Make Do and Mend
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- Last updated: 15/01/2018
During the Second World War, the British Government issued scores of posters, each with a theme on how the population should cope with the war. One of the most famous was ‘Dig for Victory’, intended to make people grow their own food. Some posters had the theme of security attached to them, such as ‘Keep Your Trap Shut’, to stop idle gossip.
Perhaps the most famous of all was the poster extolling the virtues of ‘Make do and Mend’ which encouraged people to repair things, from clothing to machinery. It was good advice and because of it, things were valued more. People knitted, sewed, darned and patched things to make them last. However, over the years, many of these skills are in danger of becoming either lost or no longer considered mainstream. Thankfully, that is not the way things are done when it comes to re-enactment.
In fact, after looking at the number of re-enactors who engage in repairing and maintaining things at events, I have the distinct impression that they have taken to heart the ‘Make Do and Mend’ poster in its literal sense. Re-enactors depicting the Home Front at events can be seen engaged in sewing, darning and patching and making general repairs as they keep things in good order, just as the population did for real during the war. Members of groups depicting military units can also be seen repairing uniforms and sewing buttons onto jackets, just as soldiers did to keep smart.
These skills are not completely lost, because people do still repair clothing, but they are more likely to be seen being practised at a re-enactment event. Knitting is another example. It is not difficult to master the basic stitches and follow a pattern, after which things fall into place and it is possible to produce a cardigan using an original wartime pattern. Such garments not only look authentic, they are practical and functional. The patterns are not expensive and there are plenty available from traders at events and even in bric-a-brac stores, also the wool is readily available.
Re-enactors often use the time in between displays to repair uniforms, clean their kit and keep things in good condition. This is necessary because taking part in battle re-enactment takes its toll on everything and ripped trousers need to be repaired and buttons torn off during displays must be sewn on. Soldiers were issued with a small cloth pouch containing needles and cotton, known as a ‘housewife’; (pronounced ‘hussif’ in the British army) This allowed soldiers during the war to repair their uniform. So, seeing something as simple as buttons being sewn on to a tunic is a very authentic wartime image.
Taking it a stage further, some groups now have a cobbler to repair boots. The first time I saw this was at a display by the Second Battle Group, where the cobbler was using a proper boot last and hobnails for the soles. This is not a skill which just anyone can pick up because an unskilled person could ruin an expensive pair of boots. At an event in 2016 I saw a cobbler at work who explained he was fully trained and did boot repairs for a living. Seeing him reminded me how when I was in the army in the 1970s, there was a battalion cobbler to repair boots. It seems that some things change very slowly.
It is not just uniforms and clothing which requires attention to be kept in good order; the larger things, such as vehicles, also need maintenance. The type of vehicles and the age of them means that they are not the kind of thing you can take to your local garage for a service. The responsibility in such cases comes down to the owner. This is not as daunting a prospect as it sounds, because there is help in such cases. The most obvious source of support comes from specialist associations such as the MVT or IMPS, if the owner is a member. Assistance also comes in the shape of specialist titles published by the company of Haynes Owners’ Workshop Manuals, based at Sparkford, Yeovil, Somerset, BA22 7JJ (website: www. haynes.co.uk), which is known for its range of servicing manuals.
These books are usually associated with classic civilian cars but over the past several years the company has released a range of titles, which military vehicle owners can use. Among those aimed at the older vehicles includes the Kubewagen and Schwimmwagen, Jeep and tanks such as the Sherman and Churchill. Service manuals for the more recent vehicles include titles such as Chieftain and Centurion tanks, along with the Land Rover and HUMVEE. There are more specialist titles, such as the Tiger and Panzer III tanks, but these are more for interest than actual DIY ownership. Nevertheless, the whole range is comprehensive and will, no doubt be added to later include trucks such as Dodges and GMCs.
At events where vehicles are parked on display, it is not unusual to see someone working on a vehicle. With their engine bonnets lifted and mechanics in overalls, the scene could be an army camp during the war or, indeed, any conflict which is portrayed, including Korea, Vietnam and Northern Ireland. Such scenarios serve to attract attention because they are unusual. It is not often a vehicle enthusiast gets the opportunity to look at the engine of such vehicles, so when an owner is simply ‘topping up’ the water or oil, it will attract attention. Even painting the vehicles can be interesting to watch and is a job which must be done.
Historic vehicles require a lot of attention and owners have no choice but to use modern tools to maintain them and fix it for themselves. It is not always possible to conceal modern equipment, no matter how discrete, and in such cases, visitors usually accept this. It should be remembered that some of the vehicles from the war are almost eighty years old. It is only with care and good maintenance they are still in roadworthy condition.
When a convoy road-run is organised, should a vehicle break down these are not the kind of vehicles which modern roadside recovery organisations can deal with. However, if there is a recovery truck on hand, such as an M1A1 ‘Wrecker’ or a Diamond T ‘Wrecker’, then the unfortunate vehicle can be towed in a realistic way. The cranes of Wreckers can also be used in static displays to lift vehicles to demonstrate how vehicles were maintained. This allows owners to change a wheel or check the suspension while looking authentic. Some groups have even developed a whole display to depict a field workshop to show what a unit would have looked like on campaign in Normandy or Italy.
Re-enactors are very resourceful and can put their modern skills to use alongside those historical skills they have learned to keep things working well. From the smallest to the largest, there is nothing they will not tackle. Whether its repairing a pair of torn trousers to a truck which has broken down, they will make do and mend or fix it themselves. You don’t get much more self-sufficient than that, plus it’s as close to being historically authentic as anyone is ever likely to get.
For that reason, they must be admired.
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