Saturday, 31 January 2015

Like minded pursuits.

It is a given when you get into reenactment that your fellows will have certain shared interests.. most obviously the era you portray.. and probably military history in general for the soldiers maybe a larger slice of social history and domestic practices for the non-combat roles.. most love the whole era, why else would you want to emerse yourself in it?

This is of course the off season and some friends in another unit regularly have war gaming days as a time to meet up and do something both Napoleonic and sociable.  It is something I have done for over twenty years and many people in reenactment seem to enjoy it, it is one of those like minded pursuits and many a friend at events as sidled over and said 'So you like wargames too?' and a discusion of what, who and where I play develops, and who are the best miniature makers, and game systems.. etc etc

 Since I started out in the 45eme I have naturally painted a number of my French troops as such and knowing the uniform inside out has changed the painting.. how ever did I think that cuffs were green or just fill in the blanks with whatevr colour felt right. TCH.
I had also wondered how in wargames blocks of troops could move diagonally without becoming entangled, not forward, about face, then forward again.. now I know for sure, I've done it in drill and when I move a battalion off at an angle I see all these feet going 'Left foot Step forward, Step out right 45 degrees, step forward, step out right 45 degrees.. step forward..  etc.  It all goes together.

A chap called John being Napoleon at Salute, at the time I didn't know I would one day be marching behind him through the streets of London.

Another hooby has come out for me since starting is my own modest collection of nik naks from the era.. coins, buttons, musket and pistol balls..  I am fascinated by where they might have come from. If only they could speak!  One coin is Russian and from 1812, how did it get to England? Maybe its story is completely mundane and it just passed to a merchant for some potatos and got carried back in amongst other coins by mistake. or maybe it was freshly minted in Moscow just in time for the Grande Armee to occupy the city and got carried back on the grim retreat inside the seam of a soldiers coat, only for him to be sent to Spain in 1813 and be killed in action, only for a redcoat to cut his jacket open for loot and take it, eventually back to blighty, and eventually to an antique shop.. and then to me..  Who knows?

There is also a map that was given away with an American newspaper so its readers could follow the war in Europe in 1809, and a 45eme button.. which strangely sell for more than a lot of other units.. a medallion issued for the return of Napoleon's body and my recent 'Waterloo medal' given out free by the Royal mint. The box I keep them in was made by a French prisoner of war, a prisoner with a craft would make things to try and raise some pocket money by selling them on to locals, bone and straw were common free materials and I have seen some wonderful things made of them.. like a finely carved sailing ship complete with human hair to make the rigging and rope lines..

My favourite item is a snuff box sent from Spain, I got it cheap because the lid is missing and plan to try and fashion a top myself. It is made from bone and has been etched/painted in a style called scrim-shaw and it is the picture that gets me, a man walking away from a woman, as if he has turned his back and must make a long voyage.. was this the actual man who carved the box and his wife? The costumes they wear are apparently typical of Holland/Low countries.. was he conscripted to fight with the French and sent to spain where he became a prisoner?  What was his ultimate fate? This sort of thing really connects me with the people and their lives.

Somewhere near Aachen at the moment a Prussian cannon ball is sitting in a courier depot waiting to wing its way to me. Found in the 80s by a German school teacher apparently in park land almost equidistant from Waterloo and Ligny. Which battle was it fired in?.. or was it one of the last shots of the day on 18th of june as the French fled the field? or maybe just abandoned by a lazy crewman on the muddy road..  again, who knows.

If I ever win the lottery (I suppose I'd have to buy a ticket first) I'd love to collect Swords and pistols and curiosities.. and maybe have a private museum in one wing of the house. Until then I shall enjoy my little box of nik-naks. 

Keeping up appearances.

There was a grand event last week called 'The Duchess of Richmond's Ball' (named after the one preceding the battle of Waterloo) which was the same date as the Napoleonic Associations AGM, replacing the usual evening do for most purposes. It would have been tricky to get to and I'd just been in Bury St Edmunds the week before for the 45eme AGM.. but I feel I would not have wanted to go anyway.. because..

A) I'm French.
B) I'm a regular soldier.
C) I'm a scruffy so-and-so.

Of course it is for fun and a private event and there is nothing to stop a private French soldier or an Eygptian Mamaluke or a hairy Cossack or an Austrian Lieutenant General from attending but I just wouldn't feel right. As I said before I do tend to take on sympathetic views from being a regular soldier.. like Cavalry are a load of flash gits and the Old guard are a hugely overpaid mob who get the best of everything and half the time just stand at the back and look important..

