Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Gone Kipling.

Evidence that I was right! My planned weekend at Bateman's started with a bit of a trek, first to Brighton station as there were no trains stopping at outlying stations due to Pride.. and then to arrive at Etchingham station two hours later to find.. not a living soul. I managed to find the bus stop, but it clearly showed no buses at weekends. Buses were a thing of local myth and legend! so it was a march to Burwash and down to Bateman's, once the home of Rudyard Kipling. I was given directions to go part of the way by a backroad by two locals with their own speed camera.. I hoped I wasn't entering Hot Fuzz country and would never be found...

I did arrive though, literally as the battle was about to begin and had to hurry into tunic, helmet and belts and ran up to the hillside with everyone mostly concealed '''Excuse me, which side are the Germans?' I had to ask.

Minutes later I was on the treeline, ducking to avoid bullets and looking for any wounded. No sooner did I reach some as the British charge came home, someone shouted about 'Bayonetting the buggers!' and I drew my Luger. There was a very real moment of cod-German me exclaiming I was only loosely waving my gun at them in defense and them all aiming there rifles and shouting, but I was disarmed and taken alive.
Thus ended my first Great war battle, without doubt the shortest one I'd ever been in.

The rest of the day was living history, talks, displays, an amusing twice a day skit from the plane crew. Talking to the public, eating cheese and drinking cloudy lemonade. I joined some of the group for a stroll up to the 'Rose and Crown' in the evening, which did very good fishcakes.

Battle on day two was again the start of the event at 11 am, which is unusual as most of the public are drawn to the afternoon. More firers were needed so I stripped off my red cross and accepted a blank firing Moisin Nagant pistol from the Russians. I was forward sentry and also had to spot the red flag meaning 'Action!'. Amid the echo of rifle fire I cracked off a few shots and ran back only to be spun around by a bullet with my name on it.

I ended up kicking myself on day two as someone had been selling old kit on Saturday and had medical pouches but wary of spending my limited amount of cash I had said 'probably tomorrow..' now it was tomorrow and I had the cash left but the chap was not here!

I picked up quite a few tips from other German reenactors, like how to buff my helmet to make it look less new, that my buttons should be dyed/painted if after the very, very early war, and where equipment like bread bag and canteen sit.. pretty much at the back which seems awkward and counter intuitive but apparently if you needed something you'd ask a comrade to get it. Some advice though was seemingly contradictory.. your boots should really be a darker hue with this exact dye watered down to 1/3 strength.. and then that the German army had little standardisation after the blockade and material shortages started to kick in. Personally I shall stick to a few abnormalities under this very guise. My mother sent me these boots don't you know! 

To close the day there would be a parade and commemoration. I joined on to the 73 German fusilier regiment and marched out, swinging right arm in time and trying to catch what the unfamiliar commands were.
The main regiment were British and to mark 1918 as the wars end at a given signal two ranks of them laid down their arms, stripped off jackets and helmets and put on civilian caps. Return to civilian life, those who survived.

The march off was interesting for me as having tagged myself on the back to follow the others I was now at the front and couldn't see anyone. Fortunately with a bit of panache and knowing my links from my Rechts I made it back to our flag for a unit pep talk in what a grim future awaited us. 

The voyage home was a lot smoother, and pleasant to imagine that I could actually be going home on leave on a train, which I was glad of as I was sure I could feel the hobnails through the bottom of my boots by now. 
Next stop will be.. not sure actually, quite a quiet August will be followed by quite a busy September..

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Oswestry Odyssey

Oswestry is a market town on the Welsh border, just on the English side although the scene of this years campaign event hosted by the 5/60th Rifles was literally up the first turning on the Welsh side, an area of sudden hills and valleys, all covered in tall trees.

Of course its quite a tidy step, I trained it to Bath to meet a friend and we set off to stay over in Schrewsbury before the last leg next morning.

Formed into two groups, three of ourselves with the 60th whom we re-imagined as allies from the Confederation of the Rhine.. and some other rifles and Redcoats on the other side.. we started with quite a trek to find our campsite which was somewhere on high ground..
After we located the scene a patrol went out, others went on guard duty, a Light rain was accompanied by a far more dramatic thunder storm nearby. Would they come up the gully? Streaming clouds made the shadows dance. Later a Twitchy sentry would fire at our own patrol coming back.

