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- Last updated: 19/05/2017
There are many aspects about re-enactment that sets it apart from other hobbies, but one thing, which does come through, is the willingness by some re-enactors to try something different from the mainstream of re-enacting. Such a choice often involves no more than a handful of re-enactors who wish to fulfil an ambition to depict a small representation of a unit. Such depictions are usually ‘low key’ but do fit in with the overall display. For example, at American Civil War events I have seen Zouave troops, which are historically correct, and I have also encountered Prussian soldiers from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Nurses fit in with displays of British, German and American armies, with good effect.
These are small-scale depictions, but sometimes what started as an interest involving a few like-minded friends, can gather a following and grow into a much larger depiction. The classic example of this is the Greek Hoplite Association, which I first met a few years back when they were newly-established. At the time, individual members had their own personal weapon and armour and as a group they were very enthusiastic. Each time I saw them the group had grown a bit larger and acquired more equipment for their display. Today, the Greek Hoplite Association has a worldwide following with groups in America, Australia and, quite naturally, in Greece. Yet, for all that, the period still remains a minority in terms of representation.
Being a minority group is different from being what I term as a ‘stroller’, who, as I see it, is an individual attending an event, dressed either as a historical figure, such as Stalin or Montgomery, or as a soldier of a unit such as the French Foreign Legion, which we sometimes see Titus depicting. A typical minority group is the husband and wife team of Bill and Jackie, who have created ‘The Law at War’, (www.thelawatwar.co.uk) which, as they say, depicts the ‘…unglamorous but nonetheless vital role…’ played by the police on the Home Front in WWII. They are sometimes joined at events by others who depict police officers and the effect is great. Although this is low-key re-enactment, their display of artefacts, always attracts attention. Although small, they still manage to put on scenarios such as air raids and arresting criminals which engages the public attention.
This example proves that a group does not have to be large to be noticed. I once came across a small group depicting the Finnish army in WWII and they had their display alongside a much larger German group. This was perfect, because Germany and Finland were allied during the war. Finland’s part in the war is still not that widely recognised, but here were a few friends who had got together to show how things might have looked on the Karelian Isthmus in the siege around Leningrad. The group was not large but they were attracting a lot of attention.
During the First World War, not all armies were massive military machines like France, Germany and Britain. The states of Bulgaria, Serbia and Bosnia were tiny by comparison to these larger countries, and although their contribution to the war was small they were involved. I have met small groups at various events who have created depictions of units or several individuals display a selection of various uniforms of these armies. The Serbian army was unusual in that it had women serving in the ranks, such as Sergeant Milunka Savic and Sofija Jovanovic. However, it is Flora Sandes who stands out because she was the only English woman to officially serve in the army. One female re-enactor to show this is Jennifer Mason Hawk who looked incredible. She has also turned up at events where she participates in portraying minority groups including French Resistance fighters in WWII.
Female re-enactors sometimes form into minority groups, to depict medical units such as the ‘Rochambelles’, a volunteer unit raised in America by Florence Conrad. The women were formed into a medical company of the 13th Medical Battalion, attached to the 2nd Armoured Division and served across Europe from 1944 to 1945. In 1943, they had served in North Africa and drove Dodge WC54 ambulances. Even with such a history behind it, the unit remains surprisingly unknown. The Women’s Land Army, which worked on Britain’s farms, numbered 80,000 strong in the war. Today, small groups appear at events and these are in the minority, but they are becoming more prominent. We must, therefore, be grateful to the dedication of these female re-enactors who gather to put on a display and remind us of such events.
Britain has long-enjoyed a cosmopolitan society and in recent years we have seen more people from across the European Union settling here. Some integrate at all levels, which includes forming reenactment groups. Foremost are the Polish who are embracing the hobby with enthusiasm and commitment. The Poles have a tremendous national history, stretching over centuries from Napoleonic Wars to WWII. The younger generation tend to choose the Second World War, as a reminder that Polish troops fought in campaigns such as North Africa, Italy and Europe, where they fought in Normandy and Arnhem. These groups are not large by any means, but they have all the right equipment and some of their relatives probably even fought in these actions.
Minority groups can also form within a larger gathering to depict a specialist unit. For example, there is now a rocket battery, which participates at some events for battle re-enactment set during the Napoleonic Wars. Wellington voiced his opinions about such units during his campaigns, which was far from complimentary. Nevertheless, the rocket batteries of the Royal Artillery did take part in battles and today this small group does the same. They have all the accoutrements including replica rockets and the tripod launcher stands. During these battle re-enactments, the battery fires pyrotechnics to simulate the rockets and afterwards visitors can see how different the unit is from those with cannon. It is this, which makes reenactment what it is, which is interesting.
Another example of how unforgettable re-enactment minorities can be, are the Zouaves. Although seen as being French in origin, having been formed from Colonial forces in Algeria, Zouave regiments have been raised by several countries, including both the Confederate and Federal armies during the American Civil War. These colourful and flamboyant troops, with their pantaloons and distinctive headdress were brave soldiers who fought valiantly. They were infantry regiments and we are reminded of this at re-enactment events, where small groups turn out with either the American Civil War Society or SOSKAN, to show the diversity of troops who fought in the war.