Some people do have more than one uniform, possibly just for such occasions and possibly one of higher rank, or a civilian outfit or posh frock... and I confess after my brief turn as an acting Officer at Amherst I was tempted to get a fancy hat and a Swarzburg-Sonderhausen Captain's uniform jacket incase anything like it happened again or as a just-for-fun-social-ocassion-non-regiment outfit. It might be fun if a unit like the 79th Highlanders were having a (French free) event I was free for to pop along and be a German officer on Liason.
Swarzburg-Sonderhausen were a minor German state that formed part of the Confederation of the Rhine, they fought besides the French but changed sides in 1813... Also no one reenacts them so I would not be treading on anyones toes or have to worry about anyone pointing out if I'd got the cuff buttons wrong etc.

I could also go to the ball and swan around as a 'proper officer' and put on a bad German accent.  Maybe next year!

Also my uniform is very much not suited to a dress occasion, with patched up trousers and currently a few missing buttons.. uniformity was brought up at our unit AGM and I felt for a bit like I was running against my inherent views by encouraging uniformity.. mainly that the overall look of the unit would be improved by everyone having black gaiters and chords/pom pom on shako. A few folk seemed to think this meant parade ground uniformity but NO, that was not it at all, and I hope that got across. I love the little differences and accoutrements people carry. When we set up a camp we shouldnt be looking like we live in a brick built permanent barracks. We are troops in the field!

I was also not aware that Napoleonic is reenactment is considered to be (relatively) one of THE MOST EXPENSIVE eras to do, and that when someone doing English civil war or Confederate Americans proposes doing Napoleonic it gets greeted with comments about 'Deep pockets' and 'second mortgages'. Having come straight in to Napoleonic I never really thought about it, suits of armour are incredibly expensive (and so is a German half track..) but I suppose most medievals start off with just the togs, a halberd and a helmet.

..anyway if you excuse me I have to record my measurements for future events as the King of Bavaria...

Monday, 12 January 2015

Authenticity III

I do feel I am a 'good' reenactor, I have made an effort to get kit together and do it as authentically as I can (yet without being an authenticity nazi, or stitch nazi.. see below), get to a reasonable number of events each year and be keen to help out, and talk to the public. I wouldn't mind being an NCO in some distant future, I like looking after people, helping with kit, straightening things out, and I'm quite happy to shout in public but I'm not sure if my mind would ever hold onto the commands/maneuver techniques.

So what would a bad reenactor be? I suppose someone who unapologetically turns up in a pair of trainers, dosen't do their turn at washing up and most importantly is unsafe on the field, pointing/poking their musket/sword/horse/tank about and not being mindful of what/who is around them.

        "Ach, it is meant to be 1945 and this coffee has neither sawdust or ground acorns in it. Enjoying  it is making me very sad."

Stitch nazi is a term I heard yesterday, it goes beyond having the exact regulation kit into having it made from exacting materials, by hand, sewn in the right direction, probably by candlelight. This should be applauded but I ran into such an individual on line the other day when someone was asking about where to get kit, amid helpful links and advice the stitch Nazi was insistant on '100% museum relica quality, hand sewn, or it is simply no good.' and questioning every link posted.
This is fine. Good for him, his standards are high.. but people are already put off reenactment by the idea of it being a very expensive hobby, such demands would make a full kit ridiculously out of most peoples price range.

..and basically his tone was insulting. Everyone else is no good. Fools who want to play at soldiers and are ONLY interested in getting cheap gear.  Just enough to get by so they can run about going bang bang.  

Who do we do the hobby for?  ourselves. We love the historical period we adopt and enjoy the life at events with like minded people. We want to be authentic for ourselves and for our comrades in the unit, and wider society, but to me the stitch nazi ideal is someone only doing it for themselves. The majority of other reenactors will be almost as oblivious to the fact someones shirt is made from cotton weaved by hand by maidens in the south of France and that the inside hem of his trousers are sown counter clockwise instead of clockwise.. who is going to know? only the wearer.

I have seen several reenactors in their underpants.  What has been seen cannot be unseen.  and I dont think they were authentic 1809 undergarments, and thinking about it I dont actually know if people wore socks at the time...   Should we follow the young man belows example?  it is harder to flash in French fusilier kit though.

