Re-Enactment Events Aplenty
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- Last updated: 17/03/2017
When I first became involved with reporting on re-enactment events and the activities of the groups, I did not know too much about the subject. However, being a historian and military journalist, the prospect of writing about such a fascinating interest greatly appealed to me. At the time, the late Pat Farey was the editor of Gun Mart magazine, and he was hugely enthusiastic about the subject, also. Indeed, it was he who approached me to develop the column. I remember being sold on the idea even as he was explaining the idea to me, and I could not wait to get out the first feature.
It is now more than 20-years later and Gun Mart remains the only monthly magazine to have a section dedicated to the subject of re-enactment. During that time, I have seen many changes, new groups forming and new events being created. All of this has kept re-enactment fresh and the level of interest in it as a hobby or pastime, depending on your point of view, very strong to the point where I see it as the family entertainment for the 21st Century.
In the early days, organising special events was mainly the preserve of English Heritage, which held them at one of the many sites for which it was responsible for care and maintenance. Using castles as the backdrop to events made perfect sense and utilising the resources and skills of various re-enactment groups produced a winning combination. Other organisations, such as Royal Armouries, realised the value of such events and began to stage their own historic weekends at Fort Nelson, where gun firing demonstrations using historic weapons were presented at specially-themed weekends.
Today, hardly a weekend goes by without a battle re-enactment or an event of some kind being held somewhere across the country. From Romans and Vikings to both World Wars, groups of all periods turn out; it’s like flicking through the pages of a living history book. This is interaction at its best and everybody enjoys it. However, with so many events to choose from are we approaching the point where there is now too much of a good thing?
It was only natural that, after a while, and with the benefit of experience from involvement with a few events, some enterprising individuals would realise that they too could organise an event of their own. Being independent, they could choose their own venue, having discussed the possibility with the site’s management. Once that was agreed and settled, then other aspects fall into place, such as insurance and facilities including toilets. One of the first people to produce their own independent event was Gary Howard, a skilled horseman, enthusiast and re-enactor of the American Civil War. He established Military Odyssey, a multi-period event, which is still going strong today, but under new management.
It was a bold decision, but Gary’s move to create an independent event proved that it could be done and it gave rise to a series of similar events being staged. For example, Fortress Wales, which has enjoyed great success and was established by re-enactors.
Independent historical sites and other organisations such as the National Trust also recognised how popular such events were and sought to capitalise on them. They approached re-enactment groups and asked them to organise special events at properties, thereby giving the public more choice.
This was great news and a massive boost in popularity for re-enactment. However, this success brought with it attendant problems. Firstly, as each site wanted to present a re-enactment event, dates would clash. This created a dilemma for groups; which event do they attend? The answer was simple. They would attend whichever event had invited them first. Nothing could be easier than this democratic approach. Ordinarily, such a decision would be acceptable, but then special events to commemorate specific anniversaries placed further pressure on groups, as ever more dates clashed with regular events.
The latest example of this is the number of centenary memorial events to commemorate milestones in the First World War. Groups depicting this war have been in great demand since 1914, to mark to outbreak of the war. Last year in 2016, it was to commemorate the centenary of the Battles of the Somme and Verdun. This year, there will be commemorations to mark the Battles of Messines and Passchendaele. Next year the pressure will really be on to commemorate the centenary of the end of the Great War. If there is to be an attendance at each of the events, this will mean fewer re-enactors to go around. After all, there are only so many members in a group and they cannot be in two places at once.
For several years, between 2008 and 2014, it was the turn of the Napoleonic Association as it, along with all other groups depicting the Napoleonic Wars, were in demand to commemorate the bicentenaries of the battles of the Peninsular War 1808 to 1814. Then in 2015 they were in great demand to mark the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, which culminated in a huge event. In between times, venues still wanted displays by groups of the Napoleonic period. Television programmes, such as the Sharpe series, maintain this interest and at multi-period events such as Military Odyssey and the Mount Edgcumbe at War multi-period event near Plymouth in Devon, which is organised by the MVT.
More people than ever before now want to see live action battle re-enactment and visit period encampments. This interest grows especially after an interesting programme, which involve the skills of re-enactors to give it more drama. Event organisers also scour the pages of history books to find more battles from all periods, which can be recreated and commemorated. In 2015, it was the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, while the battles of the English Civil War are perennially popular subjects. This is where a problem arises: in order to meet commitments, groups sometimes have no choice but to divide their resources, which in turn does affect the size of a display.
Splitting resources is also experienced by larger groups, which depict more recent events, especially WWII. Every period has its own attraction, but WWII events probably have the most appeal because of the music, vehicles, weapons, uniforms, fashion and equipment, all of which is used to create massive events. For example, the Dig for Victory Show at Wraxall in Somerset, although still a relatively new show, is already becoming larger year on year. It has a good mix of vehicles, re-enactors and live action displays, but it does clash with other events. Fortunately for the show’s organiser, James Shopland, the event enjoys strong support by the groups who remain committed to attending.
