Sands of time... artists to decorate coastline with portraits of war victims, for the tide to wash away

Their names are engraved on cenotaphs but their images are lost on the sands of time. But at low tide, as the centenary of the armistice is marked next month, they will be etched once more on the coastline.

A monumental but transient nationwide art project unveiled today will see communities around the country gather on beaches to remember the 16m men, women and children who fell victim to the First World War.

It is to be the culmination of a five-year programme of arts commissions marking the war’s anniversary.

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The film maker Danny Boyle, who also created the memorable opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, invited people “to say thank you and goodbye” on November 11 by drawing silhouettes in the sand.

Filmmaker Danny Boyle holds a photograph of Private Walter Bleakley, who was from the same street where Danny went to school, as he announces plans for his Armistice Day commission for 14-18 NOW, the UK's arts programme for the First World War centenary.

At the centre of the project will be vast portraits of wartime casualties, created on around 30 beaches by professional sand artists from West Yorkshire. As the tide comes in, the pictures will be washed away.

Mr Boyle said: “Beaches are truly public spaces, where nobody rules other than the tide.

“They seem the perfect place to gather and say a final goodbye and thank you to those whose lives were taken or forever changed by the First World War.

“I’m inviting people to watch as the faces of the fallen are etched in the sand, and for communities to come together to remember the sacrifices that were made.”

Millions served in the First World War and many left by sea.

The Sand In Your Eye studio in Hebden Bridge, which will create the official portraits, worked previously on a project at Arromanches beach in Normandy to create 9,000 sand drawings of those who died there during the D-Day landings.

The studio’s artistic director, Jamie Wardley, said: “It’s hugely poignant. You’re drawing pictures in the sand of people, many of whom left from the same shores, and then watching the tide take them away.”

The poet Carol Ann Duffy has been invited by Mr Boyle to compose a new verse, to be read by individuals, families and communities as they gather on the beaches. Copies will be distributed around the UK.

Mourners are being encouraged to personalise their thoughts by selecting a portrait from an online gallery of some of the men and women who served in the conflict.

The images are drawn from the Imperial War Museum’s Lives Of the First World War, which aims to tell 8m stories of those who served Britain and the Commonwealth.

Visitors to the website can also add portraits of members of their own families who contributed to the war effort.

The project, described as an “informal, nationwide gesture of remembrance for the men and women who left their home shores during the First World War”, has been commissioned by 14-18 Now, an arts programme set up to commemorate the war’s centenary.

Jenny Waldman, director of 14-18 Now, said: “Danny Boyle has conceived a beautiful, poetic artwork that invites people across the UK to participate in a new informal gesture of remembrance on the centenary of Armistice Day.

“It is a fitting farewell to all of those who served and were affected by the First World War.”

The Yorkshire and North-East coast was the scene of heavy bombardment by the German navy in the opening months of the First World War.

Some 600 casualties, many of them civilians, were recorded in Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool.

Sir Gary Verity, of the tourism agency Welcome to Yorkshire, encouraged those communities to support the project. He said: “This is such a wonderful idea. To see everyone gather on Yorkshire’s beaches on November 11 to remember our county’s heroes of the First World War would be incredibly moving, and a fitting tribute to those who gave their lives to protect our country and its values.”