Wednesday, 28 May 2014

In an English country Garden. A F%^&ing Huge English country garden.

Painshill! Long anticipated by many due to the number of the unit coming as well as a joint birthday party in the evening sun, except for the pounding rain which people woke up to on the Saturday morning.

I'd packed most of my stuff the night before and this one did not require an early start so I sat on the train to Clapham Junction and then Leatherhead, perfecting the art of sitting (reasonably) comfortably whilst wearing a full pack. I met dear John Flapejacque at the station for the last leg of the trip. The rain returned as we started to try and put up the camp so there was a brief repose in the Offices tent (with biscuits) for those already on site as we waited for it to pass, and the sun indeed came out.

Tents and awnings up I had to chose a spot for my own canvas.. literally a sheet of tent canvas but (hopefully) enough to cover a recumbrent self and gear during inclement weather, other than a short sharp shower at Eastbourne I had been pretty lucky with the weather so far. This would be a fine test.

More familiar faces were arriving and some new ones (Hello Ian!). I wandered over to a big, low tree which I had considered as a Bivouac site to find a piquet of riflemen setting up, to keep an eye on the French! I had promised one of them some lovely brack bread that my wife had made in exchange for some hardtack biscuits. This might seem a one sided exchange but I wanted to try them. Gosh, they are tough, to snap one in half you have to put some oomph into it and chewing one is labourious, they taste abit like someone had condensed five rivita into one.I plan to keep the one I've got left to see how long it remains edible.. or weevils emerge.

That night was party night as two of our unit had 100 years of birthday between them to celebrate and soon the barbeque was smoking and the beer barrels were staved in, just to be cliche there were also frogs legs and snails going round. A great time was had, but nothing silly, really.

I certainly slept well that night. Painshill park is a large landscape garden and another great thing about renactment is you get invited to stay in these places and you can go for a wander before the place is even open to the public, I went for a walk in the morning sun and saw some lovely views.

After breakfast; drill and accreditation. The latter is basically making sure you know enough drill and firing procedures, especially in relation to health and safety, with firing you should be fine unless you either point the musket at someone or put your hand over the barrel when loading. Some units are a lot more formal than others, Ive seen one group giving out test papers, again each to their own.

By now there were more public around and we headed for lunch and to make up cartridges. Then it was form up for battle!
The battle area was long but looked fairly narrow being a roadway down a valley, opening up before a lake. We were turned instead up a track and onto the top of the hillside/ridge overlooking the roadway, behind some trees, and just besides the light artillery. It was going to be an Ambush!

The artillery opening the fire and the Voltigeurs of the 69th going forward firing, we soon advanced down the hill (apparently a bit late but the trees prevented us from seeing what was going on) and wheeled to give some volley fire before closing to melee and jeer at some redcoats 'You woudn't hit a man with glasses would you?' I asked my opposite number as we locked muskets 'No, would you?' 'oh No' 'Okay, lets just tusssle on the spot, raaaaagh!'

Being pushed back we wheeled and faced a formed up unit of riflemen who gave some excellent vollies that should really have swept a lot of us from the field but our lives had to be conserved, later it was agreed we should at least have a couple of blokes (probably non firers) fall out wounded, if only to stagger up again. My section went into open order and firing at will until we dropped back and were promptly charged by the Rifles.. we were to take some casulaties, so faced by two of the Green devils I went down. All I could see from then on was grass but apparently we won!

Back at camp it was time to clean muskets, the full monty. It was nice to be able to help people who had not done this before, even though I was in that very camp myself at Hoogstraten. Another pleasant evening drew in with food and drink and games and sing songs. It is great that everyone comes together and whilst the 21st century does make an appearance after joe public has gone home it is still camp activities that would not have been out fo place in the day (except the water ballooons maybe) that go on, people don't slope off to watch TV on an ipad or make long phonecalls or even read books and most of us ended up sitting round the fire chatting, singing and playing word games.

