The Lochnagar Crater is as much about what’s not there as about what is.
The vast crater itself is a place that’s missing from the landscape, however many hundreds of tons of chalk and soil removed from surrounding farmland in one defining instant in July 1916.
And it stands today as a memorial to men made absent, the unimaginable 17 million dead and 20 million wounded (some of whom, never really came home, even if their bodies did) by the First World War. The Crater is home to some of those soldiers, killed by the explosion itself, in subsequent battles, or buried within it; but very few bodies have been exhumed.
The exhumation of Private George Nugent from the Crater in 1998 is remarkable because of the rarity of the act.
But more than those obvious absences, taking time to look at the wide and deep crater, or walking the route around its edge, or entering into it as we did, makes you contemplate what else is lost. The physicality of the Lochnagar Crater is an intense experience that art, photography or writing really cannot capture. No artist can capture the way the Lochnagar Crater sits in a calm, managed landscape (so familiar, so like the Sussex and Kent landscapes I know, that I asked a geologist friend; and yes, she said, it’s the same landscape, the same chalk). No artist can record the feeling of standing at the bottom of a space in the landscape that’s the size of a cathedral; the Lochnagar Crater is about as wide as St Paul’s is high.
You cannot really understand the Crater without visiting; art can only record a little of the experience. Each artist, here, has created work that is the size of a person not the size of the Lochnagar Crater. Visiting it does that to you.
So this quilt isn’t an attempt to recreate the crater. The Lochnagar Quilt is white, like the chalk landscape of the Crater and the fields around it. It would cover one sleeping man; one soldier at eternal rest. It is made from vintage pillowcases, which were previously part of Dawn Cole’s Resting Place project (http://www.restingplace.eu/). The shape of the crater is taken from tracings of 360 degree photos I took from the bottom and centre, the exact places the mines were laid.
But the making of the quilt is as important as the object itself. The Lochnagar Quilt was made with three important women, who have been made more absent from my life by my move to Margate.
In choosing to make it with them, I also wanted to remember the women absent from the Somme, from the Lochnagar Crater, and (largely) from the battlefield tours that take place today. This is for the women who turned their skin yellow making the munitions, and for the Munitionettes playing football. It’s for the women who worked as nurses, and as drivers in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corp. It’s for the women who served in the Women’s Land Corps and the Women’s Land Army. It’s for the people who served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service and the Women’s Royal Air Force. And it’s for the women who stayed at home, and brought up children in such difficult circumstances.
To make the Lochnagar Quilt, I went back to Worthing, to my nan’s house, where I lived for the first year of my life. My nan, Betty Stiles, used to be a dancer, and is an award-winning quilter. My aunt, Linda Rush, joined us; a textile artist and illustrator, she trained at West Sussex College of Art & Design. And my mum, Netta Thompson, was the third. She used to have her own company, making costume for children for school history days and reenactments, and while she now works in a factory making precision electronics, she still works occasionally as a wardrobe mistress for a touring theatre company.
We talked about the experience of my visit to the Lochnagar Crater, the impact of the First World War on our family (my mum and aunt spoke of the look in their grandad’s eyes), our collective worries about war, as we designed, cut, ironed and stitched together over one long weekend. By the end, we had a rough shape, tacked together. But over the subsequent weeks they did the hard work – their stitching is better than mine. Their hands have spent hours on this quilt; about a dozen hours to quilt the crater alone. They refused to machine stitch; that’s the wrong way to quilt.
And something like this, the making itself an act of remembrance, should be done the right way.
Dan Thompson, Margate, 2017