The Dig for Victory Show is not the only event to experience this situation. It is an inevitable fact that many events will face or have already faced. You have only to look at the monthly diary dates list here in Gun Mart to see how many events are held on the same weekend, particularly during the summer months. It is understandable that some groups wish to create their own local event to promote re-enactment in their area. The larger events are better known and very popular and these will naturally attract groups and vehicle owners to attend, because the show is well-established.
Which show to attend is a dilemma for groups and it is a question of choices. Does a group attend the same show every year because it always has and its members feel a certain loyalty to the organisers? On the other hand, do they opt for a change and give a chance to a newly created event by attending that instead? It is the same for visitors when it comes to choosing which show to visit. I have spoken to visitors at shows and they give various reasons for going to the event. This ranges from personal interest to being influenced by a programme. The one thing they do go to an event for is the excitement.
No one has anything against new events in the re-enactment calendar because they bring fresh interest and diversity gives us that. However, what is needed is more research before unveiling the new event. For example, check to see what else is scheduled for the weekend on which the new event is planned. Also, check what the availability is for groups and vehicle owners. Obviously, the event organisers want the show to be a success but they do need to see that it does not clash with the dates of similar events.
If the planned event is Medieval and there is a WWII battle re-enactment nearby, each will be attended and visited by those with an interest in that period. One will not attract visitors from the other if that is their choice of venue. If, however, there are two WWII events close to one another on the same weekend that can present a problem, with a reduced turnout by vehicles and groups at each event.
This is seen during the UK Armed Forces Weekend, where many local events are organised around the country all on the same weekend and all with the aim of raising donations to support Britain’s service personnel. One of the best attended in terms of re-enactment groups, vehicle owners and visitors, is the event at Trowbridge in Wiltshire.
The Tankfest organised at the Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset, which is also held that same weekend, attracts thousands of people to see displays. Smaller events, whilst still commendable for their commitment to the cause, often lose out because groups are committed, often many months prior, to supporting an event.
In other words, we are now reaching a point where there are just too many events. Each of them is looking to draw in re-enactment groups and vehicles, and the problem is there is only so much these people can do. They are already stretched and the very best groups are usually booked up years in advance. Now, I am not taking sides here, but surely the obvious thing to do would be to combine resources and present several very good events rather than lots of mediocre events.
The Armed Forces Weekend is a classic example. As a veteran myself, I am all for supporting our armed forces and as worthy causes go I am all in favour of these events. Last year’s event at Trowbridge was up to its usual high standard and then I visited the Tankfest, which enjoyed a complete ticket sell-out. Other smaller events were making their own contribution, but had they joined in with more experienced events, such as Trowbridge, they would have done much better.
I am not suggesting for one moment that I have the solution, but one idea would be to look much harder and take time to complete better research as to what is happening. We now have a range of facilities at our fingertips, which we can utilise at no cost. I am, of course, referring to the social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which can reach thousands of people very quickly. They, in turn, can spread the news of any planned new event and feedback will inform the organiser as to what else is happening and if there will be a clash of interests.
There is a certain small heritage steam railway in a certain part of Somerset and it hosts a 1940s weekend each year. I have visited it on a couple of occasions and try as hard as they can, the event does not grow. A few groups attend and scenarios enacted, yet, despite their best efforts, it remains a small event. It is a pity because they all try so hard, I don’t think anyone could try harder, and they do deserve greater support. Unfortunately, the date usually coincides with so many other events the same weekend.
By contrast, the Swindon and Cricklade Railway in Wiltshire is growing and popularity increasing. Location could have something to do with it, but that is not the only reason. Timing is essential, pre-booking groups well ahead of the event and confirming attendance. Publicity is vitally important and that brings us back to social media such as Facebook. Like it or loathe it, there is no denying this form of instantaneous mass communication works. It is there, so why not use it?
The country is large and some groups don’t have to go far or even travel out of their area to attend an event. The general public, especially those visiting on holiday, like to see something different. People will and do travel long distances to see a good event. For example, the annual wartime week on the North Norfolk Railway with over eight miles of track between Sheringham and Holt in Norfolk, attracts visitors and participants from all over the country. The Ermine Street Guard, which portrays the Roman Empire, has a reputation, which guarantees a large audience attendance.
There is no denying the fact, re-enactment is hugely popular and it is here to stay. No one can fault organisers for trying to create more events to keep up with demand for seeing exciting spectacles such as jousting, artillery firing and battle re-enactment. A bit more planning to spread the events out more evenly to give a good balance, rather than trying to get everything in on the same few weekends when the weather is good. This is not an exercise in trying to tell event organisers what to do, but hopefully will help ease the pressure on all the groups, as well as vehicle owners, by not spreading them too thin during the busy period, and give visitors more choice.