Yes, yes, yes, I know…it’s fun to sneer at the chappies who put these things on. To think of them as little fellows–historical geeks–who have no life and so to compensate, fill their hours dressed up in costumes reenacting battles that nobody today cares about anyway.
Well, having just had the great privilege of watching a reenactment of a skirmish between the 95th Rifles, a detachment of the Coldstream Guard and a rather determined group of French Voltiguers, which was fought on the 17th June 1815–yes, in the hours leading up to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo–all I can say is, leave those ideas at the door…because it was superb in every way.
The thing that most strikes the novice to these events is, of course, the noise.
Muskets and rifles of the Napoleonic period were loud. And I don’t just mean like the too-loud music of some passing roadster’s stereo. I mean the boom makes you jump like sudden thunder does. It shakes the ground beneath your feet.
And it goes on and on. And yes, it’s deafening. Quite literally.
Then there’s the constant drumming–never thought of that, did you?
But the armies of the Napoleonic period all had drummer boys–sometimes only of nine or ten years of age, they were. And these boys marched into battle at the head of a column or line or detachment, beating out the march. They marched onto battlefields and they kept it up–generally until they were shot dead. Because there was no age limit on death in battle, no Geneva Convention. And the guns of the period were notoriously scattershot. No telling what a musket ball would hit once fired.
Then there’s the clogging of the rifles and muskets. Realistically, a soldier had generally two or three clear shots–that’s where the powder didn’t clog and the flint struck properly–before the whole thing would start to go a little wonky.
Muskets and rifles both heat up very quickly and within an hour of shooting, the barrel would become too hot to handle. And meanwhile, your barrel is clogging with powder and your flint isn’t striking, so your rifle isn’t firing, but the enemy is firing away at you quite effectively, thank you very much.
And there’s the smoke of battle. Again within a few short minutes of everyone firing, the air has become the heaviest sulphuric fog and you can’t really see either within it or through it.
Then there’s all the other noise–the 95th Rifles, that’s the British sharpshooters, or Green Jackets (think Sharpe) moved up in pairs, and their commanding officer called them to move forward using a whistle. Which, yes, could be heard shrill above the guns and the drums and the shouting…
And what one realises watching all of it unfold, is how active it all was…how unceasing, how chaotic…how terrifying. And suddenly it all becomes very personal, intimate almost. Very real. Very, ‘come on, load your rifle, don’t you see that…why isn’t the dashed thing firing…Oh ‘struth, they’re moving up…’ And one understands then, as never before, how vital were those first shots of an encounter.
One sees the scale of things as never before–certainly not conveyed by the films and the telly, however good the production.
And of course, afterwards, there’s the joy of seeing their kit up close, their uniforms, their shoes, and the small ‘horse shoes’ they nailed to their heels to prolong the walking life of the shoes (see left).
…The small sacks of dried peas and rice and oats which they carried with them in their packs…the small bars of soap in their neat wooden boxes. The 95th Rifles were allowed to wash and shave every third day. And before you think–crikey! the smell–the French armies had no such provision, since Napoleon had instigated the Continental Blockade, soap was a rare blackmarket commodity Europe-wide.
Everything about it was just superlative, frankly. And to anyone who writes, who thinks of writing either historical fiction or historical romance–if you have the chance, go…you’ll not regret a single moment of it.