Earlier in the evening  it had been proposed that a small patrol go out at the crack of dawn to infiltrate the British camp and give the Riflemen on piquet duty something to do.. James and I even did a recce up a track through the woods that came out at the back of the British camp so that we could infiltrate, it felt like a real espionage operation and as we were in our whites we might not even be recognised as French.. although Im sure this was only in our minds.. we even took our hats off... Ideally we would be able to fire a few shots and I loved the idea of sleepy British in their tents going 'What the..? are we under attack or something? sound the muster!' but sadly the Rifles Sergeant asked his guys and they were not up for another night of piquet duty. Maybe another time.

I retired to my bed and at some point became aware of water on my face, I had wiggled out of the top of my canvas and it was just starting to rain.. then grew heavier. I struggled to pull everything under the waterproof cover, my pack was already my pillow but I grew in my breadbag and any of my coat that was poking out, and made sure my musket (behind me, in its bag, was all tucked in) and so got back to sleep with the sound of rain falling just by my ears ,though I discovered the top of my bonnet de police had escaped and got quite damp, oh and my pom pom was soggy.  But overall I was pleased.

 Drill on the second day was largely practicing conversions from line to column and back again and everything seemed to go smoothly, drill on the second day of an event always seems to go better and my theory is that on the first day you are a lot more individually minded and perhaps overthink responses.. by day two you are acting as a unit and reacting with less forethought, your memory of the French commands is also back in place too, recognising the command even if you don't know what the actual words are.

For me the second battle was also better, despite the rainy conditions I didn't have any problems firing off quite a few rounds, and there is a real satisfaction in getting to fire half a dozen rounds off in a stretch. Suddenly we were under attack by cavalry, we have never practiced forming square because for practical reasons unless you have atleast two ranks of four on each side (32 men) it just looks more like a 'A huddle' so instead we simply turn the rear rank about and present muskets, a Hussar attacked me and Duncan (the officer) and I crossed muskets with his sabre before he galloped off to try elsewhere.
                          The Corporal scouts ahead.. cavalry can be seen in the distance.

After this we were charged by redcoats, losing quite a few men but falling back before they came on again before I bought it.  I think I have died in every battle I've been in.. as a non-firer you are often asked to be amongst the casualties so the firing people can put on a show till the last (and pretending to fire is much more obvious when not camouflaged by the smoke of others). Now I think I've come to see it as a volunteering thing for the good of the event. You hear both sides grumble sometimes about how 'the other side refused to die' but I suspect it is more to do with confusion and keeping numbers up for a while than stubborness on most peoples part.

After the battle there were still quite a few public about but the weather and the main event being over they soon seemed to melt away and word came that we could pack up camp, everyone really pulled together and seemed to just get on with doing something and it wasn't long till cars were pulling up and damp canvas' stowed away with pots and pans and chairs and muskets and shakoes and blankets and everything else. Au revoir!

I really enjoyed this event and felt at the end I'd reached a bit of a plateau, that I wasn't a newbie anymore.. I think because I'd been able to help some of the new guys I realised how much I'd picked up myself and on both drill days I'd managed not to blunder into anyone or turn the wrong way and even when using the twiddly ramrod felt I was firing a little bit quicker.
On the way home I was felt almost oblivious to being in kit, having had it on for three days, often amongst the public, it just felt so normal. I just wanted to sit on the train and zone out however a chap asked if he could take a photo which I was more than happy to oblige, and he noted the train was the 18.12. He was an Elvis impersonator from East Croydon and we had a good chat, me going into my store of 'fascinating facts' about the hobby and the history.

Good days.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Going Dutch. Part 2.

More coffee and crepes and Drill.

I  went and did some sketching, I like to draw a quick scene or two at every event but also I like it as a camplife scene and members of public often stop and look, I had several chats with members of public. Then went and tested out musket. Yep, all was well.

Battle. Day 2.  Started much as yesterday, a cavalry charge down the field, then an artillery duel! Exept the heavy horsemen from the charge had formed up just a few feet infront of us and those horses were skittish and downright going-round-in-circles-ish about the big guns. An accident of one sort or another was expected, but not forthcoming.