I was part of the next patrol, down, down we went on winding paths and steps cut in the earth until we sighted what we thought was a white tent down a steep wooded slope, the enemy camp? Sure enough around the next bend were two sentries and we each in turn stepped out to give staggered fire, and back to the first man.. but we had stirred the hornets nest and withdrew.
An hour later and probing attacks came at our camp. 
I peered round a corner on an uphill bend and saw two riflemen at about twenty feet and as one aimed dropped down low on the crest then shot back and retreated back down to a comrade, leaning into bushes to reload. More shots sounded.
"You must be hit by now, we only do aimed shots". Came a voice.
It hadn't actually occurred to me that participants would be expected to die at this point, unless surprised or in the open at closer ranges.. I had only seen people driven back. How did you know if you were hit? The Riflemen were confident they would hit, a rifle has better range and accuracy.. true, except at ranges like twenty feet our muskets would have been pretty much the same.. half a brick is terribly inaccurate but at ten yards it's as good as the finest javelin! 

The group was scattered, some apparently were prisoners, one taken when firing forwards and a redcoat strolled up behind and tapped him on the shoulder. 

The sounds of battle restarted down the valley somewhere, should we stay to defend or join the fray? Two of us elected to advance to the sound of the guns, down the winding downhill paths through the wood. We stopped to admire the sun dappled hills opposite and I went to take a sneaky photo of Simon against the backdrop but immediately I glanced round and saw.. the enemy coming round the next bend! Redcoats! I shouted as they began a bayonet charge with a yell.
I couldn't stop and fire with both hands full and was desperately trying to put camera back in bag whilst running.. 

Around a slight bend I dived into a shallow dip flanked by bushes and hunkered down.. maybe they would run passed and not see me.. then I could come out behind them.
They had stopped when Simon turned to give fire.
I emerged and surprised a redcoat about eight yards away. I aimed and fired. Click.
Misfire!. Merde! Emboldened the big Welshman (?) Charged but I cocked the hammer and fired just in time. Phew!
(Of course neither of these shots were at the redcoat at this range, being deliberately turned from his path of approach, but we both knew a shot at that range meant.. aaaaagh!)

Oh and did I mention the black powder grenades supplied by a chap usually an artillerymen? They were fun to behold. 

it was real skirmish work, ducking and diving and going forward, which you don't see much at big events due to the terrain. It certainly made us reflect that putting on a fancy hat does not make one a voltigeur. 

Sadly every weather prediction from the BBC to sheep's entrails all said a terrible rain front was coming in the night.. and the plan for raiding under the cover of darkness was dropped. I had rather looked forward to the experience of navigating through a dark forest and looking out for sentries.. or being on said duty.. but oh well. There would be beer and jollity in one camp.. nearer the parking field as folk were worried they might get rained in. 

Sure enough after a night in makeshift roped up shelters small streams were running down the road ways and not a soul escaped being wet, still a fire was got up for coffee. No guns would fire in this and without a word being said it was agreed that yesterday had been a great and active day but it was time to go home.

Hope to return next year, after months of dry weather, what luck! Still many fine moments to remember. I shall probably wake in the night reliving that Welshman charging and the musket not firing. 

Good days! 

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Steaming into the past.

Train enthusiasts are a funny lot.. said the history enthusiast who dresses up at the weekend.
Tracks to the trenches at the Apedale light railway just outside Stoke-on-Trent was the third and final event centred on the role of light gauge railways and steam power in the Great war.

 A number of living history groups were on hand to add colour and atmosphere to the weekend. including myself as 'The only German in the village' though I did have some allied (Austro-Hungarian) Bosniaks to support, who due to their fezes are constantly asked if they are Turkish. The 14th Olonetsky regiment (Russians) would provide the core of our 1914-21 group which focuses on the war in the East. Trying to read up more really brought home how much attention is paid to the British experience on the Western front and overlooking Russia, Poland, Serbia, the Italian front, Syria, Greece, even the Dardanelles with British and commonwealth forces is quite a drop off from the number of books on the Somme.