Quick google does not shed much light on this but I did find this on 'Russian socks' that date back to the Seven years war. Do you think it will catch on?

Just off to source some 1756 Lithuanian cotton (for summer) and Ukrainian flannel (for winter). At least I dont have to do any stitching!

A date with M Haricot.

Do I want to stay at Fort Amherst for a weekend of documentary film making (with Sean Bean!) with lots of friends, and an evening out.. YES PLEASE! This seemed like an event to look forward to, even the prospect of sleeping in an unheated brick and cobble guardroom in January seemed more of a challenge/experience than an unpleasantness. Off to Chatham!

So why, after the event, did I generally feel discontent.  Of every reenactment thing I've done this is the only one that generally left me with a feeling of disatisfaction afterwards, and I'm not entirely sure why.  There were many good times. This blog is meant to chart a journey into reenactment, and what long journey dosn't have ups and downs?  It would be remiss not to mention the odd down.

Now, I have done a little film work before and heard tales from others of standing about and being chivied from pillar to post so expected re-takes of everything and lots and lots of waiting. There is always  a lot of 'Hurry up and Wait' going on. Even having all marched up to a field at the top on a cold morning and then marching back after just standing about for three and a half hours didnt bother me. I'd had two free breakfasts.

                                                                waiting in a field.

The filming schedule was indeed a bit annoying and sometimes non sensical and even two breakfasts couldn't stop some grumbles even from me.. who had earlier chided others for moaning. They wanted a scene with a big French column marching out of the smoke with Mr Bean (not that one) in the middle but insisted on filming small interviews and such that could be done any time.. whilst it grew dark and people had to start leaving to get home. Then as we stood in the dark waiting we learnt Mr Bean was doing the whole photos thing now (instead of later as scheduled) and we arrived just in time to miss it. I tell myself I am not someone who cares about celebrity and never ask people for autographs. But I did feel more disappointed than I would care to admit. Which obviously I just have.

                        Sort of evidence of Sean Bean sighting. He doesn't half jump when a cannon goes off! I did later say Hi and he was amiable, he's really not one for small talk, or for that matter, talk.

But even without any of these I think my disatisfaction comes from having more than my usual number of feeling like an idiot moments. I expect most reenactors have them when they are starting out. One chap in our group had a mishap that burnt his hand whilst firing and was noticably shy of doing any firing for a time after that. But I should be beyond that.  It's been two years now. I should be able to follow commands, even in French, without my mind going blank or have to get the gist and copy everyone else. I usually recover from such moments but this did knock my confidence.

                                              Waiting in a cafe.

There were certainly many good moments too. Like watching the 45eme playground assault course and a dog that liked my beard, and getting to know some of the group I have not been at many events with more, and did I mention two breakfasts?

                                                                   not waiting, dancing.

I did sleep well, right through, in the luxury of a bunk bed with my big coat on, untroubled by cold or snoring. 

I was pleased to have the honour of carrying the Eagle throughout the weekend, which should be simple enough, but it has a habit of swivelling round to face the wrong way, being top heavy, and looking up during maneavers means a moment of distraction where if you dont hold your shako on at the same time it will fall off backwards, you also have to watch out for anything overhead, including everyones bayonet tipped muskets as they swing round and I did indeed learn which moves caused the most potential prangs and started countering them. (demi-turn to the right, fine. Demi-turn to the left; carefull!) The potential to carry the Eagle again would certainly give me an excuse to buy a sabre briquet (infantry short sword) after all if I must defend it with my life being armed would help, right?
                                                                      Waiting in a room.

On this occasion the only defending I had to do against the British was verbal.
'Could I just hold the Eagle for a moment and take it over to show those chaps.'
'You know me, please, Ive been bet a tenner I can't go back with it.'

Having the Eagle is also good if your a short arse and want to see where you are when it comes on the TV!

That will be the reward of the weekend, seeing us in the show, I only hope the footage is good and dosen't make us cringe. We shot an attack in column on day one with some Prussians baulstering the numbers.. whom on day two we supplied with French kit, but they then decided not to re-film so im sure history bods will be sat in front of the TV pointing out how wrong it is having Prussian landwehr with the French! or out of three takes they will show the one of people going the wrong way. never mind, it is now all in the hands of the editors!