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Re-enactment review 2016

Re-enactment review 2016

As regular readers know full well, I attend many re-enactment events each year. Over the time I have been reporting on these shows I must have attended literally hundreds. To be honest, I have lost count. But, even after all this time I still enjoy attending events because they are fascinating and great fun. Also, you never know what you are likely to see.

At the end of each year I like to take stock of where I have been and think about all the new and interesting things I have learned in talking with re-enactors. It is also good to think back on all the groups I have meet in the process, some who are old friends and others who are newly established. No two events are the same and even those which are well-established, such as Military Odyssey and War & Peace Revival, change their format to keep things fresh.

Re-enactment groups like to create new displays and spring surprises with some truly original exhibits. What I have come to see is that a display does not have to be huge to be impressive, sometimes it is the smaller things which have an impact. Also, it is worthwhile wandering around the event at leisure because you never know what you will see. As I ramble about I often walk into the woods to see past the trees.

In fact, it is whilst rambling that I have unexpectedly encountered some great displays. Digging a trench to set the scene is very atmospheric and the best place to do this is amongst the trees. I am not talking about wandering off the ‘beaten track’ here, just follow the footpath and you can’t go wrong. It will invariably lead to a great display, such as a mortar pit or machine gun position. In fact, one of the most famous photographs to be taken during the fighting at Arnhem in September 1944, is a trench scene. The image shows Private R Tierney and Sergeant McDowell of the 1st Battalion Border Regiment, firing a three-inch mortar in a position near to Lennepweg.

At one event, I stumbled across a trench with a three-inch mortar in position and the group knew exactly what I wanted to recreate. Together, we managed to organise a very passable image, which was made more realistic because it was among the trees. Had I not gone looking, I would never have found the display. This experience illustrates exactly what I mean. Walking around a site is all well and good, but you must go looking. At the new event Military World, held at the Hop Farm in Kent, there were a couple of groups digging trenches among the trees and the effect was great.

Chance encounter

Sometimes it happens that things do drop into your lap when you least expect it. For example, when a stroller walks past wearing a great uniform or carrying an unusual weapon. Some of these are instantly recognisable, but others are less well known and do require some introduction. These tend to be military figures whose photograph did not appear that often. For example, General Charles de Gaulle, was a prominent figure, but the French field commander General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque, is less well known. Yet, he had taken part in the fighting in France in 1940, North Africa and Normandy and should be more prominent. Sadly, he was killed in a plane crash in 1947.

Then, at an event, I saw a solitary figure wearing a uniform and the image looked familiar. As I approached him I noticed he was carrying a walking stick, which was almost a trademark, the same as Churchill’s cigar. I asked him if he was depicting Leclerc to which he responded yes. In the general throng of the crowd he would have otherwise been missed. He stood out because of his confident stance and his immaculate uniform, which caught my attention. Had I not been looking, I could have missed a great portrayal. That is the great thing about re-enactment, people are prepared to do something different. When I visited the 1940s weekend on the North Norfolk Railway, I was walking around the town of Sheringham when I spotted a re-enactor depicting a sailor of the Royal Canadian Navy. Whilst unusual, it was the fact he had a Lanchester sub-machine gun over his shoulder that caught my eye.

More recently, at the 2016 Wartime in the Vale event hosted by the Ashdown WWII Camp at Badsey near Evesham, I spotted a re-enactor engaged in an activity which would certainly have been performed by soldiers. He was simply cleaning windows whilst in shirt-sleeves. We take it for granted that buildings are cleaned and painted, but here was an example of that activity in practice. It worked perfectly and I would not have spotted him had I not walked between the Nissen huts to have a look. Cleaning windows would have also been done by National Servicemen and so, this scenario could have been any time from 1930s through to the 1950s. Easy when you see it and it did not require much to set up.

Air raid!

Even whole scenarios can be overlooked because they are not immediately obvious. For example, at the 2016 1940s Weekend at Lupton House near Brixham in Devon, organised by members of the Brixham Battery site, they created an ‘Air Raid Experience’. There were signs indicating the way and some people followed them out of curiosity.

I had been told something about it, but it is not until you see it for yourself that you can judge. As we walked to the display we were met by an Air Raid Precaution (ARP) warden who directed us down a flight of stone steps, as though we were doing it for real.

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The siren sounded to warn that an air raid was imminent and as we descended into the basement of the building the atmosphere increased. Inside the brick-built vaulted basement, there were tables and chairs for wardens on duty and the lighting was dim and very realistic. A short talk explained the scenario and then the sound effects started. They played a recording of an actual air raid on London and the noise was something terrible, as the explosions thudded and the anti-aircraft guns opened fire. As it went on and on, I thought how terrible it was for the people having to endure this for real and night after night. Finally, the siren sounded again to signal the ‘All Clear’.