Several things I learnt this weekend:
1)  How to get an eighteen pounder field gun off the back of a carriage with wheel ramps, ropes and chocs.
2: How to engage in a portaloo with a belted, accoutrement laden tunic over a pair of braces attached to trousers under that tunic.
3: Not to drink tea from an aluminium cup, as the heat will firstly transfer into the metal making it too hot to hold and then dissipate leaving you with a tepid cup of tea.

From experience of being French  I had expected a few people to ask 'Why are you German?' but in fact this never happened, maybe a lot of the public really have taken on the idea that it was a terrible war with out an enemy, without hate, at least to our current generation. I would like to think so.

 Instead I was asked a few times 'If your a medic why do you have a gun?'  The Geneva convention does actually stipulate that medical personnel can carry a weapon for self defence although most countries never did so the Germans often did as part of the duties in looking after/saving the wounded, including to defend them against any crazed enemies who might be keen on bayonetting the wounded.

'Die werwundeten kommen immer zuerst'.
The wounded always come first.

Various sized trains were also on display with various sized great war themes and looked at by various sized people.

Early afternoon each day it was our turn to man the trenches, mainly as a display as the public were free to wander through although there were a few odd shots fired off and a couple of simulated gas attacks during the day. Whilst here on the first day I made a mental note of the nice little dug out as a place to kip later.

It was quite an experience to go riding on a few steam trains, big and small, just clinging to an eight foot long flatbed or in an open-sided cattle box, just enjoyable to look out the door up and down the track. It's another thing you would never get to do if you weren't one of the reenactors, you are trusted not to fall out the door, unlike the general public.

It was quite a relaxed weekend, Great war re-enactment does indeed include staged battles rather like Napoleonics or other periods but therein there is more colour and spectacle of formation charges, lines wheeling, musket vollies, cannons firing over open sights, horses charging etc..  but less often it seems, doubtless in part due to the nature of the war and the terrain and the current hundred year commemorations. Living history is prevalent which concentrates on more static displays and engaging with the public.
Roll on next month! but in the meantime it will be back to 1812 and invading.. Wales.

Monday, 16 July 2018

The road to war..

I have a fairly broad interest in history although it tends to concentrate on the black powder period, then last year some friends and I went on a road trip to the Ardennes and back, including Liege, Bastogne, Arras and Cambrai. Many of these were scenes of particular World war one battles and there were a couple of great museums. My interest in the great war picked up. Then early this year another trip to around Ypres, with similar sites, the ball was rolling...
 Great war re-enactment..


But what army? what group? where are good places to buy kit?
I knew I didn't want to do British because there are so many groups doing that in the UK I imagined the scene needed more diversity.. Belgian? I liked the idea of plucky Belgium but would I be a regiment of one? A brief google didn't turn any groups up but should that matter? I could tag myself on to an allied group at events but in practical terms its useful being in a group as you are covered by insurance and event organisers generally go through a group. German? I can speak a little German and am quite a Germanophile and there would certainly be groups, plus I already owned a Feldmutze (cap) that was bought on a whim.. its a start!

Groups tend to have reputations, for great authenticity, or lack of same, for comradeship, for thinking they are actually the real army, for being too dry, for being too drunk!  I needed to do some research, I asked some friends into WWI living history and all suggested 'The 1914-21 society' as a good bet.
They do not portray one unit but concentrate on the Eastern theatre so have Russians from the great war and Russian civil war that followed, Austrians, including Bosniaks and mountain troops, and Germans.. all tempting but I'd started down the German path and the gear looked easier to get right on my own as the Austrian stuff in particular was very bespoke. After my American civil war experience and talk with Ian (i.e. e-mail) I liked very much that they invited people to do whatever role they wanted.

Lochnagar crater.

