Young men in vintage uniforms sat, stood and mingled with travelers at railway stations across the country during the morning rush hour, in a poignant reminder of the sheer number lost to the conflict.
Some sang a wartime song — “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.” Others handed out cards, each bearing the name of one of the 20,000 British soldiers killed on the first day of the 1916 battle.
The troops later visited shopping centers, beaches, parking lots and city streets across the country.
No one immediately took responsibility for the action as images of the soldiers were shared on social media with the hashtag #wearehere.
It was revealed later Friday as the work of Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, National Theatre Director Rufus Norris and thousands of volunteers.
The project — titled “We’re Here Because We’re Here” — was part of a government-funded culture program to commemorate World War I, but was kept secret in advance in order to take people by surprise.
Organizers said it was “partly inspired by tales of sightings during and after the First World War by people who believed they had seen a dead loved one.”
Deller, whose previous works have included the mangled remains of a car destroyed in a suicide bombing in Iraq and an inflatable Stonehenge that visitors could bounce on, said he wanted to create a work “that moved around the U.K. with an unpredictability in which the participants took the work directly to the public.”
Londoner Helen Taki, 68, said the event made her feel “sad and proud.”