Historical reenactments…

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.

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11 comments on “Historical reenactments…

  1. The fouling issue hadn’t improved 50 years later, with percussion weapons. In the American Civil War an extended engagement resulted in troops having to smash the ends of the ramrods against tree trunks to force them all of the way down.

    Another issue was that when things got particularly hectic soldiers would often neglect to remove said ramrod from barrel before firing, resulting in glorified spear-gun fighting.

    And many muskets have been recovered from battlefields with half a dozen powder & ball loads in them, because their frantic owners forgot to put a percussion cap on. They’d just load and pull the trigger. Between the noise, shock, and terror they never realized that the musket hadn’t actually discharged.

  2. The smoke issue was so problematic that troops would lie down to try to spy oncoming forces’ trousers, to gauge if they were friend or foe.

  3. Rowenna says:

    Thanks for dispelling the myth of the “basement dweller out to play soldier” when it comes to reenacting–as a lifelong participant reenacting the American Revolution, I appreciate when others appreciate what we do 🙂 Of course, I do have to admit we are giant geeks…that part of the myth is true…

    Yes, those drums–most infuriating at reveille after a rather late night…it’s the most chipper dang song, too.

    I second MM–definitely consider visiting a reenactment if you’re writing or just geeking out on history! I’ll add–it depends on the group, but–many of us love guests and potential members. If you’re interested, contact a group in your area and ask about guesting. You might find a new hobby.

  4. Rudolf says:

    Sounds like loads of fun!

    I have just got myself a computer game/simulation called “Napoleon Total War” (I’ve done the Medieval and Roman periods -in that order) so I can reenact to my hearts content without getting muddy. But which side should I take? It covers the Italian, Egyptian and European campaigns.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Unless you want to participate in serious war crimes and atrocities, I’d go for the British side…or the Austrian side. Maybe the Russian side–except if they’re asking you if you want to be a Cossack.

      There’s a fascinating [grim] book called the First Total War by David A. Bell which talks about Napoleon’s wars as total war–one which targeted civilians as well as combattants because for the French it was always a war of annihilation.

  5. Janet says:

    I have been hanging with folks who interpret 1850s Fort Nisqually (Hudson’s Bay Company in Washington Territory, USA) and other groups at English Encampment. http://www.nps.gov/sajh/parknews/encampment-2010.htm I find their research, period clothing and artifacts outstanding. When the Lady Washington (of Pirates of the Caribbean fame, a 1790s ship showed up last year at Encampment, cannon shot rang between the ship and shore. The overnight boaters got quite the morning wake up call.

  6. Piotr says:

    Question, what were the role of drummer boys…. other then… umm… beating drums?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Well, the French armies always went into battle with a lot of, er, verve. So they had drummers drumming, which would have kept the adrenaline pumping, but they also had a lot of singing of the Marseillaise, until Napoleon banned it for being too Republican, and a lot of Vive l’Empereur-ing. They believed it gave them quite a huge psychological edge.

      The British navy certainly used the drums a lot too. They’d have the drummers beating to quarters all during the hours before a battle–and so by the time battle came, they’d all be working and thinking and breathing in time to that–which curiously is the same beat as the song which the Navy felt described them best–Hearts of Oak.

      • In the American Civil War the drummer boys provided a beat for marching. The other musicians became stretcher-bearers.

        One Union drummer, Johnny Clemm, age 10, shot a Confederate colonel from his horse and captured him. Lived to be a major-general and just missed serving in WWI.

    • Rowenna says:

      One more, sorry! Area of expertise (erm…term used loosely) is the American Revolution only. Certain orders were accompanied by certain cadences on the drum. So, for instance, prime and load has a distinctive rhythm, repeated three times. In the noise of battle, you couldn’t always hear your NCO passing on orders–but you could hear the drums.

      Another, looser reason–the drums and colors were often positioned together, giving visual and audial point to rally and dress on the field.

  7. Piotr says:

    thank you for that

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