So something that was a little more individual but would still see me on the battlefield/in the trenches.. Medical services came to mind. Part of being German was because every country suffered that got pulled into the war, which I consider 'The last argument of kings' and me today would not really have wanted to fight a massive war because Franz-Josef has a grudge with little Serbia.. but I would like to help people out.. Krankentrager..  stretcher bearer/medic it was. I would basically be a called up reservist from the landsturm who volunteered for the medical service attached to the battalion. I would also be Saxon.
The German army despite unification still had divisions and separate uniforms (well variations) for most of the German states like Bavaria, Wurtemburg, etc. The Saxons had a reputation as being easy going and keen to start unofficial truces, which often annoyed the Prussians who took the fighting lark far more seriously. Despite the stereotype of the major powers the German army soon became one of the most rag tag, partly due to shortages, but also seldom enforced things like shaving regulations, so no one could say I had a wrong beard.


Soon it was all coming together, tunic, trousers, cap, boots (early war brown), breadbag, canteen, wire cutters, cutlery set.. picklehaube.. the spiked helmet of the early war.. with a separate plate for Saxony. The only things I couldn't find were the right size mess tin (googling for WWI German annoyingly mixes results with WWII German and items that are not specified as either, beware!), a tornister backpack and a Saxon belt buckle.. my current one is from Wurtemburg but you'd have to get pretty close to notice, shhhHH!
Early or late war is a consideration, most pictures of the group showed the German contingent as early war so I'd gone with that.. but what if events were meant to be strickly 1916-18? A steel helmet and gasmask/case followed.
I also found Saxon tunics have two buttons on the cuff  instead of three, you cannot buy tunics tailored like that so for now due to supply problems I have been issued with a standard three button version, don't you know there is a war on?

My personal impression was growing, why did I speak good English? well in 1913 a full 10% of restaurant and hospitality staff in London were German, an area of the East end was known as German town, even before the war the Daily Mail was railing against the number of foreign devils taking British jobs (coming over here and waiting our tables!) and printing fictional stories about fiendish hun spies (or Austrians, or Italians, anyone really...) which would add to the hysteria when war actually came. So there you are I was a waiter who saw the writing on the wall and returned to my native Leipzig in my last year of being liable for the reserves (age 45) and found myself in the army.

                                 Now I just needed an event to go to...

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

                                 Postcards from Malta.


Malta, an island stuffed with history including the world's earliest free standing buildings, and between 1798 and 1800 the scene of a French landing as Napoleon popped in on the way to Egypt leading to a subsequent two year occupation until being cut off from France and the valiant defenders had to give in.
Instead of recounting the whole week I'll break it down into a few subjects, starting with my first experience of going on a plane with a gun.

It did seem a faff and a bit daunting, but it all worked out well.
The first step was selecting excess baggage; sports equipment; firearms. Both there and back again.
The air Malta website said you had to inform them 72 hours before travel and a police escort was required.
Was this as well as booking a firearm or did that count as informing? Also was a police escort needed both sides?  I called Sussex Police and they had never heard of it but just said ''follow whatever it says''.  Turns out it was only Malta side and with over 500 reenactors going they were on standby.
There were eleven guns on the flight so we all got grouped together and had to one by one go into an office and show the officer our papers and the serial number on the gun then have loading crew come and take them onwards. This included a dummy musket, I suppose it takes same space and they need to check it is a dummy.

At the other end were the police who met the muskets as they were received and again serial numbers were checked, but it was a little less formal and quicker. On the way back it was repeated but the Malta guys were not bothered about serial numbers which was good as it's a pain getting them in and out of a hardcase with other gear. The Police were very friendly and the main firearms guy was working overtime to cope with us all. So it was all okay, if more time consuming. Outside we were loaded into an army truck and taken to the drop off point between the two 'camps'.

Life in Fort St Angelo.  

This was my digs for the week. A massive fort built up over the ages on an ancient site and besieged in 1565 and bombed in WWII and now I had the honour of sleeping on its floor. My first three nights were in a little look out tower overlooking the escarpment up to the entrance, which was cool but sometimes a bit noisy due to the street and people on the massive posho yachts below. So I retreated to an alcove further in for the second half of the week.

