Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Two years on.

Wollaton park was my first event two years ago, though it feels like longer than that. I arrived in slightly overcast spring weather to a group of strangers putting up tents in the early afternoon, one of the first was Duncan, our officer who I had only been in contact with by e-mail, and I introduced myself. This time the only difference was those people are friends instead of strangers. How would this weekend compare?

But first we travel back to the day before.. packing.

I decided to pack my havesack as close to what would have been carried and in the order prescribed in T.E. Crowdy's 'Napoleon's infantry handbook'.. except that I don't quite have everything, no selection of brushes, a martinette.. or a button stick.. infact I don't know what a button stick is? but no matter, my phone charger, a medicines bag and a bottle of cognac would probably sustitute quite well in filling in. The idea grew whilst reading to take the rations listed.. or a close approximation.. so it was two small artisan loaves, a large onion, a meat ration.. quorn in this case but the protein is still there! a small amount of cheese and a bag of flour.  I vowed to eat nothing else for three days. I was also now the proud owner of a small iron frying pan which I was keen to try out, I never thought owning a frying pan would make me happy.

According to the book and general sources only one loaf went in the havesack so the second had to be transported by other means, one method was to pass a string through the bread and wear it as a bandolier but this was not popular as dirt, dust, rain and general damage could foul the bread.. so? this to me is another reason why 'bread bag haters' are mistaken, on top of the reasons stated in a previous post here was another common sense reason why a real person would aquire one for the march. Obviously those who cry over the authenticity of carrying a bread bag keep theres in the back of the volvo and pop back to the car park for it when required or on the way back from the chip shop.

So when I arrived the weather was overcast and this soon became rain. Being a bank holiday a particularly doom filled weather forecast had been made and it was looking set to prove true. I had brought my canvas bivouac/sheet and quickly stowed anything I wanted kept dry under it and put on my great coat.  By three o'clock the British were drilling. The French were drinking.

I had a picture taken of my first time in uniform two years ago and I tried to get a similar shot this time (on the sunny second day).. except this time it is a real musket and all the kit is mine!

 That night after a day of bread nibbling I cooked my first.. pancake?  water, flour and onion fried up along with a ration of 'meat'. I enjoyed it very much. Most folk had gone to the pub to eat and I went down and joined them for a pint later, the same pub as two years ago. Amusingly the French had taken over one side and the British the other, although I was quite happy to cross the lines and chat with some riflemen I knew about World war one poetry.

Then it was back to camp, after scaling the wall around the deerpark, and I huddled under my cover trying mainly to keep my gear from poking out the edges, and soon fell asleep.  I woke up to pouring rain drumming above my ears and found my bonnet had slipped off and was now soggily outside. I feel like I got back to sleep quickly but suspect it wasn't quite that soon or that easy, and then woke up again when it was the top of my head that escaped and I found my pack/pillow also damp. it was about 4 o/c and I decided discretion was the better part of valor and should at least put the gear I wanted to keep dry in a tent. I had kindly had several offers, two of the tents were empty. Whilst moving gear I decided to have a lie down and deployed a special silk under-blanket which packs up to the size of a fist but made quite a difference and..   Zzzzzzzzzz.

Day two: When ducks march about your camp you know its going to be a wet start. Platoon drill began at nine and I still had my greatcoat on, with full pack as I considered field drill was best done in what you would have on the field. indeed if everyone had packs they would allow for it in their movements and of those around them, especially when turning about face.My shoulders were quite achey by the end.
There followed battalion drill with the other units, and a battalion commander who was not well received with his grand and seemingly convoluted plans. things like this cause a marked increase in funny comments and wisecracks in the ranks, not in ear shot of the man in the big hat but I wonder if he was at all aware of the sighing and tittering. We already have drill to cover the maneavers we had to try but apparently the organisers of Waterloo 200 have some quite specific ideas so it is not really the fault of Monsieur big hat.

Time for Battle! except not quite, the main battle was still over an hour away but the idea was that a prolonged skirmish would act as a built up, quite a big skirmish.. with a lot of line units being fed in.
The problem with this was keeping up momentum, and the public interest, and also not using up all our cartridges before the main battle.
I was not actually firing but had been given the honour of carrying our Eagle, The Emperor was present and gave a rousing speech on the steps of Wollaton hall with myself and the Eagle bearers of the 21st and 85th standing before him. Then into the fray. The sun had come out. Vive L'Empeurer!

There was a real see-saw of one side advancing and trading fire and falling back, we deployed two lines in skirmish order, the front rank took position, fire! 
Not a single shot went off, if this was a wargame it would have been like rolling for five shots and getting five 1s.  Misfire. Wry Embarrasment.
The battle was stalling at one point so that we decided to go down again and sting them into action. Immediately after whch Monsieur Big Hat arrived on the scene and decided that we should go down and sting them into action... but the main body of redcoats was finally coming onto the field, along with quite a few cavalry which caused us to form square, or rather, huddle. 

                                                   Form L'Uddle! picture by Paul Pearson.

An ominous black cloud had appeared and suddenly the sun was eclipsed and a smattering of sleet swept across the field as if it had been waiting for the main battle to make its own dramatic entry.

