A Soldier Statue Is Slowly Melting in London, Marking 100 Years Since a Bloodbath Fought in Mud

Visit Flanders commemorates WWI's Battle of Passchendaele

'The Melting Soldier' commemorates 1917's horrific Battle of Passchendaele in World War I. Ogilvy Brussels
Headshot of David Griner

“I died in hell. They called it Passchendaele. … I fell into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.”

This description of a Belgian battlefield by British soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon has long been synonymous with World War I’s Battle of Passchendaele, which began in July 1917 and lasted nearly four grueling months.

This week, tourism agency Visit Flanders continued its five-year World War I commemoration program with a poignant reminder of Passchendaele, a nightmarish conflict marked by seemingly endless rain, inescapable mud and astonishing loss of life—475,000 soldiers were left wounded, dead or missing in action.

“The Melting Soldier” is a statue placed on display in London’s Trafalgar Square this week, but it won’t last much longer. The temporary art installation was created from sand and mud by artist Damian van der Velden and conceived by Ogilvy & Social.Lab Belgium. Since being unveiled Tuesday, it has gradually been dissolving in the summer rains.

“I was trying to get the emotional or exhausting feeling that the solider has to have at that moment,” van der Velden said of her creation.

Passchendaele, also called the Third Battle of Ypres, is one of history’s most debated conflicts, due to questions that have endured for a century about the campaign’s strategic value and atrociously high mortality rate. At the time of the battle, much of the war effort was centralized in Flanders, with roughly 40 percent of German divisions, 60 percent of British units and all forces from Australia, New Zealand and Canada committed to Passchendaele.

Early in the campaign, Flanders saw some of its heaviest rain in decades, creating thick mud deep enough to drown men and horses and further bottlenecking a combat zone that was already only a few miles wide. The result was a staggeringly high mortality rate for both sides amid nightmarish conditions.

Agency: Ogilvy & Social.Lab Belgium
Client: Visit Flanders
Title: The Mud Soldier
Creative Director: Mathieu Cardon
Concept Provider: Mathieu Cardon
Art Directors: Sebastien Stevens, Gauthier Fairon, Arnaud Gerats
Copywriters: Bill Bilquin, Elizabeth Dewar, Raphaël Allegro
Strategy Director: Jakub Hodbod
Managing Director: Patou Nuytemans
Chief Operating Officer: An Vande Velde
Account Director: Isabel Artoos
Account Manager: Laurien Lelièvre-Damit
Production Company: Sculpture Events Europe
Artists: Damian and Kilian van der Velden
Producer: Jan Keersmaekers
Camera: Michelle Tofi

@griner david.griner@adweek.com David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."