The fort was a bit over subscribed, I opted to sleep out but bodies kept appearing throughout the first few days, the rooms actually felt a bit stuffy, might have had the small blessing of being mosquito free however. For a change I used the showers, hose pipes in a tunnel with cold water but still very welcome and made you feel most revived after a long day! one shower was at two a.m. after being woken up by bad pop music.
Helping with logistics I was quite annoyed by the attitude of a few of the people in the fort, the organisers were trying their best but stuff was often late, such as water, this was a re-enactment event run by reenactors, not a business you paid for.  listening to someone complaining that there group had no water I just wanted to tell them that if they were that desperate get two of your men to walk five minutes down the road and buy a few bottles to tide you over, what are you? Children?! Call yourselves soldiers!? use some initiative!

Walking into Valetta after the Philomena battle, the scenery really made me think that this wasn't Kansas anymore, must of been pretty gruelling for a campaign with 18th century logistics.

Could be Egypt!

The Battle of Mistra bay. Because of an eye injury caused by some gritty sand getting caught in my eye I only did the Tuesday and Wednesday battle, local health centre sorted it but it was a bit of a rough night on Friday. 
This battle was memorable indeed, we marched round a sandy coastal track to the base of a sloping hill that was covered in broken ground, all shrubs, thorns and white ragged rocks, really no gaps between the three and occasional small seams/chasms near the cliff face.. oh did I mention one flank was a cliff dropping into the sea below? 
We started by swinging round and advancing on a building/ditch held by the Maltese and traded a few vollies before a brief charge where I nabbed an enemy hat (which I duely returned). This was repeated and I noticed the fray only went up to a low wall so ran along it to get behind the defenders, who then surrendered.

Rock hopping up the hill whilst trying to remain in formation was interesting. ''staighten the line!' er no, there is two foot hole full of cactus! Half way up it seemed the enemy were finished and many sat in defeat on the rocks. But no, we were off again against a fighting retreat with pot shots against us
from the bluffs.

Then began a long march, the sort that becomes a chore but in retrospect you remember more warmly. I think a twenty minute wait in ranks riled more people as at least whilst moving you think each step is getting you somewhere. Finally, a town square! Civilisation, food, drink, steps to sit on, local music and a conga!

Malta itself. I've never been to Malta before and very much enjoyed it. The architecture is fantastic, sandstone mostly, with balconies, and towers and engravings, and nearly everything is at least three or four floors to maximise space. At almost any time of the day you will hear bells or cannons, dont ask why. Culture seems a blend of the best parts of Italian and English. England of course occupied Malta right up to the last century and red phone boxes, three pin plug sockets, zebra crossings, etc bare this out. Most signs are in English and even I didn't feel bad just speaking it as first language, instead of a token fail at the lingo.

Food involved a lot of bread and pasties, the main source of carbohydrate, when goats cheese, fish and salad seemed another theme. You need stuff to keep you going, I thought I was eating well but lost weight in just a few days.

Cisk (ch-isk) is the local beer and the default if you are not fussy, sorry selective.. to me it had a plastic tang but was tolerable if served very cold. I preferred the Farsons light ales (same company). Kinnie is also a must try, a soft drink of orange and herbs, rather flowery with a hint of dandelion and burdock.

Weather was hot! You can begin a walk feeling fine but after ten minutes get a drop of sweat run down your face, two minutes later you'll be perspiring head to foot.  There was often a cool breeze of the sea and the tall buildings shade the streets.
Public transport is cheap, but the island has a problem with so many cars on a small island, if a ferry is an option go by sea! 

A day with the Royal marines (Czech/German group).

Dawn over the battlements, looking out to sea for over 2000 years.

Conclusion: a great time overall, nice to fight on different terrain Vs a more irregular enemy. Overall felt more like a holiday with friends in hats than a campaign, but then I was signed off for a bit. Would happily go back, I didn't really get to see the local museums, this was a big event, twenty years since the 200th anniversary but smaller events occur every now and then. 
Sitting here now I'd love to just teleport back for a stroll, or a water taxi, into town for a beer, even if it was a Cisk.

Friday, 25 May 2018

To Arms at Four Arms.

Such a long time, eight months! as last season ended a bit early and this one started a bit late.

                                                             QUATRE BRAS!

or as I have seen it too often 4 Bras, what is that? text speak? are we going to have Wtrloo 2020 or Lpzg?

The actual battle was on 16 June whilst to the East Napoleon fought the Prussians at Ligny, having been given a drubbing here Wellington fell back to a little place called Waterloo.
For us it was a great site based around a period barn not far from the crossroads with the remains of a wall and impressive gate, the barn itself was huge and had the tavern and a stage set up in it.

