As It Happens

'Painful to watch': WW I soldier sculpted from Passchendaele mud slowly dissolves in London

The Mud Soldier unveiled in London on Tuesday will completely dissolve in the rain over the course of four days to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele.
Artificial rain falls on the Mud Soldier, sculpted from sand and mud from Passchendaele, Belgium. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

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Damian van der Velden wanted her war memorial to reflect the horrors and sacrifices faced by soldiers on the mud-soaked battlefield of Passchendaele.

"I was trying to get the emotional or exhausting feeling that the soldier has to have at that moment," the Dutch artist told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

The Mud soldier was unveiled Tuesday in London's Trafalgar Square to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele.

Artist Damian Van Der Velden, right, and Kilian Van Der Velden pose in front of their creation. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

It depicts a First World War soldier, hunched over and slowly eroding in the rain. When the sun is shining in London, a sprinkler system turns on to continue the effect. 

 "All his energy is gone," Van der Velden said. 

Van der Velden and her twin sister Killian made the installation entirely from mud and sand — some of which they collected from Flanders Fields in Passchendaele, Belgium, where some 275,000 soldiers died.

The Passchendaele mud, she said, is "the heart and the soul" of the statue, and collecting it was harrowing experience.

"If you walk on it, you know you are walking on a death field," she said. "It's strange. You cannot imagine."

Already the Mud Solider has begun to fall apart. (Damian van der Velden)

The Battle of Passchendaele was a four-month Allied offensive against the German Empire in 1917.

It was fought on reclaimed swampland that was used for farming. Prolonged shelling destroyed the drainage, and the heaviest rains in 30 years turned the battlefield into a muddy quagmire.

The mud clogged rifles, contaminated food, and weighed down clothing. It was so deep in some places that soldiers would drown in it.

The battle ended in November 1917, when Canadian Corps solders captured the small Belgian village.

But the Canadian victory came at a high cost. More than 275,000 people died at Passchendaele, including some 4,000 Canadians.

The murderous mud of Passchendaele

51 years ago
Duration 13:09
Pastoral farmland has become hell on earth, and thousands of Canadians are dying in it.

The statue should completely dissolve over the course of four days to mark the battle's July 31 start.

"Of course, this is sort of sad because, yeah, you put so much hard work in it, and at the same time make it so fine and clear, and all those details, they are slowly disappearing," Van der Velden said.

"It has to be sort of painful to watch."

Below, you can see how the Mud Soldier changes and erodes throughout the week: