Last Post was played.

The national two minute silence was observed. The end of the two minute silence was broken by the sound of whistles being blown consecutively by soldiers standing guard around the shrouds. After every one had been blown, the final whistle – a World War One original – was sounded by Her Majesty’s Lord Lieutenant of Devon to mark the opening of the exhibition. The Gamekeeper, a poignant song by award-winning folk band Show of Hands, was played to mark the opening moments.

Visitors had come from as far afield as Australia, coming to visit and remember their own relatives who fell in the battle. There was raw emotion and tears from many of those witnessing the sight for the first time.

Many sought out artist Rob Heard, who spent three years creating the project, to thank him. "I was in awe of the response of the public and the armed services and the fact that this subject still resonates through us all and that even after 100 years the emotion involved is still astounding," said Rob.

"It’s certainly given me a sense of perspective on what is important in life and when I was making the shrouds and I had a bad day I would stand among all this and say to myself ‘how dare you?’ Hundreds of people have come up to me to say ‘thank you’ which I never expected, particularly as when I started doing this it wasn’t for public display. I didn’t expect this many people and even I didn’t know what it would look like until today."

The project has taken three years to complete. Started by Rob at his studio in Somerset, it was his collaboration with folk singer Steve Knightley and subsequent support from charity The Exeter Foundation that saw it brought to Exeter.

The steering committee was made up of the artist; representatives including serving and retired soldiers; Exeter City Council; The Mayor’s Office; Exeter Cathedral; Santander; South West Growth Service; Bowater Communications; SSAFA; Exeter Foundation and Show of Hands.

"It’s a real privilege to have chaired the 19240 Shrouds of the Somme Project over the last two and a half years and to see it all come together today with a moving, heartwarming, memorable opening ceremony which I hope touches the heart of the nation,’ said Commodore Jake Moores. The exhibition of 19,240 shrouded figures should be a lesson to us all of the futility of war and an important act of remembrance for those who gave their lives in both world wars so that we may live in peace."

The exhibition is laid out in Exeter’s Northernhay Gardens and will be open from 7:30am to 9pm. Every name of the 19,240 men who fell will be read out from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s records of the dead by volunteers over the next seven days – actors Jim Carter and Imelda Staunton were among the first to read them out.