The line of trees at the top end of the camp I came to call the rain trees as I made my bed there on the first night, which was a bit of a nippy one, and woke up a couple of times thinking it was raining but it was just the breeze in the trees, others thought this also.

After breakfast, powder collection, filling cartridges and a browse at the traders it was drill on an amusingly sandy, bumpy, ploughed field.
Since last autumn I have had what turned out to be 'Frozen shoulder' on the left. Still I could load and fire a musket without much impediment, or so I thought until after about half an hour of drill.
it's common to get a slight ache from carrying a musket at porte arms.. over the left shoulder but this was a proper pain possibly because the arm has been used less but it felt like a bit more than that and when I moved to advance with bayonet forward I physically couldn't reach the right point with my left arm and wavered, for most of the time after that it was my right arm baring the weight. I will have to see how it goes.

Many of us had been looking forward to a long route march with a skirmish but those going would have been split up into two other units, one of which was lead by an Officer some of us have no respect for.. so as a unit we did a commemoration instead. Everyone on the bus! 

Later, the first battle! It was good to see so many Dutch-Belgians and Brunswickers.. although for a while it was just hearing them as the fighting raged beyond the crest.

The cannons boomed and everything was hazed with smoke. The British appeared marching to join the battle.. and we were also advanced down the slope to meet them. Who won Quatre Bras is debatable, often cited as a French strategic victory as the allies were forced to retreat but as an allied tactical victory as there was no breakthrough. For me Ney's inactivity in the morning when the outnumbered largely Dutch-Belgian force could have been overwhelmed cost the whole campaign.

It was played out quite well, the allies retreating from the field but the French in no rush to get forward, I wonder how the same battle would have gone as a UK reenactment.

Another misty morning and a but more leisurely, still more drill.

Again to battle, the calm before the storm of sitting or standing in a corn field, bar a few guns we were first brigade up, it was by now very sunny and when the battle started we were soon advancing.

Vollies were traded and we went forward, being in the front rank I didn't see the rest of the column behind me but the whole French attack rolled down the hill to smash a thin line, and then..

You know the end of Month Python and the holy grail? It was a bit like that, the bloke representing Ney and his entourage got between us and a few riflemen and went ' Non, non, this is not in the script! Turn round, go back to going back and forth. You can't do something that interesting! (n.b. They didn't really say this, nor was he shot by the rifles about five yards behind him).

I had decided to become a casualty near the end, next time a skirmisher popped off a shot.. but each time there was a misfire.. click! and so I lived to see another day.

I have one of those burnt in memories of the cavalry racing up the slope as some infantry marched down just by them.. but the pictures don't do justice, no motion and.. you can really see they are a motley bunch except for a few dragoons and one of them is a reversed colours musician.. it was a bit like that with our own headwear.. a handful of blue pom poms.. a red plume, some red chords, no pom pom, a narrow green and yellow plume and a bog brush of a yellow and green one seemingly randomly scattered! I don't mind plumes as a subsection but imagine onlookers going 'Why has that one guy got that big thing on his head?' I have heard it said that plumes were expensive and for best parades and wouldn't normally be worn into a battle, but there you are.

Unfortunately for the 21eme there coach got stuck in the sand, digging itself in as a storm approached. Volunteers were called for.
I decided to pay a call on the British officers to solicit more help and they were more than obliging, although I wasn't amused at jokes suggesting I'd been dodging manual work, I got far more muscle involved than my own! 

Sadly all the pushing in the world, or at least in a small part of Belgium, could not triumph and a recovery vehicle was summoned.
Those obliged to wait in uncertainty at least got to join the rest of us in Free beer from the tavern for everyone, everything must go! 

'Stefan is thirsty.'

Beards came up a few times, the Dutch and Brunswickers in particular seemed to have a lot of big beards. Which can be controversial.

..and so the weekend drew to a close and we drove West.. next event in two weeks.. SOUTH.. very much south.. to Malta 1798-1800. Crikey, it seemed so far away when first mentioned and now, a week and a half! stay turned.