We advanced over to the left side of the field where the British were coming up. As practiced in drill some of us went forward in skirmish order, and I immediately let loose at a rifles officer. There is a real change in mindset when skirmishing, released from the ranks, an individual aiming at an individual. However I had ballsed up as skirmishers work in pairs and the forward one is meant to wait for the rear one to have loaded up. D'oh!  I knew this from drill just this morning but battle is not a drill and things you should know or have practiced can just slip away under 'presure'. About two minutes later I did it again. Impetuous fool!

We rejoined the main unit and began to fall back, just as we did so I looked down the field and saw a Red lancer charge up to a British square and make a deftly lunge that struck a redcoat in the stomach, pitching him forward as she raced away.. it was one of those moments that sticks in your mind.

Soon we all climbed into an almost waist high ditch between fields and started firing on the advancing foe, another novelty of the battle. When we fell back further still we were charged by the Black Brunswickers, however they had to clear said ditch to attack which somewhat through them into disarray and it was them that got bundled backwards.

However the end was nigh and we mostly went down in a rush of jeering redcoats. Forming up from the dead and wounded the crowds cheered everyone as we marched from the field.

Soon after I went to investiate the traders tents and bought a plate, some flints and a pocket watch (well, a battery powered one for 20 euros but looks good). I should mention I had my new glasses for this event, having had no joy from major chains being able to fit lenses to the olde spectacles I'd got on ebay I went to a small local optician (Rayner and Taylor) and they supplied and fitted prescription lenses for £50.

Another night of socialising around the campfires, after the cold of the night before I nipped into my tent (yes, you read correctly, John lent me a tent) and began to put some extra socks and undergarments on.. when from the heavens a voice called out 'They're giving away free beer at the beer tent!'
Sans one gaiter and holding a shoe I put my head out to ask everyone what was going on, but they had already gone! So I slipped the shoe back on and followed on. Naturally there was a great atmosphere at the beer tent whilst it lasted.  People seemed to have enjoyed the Sunday battle more, I don't know what makes one battle better than another, maybe today went smoother after a 'practice run' or folk got to do something a bit different like jump in and out of ditches or scrabble at Swiss guardsmen on a big wooden platform.. perhaps sometimes things just come together well. Everything about the event was friendly and well organised.

Next morning those who remained straggled together, John and I brought the tents down and packed and went into town in search of breakfast.
I was glad we did, there had not really been time to sample the area and we found an open cafe for coffee and a Croque Boer. Also in there was one of the organisers who showed us that the event was on the front of the local paper and that numbers of participants and spectators had exceeded all original plans. He also told us of a memorial event coming up for a British bomber that crashed in 1944, some of the crew survived and his uncle had hidden one of the airmen in a small house, not far from where we had camped. History is never far away.
Outside a local man came up and shook our hands and thanked us for coming. This was a touching way to end our time in Hoogstraten. I doubt it was a battle I would have got to if not for being a 200th anniversary thing, but who knows, maybe another year..

Going Dutch. Part 1.

.....Check I've got passport and all gun-related paperwork..... Check. Do other stuff. Divide between clothes and backpack stuff. Check I've got passport and all gun-related paperwork.... Check. Pack gadgets and medicinals. Go to bed. Get up early and get dressed. Check I've got passport and all gun related paperwork. Check. Repeat.... check. Leave house.

The plan was to get the train to Dover (changing at Eastborne and Ashford international). First thing I learnt was carrying a musket bag slung over your shoulder will keep undoing your gaiters. With each leg of the voyage completed in time the better I felt (and was invited into the platform office at Ashford as the manager, who used to be in the marines, wanted to have a look at the musket, again not out of any security concern just being interested)..

Met John Flapejaques and away. A gendame waved us through but we thought we should stop and do the whole security thing with the guns, which went fine, some of those behind us got quite a grilling apparently, despite quite a number of reenactors going through.
and yes, I still had my passport and gun-related paperwork, incase you were expecting disaster. We were away across the sea!