I have visited air raid experiences at other events, and whilst they were very good, this one at Lupton was by far the best. It engaged all the senses as visitors were treated to a re-enactment reality show, made the more believable, because it was underground. After the display, I took the time to look around the other rooms, which had been fitted out with a first aid post and even a toilet. I was pleased I had looked in on this most impressive display.

What’s for dinner?

Some groups take the opportunity to prepare their food in a realistic way and cook just as troops have done over the centuries. Pots and pans full of potatoes, soup and stew bubble and boil away over open fires, just as we see in wartime photographs and film footage. This is not something done just for visitors to see, there is a real purpose because the food will be eaten by the group. These may not be lessons in cookery, but they are interesting to see how troops fed themselves on the battlefield, not only in WWII but also for hundreds of years and all campaigns.

Over the years I have peered into more stew pots and pans full of soup than I can remember. Often they do smell inviting, as aromas mingle with wood-smoke. A couple of years ago I was invited to join a group of British Redcoats for dinner at a Napoleonic event. A plate of stew was brought up and served with bread. Looking along the tables, this is how it must have been for the troops fighting against Napoleon in Spain and Portugal. Even the cutlery was authentic design and the plates were pewter, just as the real thing. Not wishing to intrude, I had often stood back whilst the members of groups ate their dinner, but being invited to join in, I could look at things from a different perspective. Since then I have enjoyed many meals in the best al fresco fashion and company that anyone could ever imagine.

Keep ‘em peeled

Visiting events is a full sensory experience including touching and tasting things, but it is by looking that we learn and understand. Indeed, over the years I have learnt an enormous amount. I find, though, that looking is wonderful. Observing from the side I can watch and take my time, waiting for the moment when I can photograph the action. I am lucky enough to be invited by groups to enter their encampment area to take photographs and this, again, allows me to look at things in a different way. My old friends the Second Battle Group let me wander around in between vehicles and come across members of the group just sitting and talking. Even the cobbler, who comes over from Holland to repair the boots of the group, makes an interesting aspect to look at.

Such scenes, we know, happened for real during the war because we see so many photographs as evidence. In the First World War the same thing happened and even in the Napoleonic Wars, troops would have propped themselves against wagon wheels to talk, smoke and play cards. This is what we see at events and re-enactment is recreating images to look at from the pages of history. Even at the smaller shows, there is always something to look at if you decide to make the effort and seek it out.

At the Tilford and Mapledurham events organised by Captain Dave, Dave Allaway, groups make use of buildings by putting on displays inside rooms. Looking behind doors and into the rooms there are all sorts of presentations to be seen, such as RAF plotting rooms showing the Battle of Britain, nurses tending the wounded in beds and even pubs as a real morale raiser. Re-enactors have a true gift of being able to put on a display which makes you want to stand and look and this leads to questions. Then, you see something else and ask more questions. Such encounters are like your own personal documentary, with your own private presenter who knows all the answers.

Much of the equipment on display, certainly from both world wars, is original and looking at it is like visiting an open-air museum. Displays from earlier periods, such as the English Civil War, Napoleonic Wars and American Civil War, are created using replica items, because the original is just too rare and delicate, but these items are authentically recreated to show how things looked for real. Seeing them in proper settings and being used gives a better understanding. Displays from earlier periods, such as Romans, Vikings and Normans with axes, swords and spears, are all there to be looked at.

The bigger picture

Re-enactment is about recreating all aspects of history from everyday life, such as cooking, but it is the military side of things, which people come to see. They want battles, cannons firing and knights charging. Whilst all this is exciting, if you visit the camps to watch them getting ready for the battle re-enactment you will see a different side of things. This is just as interesting and adds to understanding why the re-enactors look so good in action. Visiting the camps after the battle is just as rewarding because you will see how they look and feel, which is tired and relieved that it is over. In fact, the way they feel is probably how the men in the army of, say King Henry V at Agincourt, must have felt after the battle.

When we see larger displays at events they are the ‘bigger picture’, but the smaller ones are equally just as interesting and well worth the walk to look at. Every group participating at an event deserves to be visited and don’t forget to look out for the strollers, also. Re-enactment is going from strength to strength and gaining popularity, even to the point where whole television programmes have been produced on the subject. In fact, I have long affirmed that re-enactment is the family entertainment for the 21st Century, with something for all ages. So, if you think you have seen everything at an event, I recommend taking another look at the show guide to check and I guarantee you will see something you have missed. If you have, then go and take another look, it will be worth it.