Carrying the Eagle gives you a different perspective, when firing you are very much caught up in your own work and what your own gun is doing but holding the Eagle when suddenly four muskets are arrayed around your head increases your sensibility to noise and flash. Also I could pick out what people were doing.. looking at the skirmish line I noticed who had their feet in the right positions and who had let it slip. I had a more peripheral view like being half spectator and half participant.
I also noted how when things get heated, the blood is up, and quick actions are needed that things slip a little, people get flustered and make mistakes, the Officer and NCOs are put under presure to keep an eye open and stamp out errors or slips in formation, but the general effect is those in the ranks hurry to do what they grasp as what they should be doing and do it in haste, only to go wrong. Feeding the cycle. What is needed is a command of 'Okay, everyone take three deep breaths, and relaaaax.'

The day was going our way, and we advanced. A small group of British lay ahead, already with casulaties from our fire, and we moved to sweep them from the field. About five of them were left and I had twelve soldiers around me, muskets extended, advance!  I was just thinking of where I should fall back to (as I had in the skirmish line) if the Brits didn't run, although I saw no danger when a sudden shouting in my ear ordered me back away from the brief fray, it was all a bit confused for a moment after that, but apparently we had won. The British had somewhat begrudgingly retreated, almost as if no one had told them they were losing today.

That night after another water-flour-onion pancake.. except I was short of water so improvised with cognac... people gravitated to round the fires as night fell, and talk gave way to singing, including quite a few monty python songs. There was then a fantastic rendition of 'My bonny light horseman' by Issy with Mimi joining in on the choruses, two people who can sing properly, it was a memorable moment indeed and the whole camp seemed to have fallen silent but for these voices.

It was warmer (read as 'not as cold') and dryer than the previous night and I retired to bed under the stars, however I first decided to put my musket in one of the empty tents incase the rain came back, one of the ten commandments of German paratroopers used to be 'My weapon, then myself.' and I see no reason why it should be any different for a French soldier.

Monday morning proceeded much the same as the day before, I discovered the main use for a bayonet was to stick food on the end of so you can cook it.. John was enticing me with crepes but I resisted. Black gritty coffee and lightly toasted bread hunk it was.
My stomach did rumble alot that morning however, the diet and regime was getting to me, my stomach felt tight, as did my legs and I think a soldier of the time with that diet and that drill would have been a toughened up individual, certainly with less fat, if any.. although lacking in his 'five a day.'  If you were gluten intolerant you'd be dead in a fortnight.

A trooper from the 85th arrived and asked if we had an officer with us, a few British had advanced into no man's land between camps with a white flag. No officer's were available so as I was in full kit and armed I thought I should go forth and see what they wanted. Apparently it was quite an amusing sight from the top of the slope to see me marching alone into the field toward a gaggle of allied officers. They wanted a parley, the game plan had changed, but when I turned our Officers were already coming down the hill and I stood by on guard as they spoke together.

Nigel and I stood around during lunch and did some chatting and photo taking with the public, a Chinese girl kept telling me how cute my glasses were, I'm sure she meant sexy but it must have got lost in translation.
I definitely have my collection of 'interesting facts' for the public, grouped into weapons (including going through loading precedure), tents/camps, food and why the French are generally great and why you should join them.. you'd look fantastic in blue!

Battle 2. After yesterday the build up was reduced in time and troops, with just the piquet lines sniping at each other.  I was one of the initial piquets, when I informed our officer the rifles had come forwards I rather think he fancied I was going to go off back down the hill again.
After a while spent kneeling in the sun eyeing the enemy it did become time to fire, I really wanted to do the skirmish line properly, giving the word when loaded and ready, keeping my feet in the right firing positions. It is easy when 'let off the loose' to forget about foot positions when loading and firing. I was also pleased to get a couple of rounds off as I had not fired my dear musket since last year, but all was in order and soon the marching columns came up.

                                                  Here come the reds! photo by Alan Balding.

We formed up and I was on the front corner file, we traded shots with green and red coats down the slope and advanced. I had a misfire, no spark, cleaned frizzen and touchhole but no spark still, and I could see the edge of my flint had snapped and had to be replaced. I had just started when we were ordered to fall back up the hill, and I was quite proud that I managed to complete changing a flint whilst marching backwards in formation. My musket was back in action at the next order to fire, however we had been told to start taking casualties and I got hit soon after by a redcoat and fell forwards. Time to listen to the battle now. Our cantinere came forward to offer water to the wounded and dying and promptly poured water all over my head as the cork came out the bottle, I tried not to laugh too much although it could have been interpretted as my death rattle.

 I was rather surprised when the order for 'The dead shall rise' came over, it all seemed over so quickly, especially compared to yesterday, and so we formed up and gave some cheers for the audience and marched up the hill for the last time.

There was another hour until authorised packing up time so I put myself back by the road to chat with any curious passers by, including a woman carrying an owl, yesterday someone had a parrot, maybe taking your bird to the park is a done thing in Nottingham.  Several stags had also wondered through the camp at various times.

Ironically as the man with the least to pack I ended up being one of the last to get away, kindly in the van with a couple of the Sappeurs and miners and Marley the dog, heading south through heavy rain and folk ending their bank holiday away trips. At midnight I was sinking into the bath with a hot cup of tea. Aaaah.

Tonight I sleep like a General!

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