                        No one thought I was 'Nelson'.. perhaps it was the lack of a hat.

About five hours later we arrived at Hoogstraten! in Holland, I think, it all tends to blend together.
The battle of Hoogstraten is usually thought of as the 11th of January, that was when a largely Prussian force attacked the French and eventually pushed them back but the campaign to hold Antwerp lasted right up to Napoleon's abdication, and thus this weekend (2nd - 4th May).

The camp filled a good size field and was all together and only a pistol shot from the battlefield, and really well organised, water, straw, toilets, info tent, string laid out for tent positions by row.

That evening there was a torchlit parade, well it was a setting sun lit parade really, or at least almost. All forming up around the Townhall/Church. A unit of Netherlanders formed the troop of honour yet received a bit of joshing from the French for there shout of 'Vive Le Roi'. Splitters! Haven't these guys been pretty-much-Frenchmen since 1798?

The next morning saw a somewhat longer parade, more through bemused locals backstreets, to a Church that had seen heavy fighting back in the day and is the planned site of a memorial to the fallen. Again, there was a short speech, I say short but when translated into a dozen languages it was not nearly so brief. Sadly my shako lining was coming loose and slipping over my eyes, I tried using my ears to prop it on but this merely bent my ears.. on the way back I put it on my musket to carry but was told this was a no-no as putting your shako/hat on the end of your musket apparently signifies you have been wounded.
This did make me think.. I presume they meant historically that was the case, so I should not do it as I am not wounded.. or it was disrespectful to those who were?..yet surely such a notion could apply to most things done by reenactors?

And so to the battle, day 1. We marched on to be met by some locals.. dressed as 1814 locals and trying to shoo us away with pitchforks and reproachful language. Then all formed up as the French cavalry charged down the field.. and soon returned as a cannonade started.. making me reflect on the old saying 'there are no athiests in a foxhole'. I was soon distracted however by the rough going underfoot, a field not ploughed too long ago, repleat with tall grass and old stalks.
Time to fire! FIRE!    Nothing. Something blocking the touch hole. Being proud of my still fairly new musket I had cleaned it after Felixstowe and then again a few days before the battle, however I was seemingly quite ignorant of how much powder gets caked down the barrel, I suppose I imagined the blast violently emptied it quite effectively. Not so. and it seemed the gun oil had made it co-agulate. Worse, my attempt to clean it had left a scrap of cloth down there too!  After the battle I learnt how to take the whole thing apart and what a wormer was as well as other handy things to have, like fine sandpaper for removing the inevitable rust.. I felt guilty finding rust on the barrel but it also turns out this is pretty much unavoidable unless you are out in the desert steppes.
Anyhoo, I pretended to give a few volleys but then got picked off by a stray shot behind a barricade having passed my cartridges on to my comrades, who still ran out.

After the above musket maintenance it was time for beer and lovely camp food, I'd once again been on my bread diet since leaving England. Hot Cassoulet!  The beer tent also sold 'Waterloo Beer' with a label marked 'Quite a strong beer.' which also amused me in a kind of mild English understatement kind of way.  As French of course we could not understand why it was called 'The Beer of victory.'
Later there was a show put on, all shadows and trumpets and parping. Went down well.

Having later fallen asleep and toppled liked a felled tree off my seat by the campfire I coincidently decided it was time for bed.
It was rather nippy by the early hours. Returning to English understatement. and I eventually got up to rebuild the camp fire, there was only one other fire going, besides which sat a chap from the Prussian Landwehr. I had already got into the habit of trying several greetings on people as you can never tell where someone is from, I had asked a full on Scots highlander earlier if the 79th were here only to discover he was not from Glasgow but Scharnhoff-Altenein-Regensbaad.  This chap, Markus, however was a German and I managed to cadge a light and soon had a lovely fire going.

I had a feeling it was going to be a grand day...