Further afield, even Japanese history is portrayed at events by re-enactors. The Samurai was a fearsome warrior caste in Japanese society and their loyalty to their master was never faltering. This credo is demonstrated at the display of a small group called ‘Shogun’, which was formed by Dean Wayland. For a small group, they put on a superb display of artefacts, along with weapons and armour, as well as the social side of life. The group demonstrates sword skills and how armour was worn and how each item functioned. Shogun (www. thefightschool.demon.co.uk) turn up at various events, including Military Odyssey, and their presence is extremely eye-catching.
The Japanese military in WWII is something which is only just beginning to make an appearance at events, through the efforts of a small group of enthusiasts. Early attempts at putting on a display of Japanese military in WWII was met with mixed reactions, but an interest was shown by some people, especially collectors and those interested in the history of weapons. Attitudes have changed and we are now seeing more displays of WWII Japanese. They are still small presentations and done very discretely. As minority groups go, this aspect of re-enactment is also highly specialised in comparison to the mainstream depictions of British, German and Russian. Nevertheless, the move has been made to include this history into events and hopefully it will succeed this time round.
The Home Front has become a big part of re-enactment, but within it there is the opportunity for minority groups to emerge, just as the Law in War has done for the police. At events themed as wartime Britain, we now see fire engines with crews putting on demonstrations of air raids to show how fires were tackled and buildings evacuated. Across the country, there are many re-enactment units depicting the Home Guard units, but even collectively they will never match the 1.5 million men who served in the ranks for real. A few have female members, as happened in the war, but by and large the groups at events are among the minority. They put on good static displays of artefacts and engage with the public. This is a very popular aspect of the war and it appears the subject shows no sign of declining either.
The re-enactors who become involved in setting up these minority groups have a great wealth of experience and so they know what they are doing. Sometimes, when creating a minority group, everything goes smoothly and the new idea for a display is ready to be unveiled at an event. On other times, snags just get in the way. The main problem lies in where to get the equipment and uniforms to create the new group.
Being something out of the ordinary does not help and often means re-enactors must spend long hours making the items themselves. The Zouaves, for example, make their own uniforms. Some of the more common items can be obtained from dealers or reproduction items also work well. Obviously, making the items from scratch takes time and there is no sense in rushing things because that is when things can go wrong. When that happens, it causes delays and often means more expense. Much better to be slow and sure and get things right. Several members of smaller groups have told me that is the approach they take.
Mostly, the weapons for any period are available, from swords to machine guns, through reputable traders either at shows or through the pages of adverts in Gun Mart. Re-enactment is a very sociable hobby and if you can’t find what you need, just use social media to put out an appeal. Then, just sit back and wait for the results to come in. You won’t have long to wait. I have been told by people who have done just this and they are overwhelmed by the response.
The Italian army in WWII is sometimes represented at re-enactment events, yet they are still one of the minority groups compared to the Germans. The most active of the Italian groups is Mediterraneo, whose displays catch the attention, not only for the rarity, but also the friendly welcome the members extend to everybody. The US Marine Corps is another example of this. Before America entered the war, the USMC was a minority force with a strength of 28,000 men. In 1945 this had increased to around 485,000 men. However, at events their displays are often low-key. To raise their profile, they involve vehicle owners with Jeeps and I have seen them riding in a ‘Buffalo’, tracked Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel (LCVP) as used in the Pacific. These groups may not be large, but they can certainly turn out in style.
Another minority group which has the same effect is the Long Range Desert Group who have a good selection of vehicles to show how the unit looked during the war in North Africa. Wearing their distinctive native shemagh head scarves, they look like the photographs seen in books and with beards, again like the photographs, they look almost piratical. The LRDG often turn up at events such as the North Norfolk Railway 1940s weekend, where they put on a display at the Weybourne Station, which attracts a lot of interest. Sometimes, the drivers engage in ‘road runs’ where they speed along the quiet Norfolk roads running parallel to the railway track and try to race the train. It may be just a spot of fun to them, but to the visitors it is great to see such active displays.
The large groups are prominent and take part in the battle re-enactments and sometimes they invite smaller groups to get involved. Even if a group is smaller than another it is still important. The fact it is present at an event demonstrates that. The minority can have an impact and make a difference. Look out for them as you walk around shows, they can be full of surprises. One such minority group, which is proving itself is a small group, which comes over from Germany to depict civilian German wartime police.
The first time I met a member of this group he had a dog, which was something different and served to attract attention. In 2016 the group returned to War and Peace Revival, where they put up a small office display with all the equipment and paperwork. Now, whether it is their influence or not, it is hard to say, but I have since noticed there are more reenactors portraying civilian German police. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then, the German police group surely deserve the plaudits for having done such a great job. It is well worth taking the time to search out these minority groups, because they do have a lot to offer and deserve all our support.