Tuesday, 23 June 2015

W a t e r l o o, part Three.

Another six o'clock start and musket cleaning from yesterday which I got down to quite quickly after our breakfast of Crepes and black coffee.
More drill.. turned out that the Scots Greys had attacked the wrong unit yesterday and today we, or rather our battalion, would be on the receiving end of a lot of cavalry so time was spent on a hopefully simple maneauver to form a mass that was four ranks deep by having the two leading groups turn, take three paces and hurry back to double up besides that behind, all presenting 'bayonet' outwards.
Apparently the Scots Greys had a plan to bring an Eagle over and then capture it from us as they historically did, however no attempt to organise anything either before or during the event had been received yet we were not sure if they might try and take the one we had without asking, so practice was good, and an attempt would have been bad form and potentially dangerous, people can be injured punching cavalrymen in the face.

We had some spare time in the afternoon and I fancied going to see Hougoumont but I also fancied a nap and not being late back. After lunch and a short lie down I decided to stay in camp but it was very busy with visitors, being the weekend now, and only Rob was in full kit, I thought I'd kit up from whites into most of what I would take on the field and also help with talking to people.
A lot of people stopped by to chat and ask questions, and an amateur film making company wanted to interview people, and I also volunteered. It was meant to be first person as a French soldier, as if in character.. 'In character' is a concept some people seem to have that reenactors have specific names/roles/personalities different to their own, a bit more like a Live action role play character, but nearly everyone is just themselves, in Napoleonic kit. They wanted me to shout a war cry and Duncan reminded me that Vive L'Emporeur is pronounced 'Vive L-umprur' not 'Vive Le'Emporeur' hopefully I got it right but then as a first person I found myself doing a cod-French accent and hoping to give a good impresion as questions were sprung on me.

Seems a lot of people had not had a fabulous experience seeing the battle yesterday, not because of us but all the smoke.. being sat too far from any action.. not understanding what was going on.. or all three. Apparently the narrator, who spoke only in French, had been sacked half way through due to a poor delivery and possibly being a bit pissed. 

Muster the same as yesterday, us joined with the Sappeurs and the Norwegians to our right. bit less faff..  Whilst formed up on those heights again the Emporer rode by followed by his staff and chasseurs a'Cheval.. Everyone cheered and presented arms. Then he came back two minutes later, prompting Duncan to mutter 'Bloody hell, I wish he'd stop dropping by unannounced.'

Things kicked off as before but it seemed now we were to follow a bigger unit down the slope, support them from the rear and then retreat as the attack failed. Once more stomping into the wheat. However we did not stay in retreat and marched closer to the enemy, fending off several cavalry attacks and using the threat of fire to halt any silly ideas.
We then traded rounds with the British and one of them went down injured, this causes a worry as no one can hear what the problem is, and is signified by someone in the group holding a musket up with both arms so they are left alone. French cavalry attacked just as our Colonel was crossing the open ground to see what the problem was, apparently deafness or black out caused by percusion too close to his ear.
More shooting but my flint had lost its edge and every time I went to get a flint out we seemed to up and move, I had loaded a generous cartridge and cleaned out the frizzen, going through firing motions.. when I seemed to have a minute or two to change it. I loaded a generous cartridge (special 45eme Waterloo paper) and fired with the next volley. BADOOOM! (farkin'ell). Yes, I had double shotted, except it was closer to triple shotted with those cartridges. It certainly cleared any blockages.

 Falling back.. and take some water. It was going to be a few minutes and our officer said if anyone wanted to grab a picture do so now, and I did, although everyone missed the sparkling vollies from across the valley. Someone shouted for us to 'Hold those cameras down! the public are watching!'
yes. normally I would never stand with a phone/camera up, but the public had no video screens and were never going to seen an individual going anything at that distance in poor light. Still I felt a bit conflicted about it, maybe phones were his crisps.

Back into action and we outflanked a battery of allied artillery, wheeling to give fire. in a real battle we could have rolled over the entire gun line, but no, we were meant to lose, and whilst Duncan had used his initiative to get us more engaged we were not allowed to win the battle on our own.
Back up the slope, people tiring a bit, and I had, for the first time at an event taken my glasses off because they were steaming up.

Just when we thought it was the end, with men retreating everywhere under fire, orders came for us to support the Imperial guard in the final attack and we marched down again. Facing a unit of redcoats who were genuinely surprised and disconbobulated by us coming in again for a renewed assault.. were the French going to win after all? 
No, we fell back, the Guard were faltering and we didn't want to get left behind. One last trudge up the slope and trying to avoid being dragged off anywhere else, twice forming up as roving cavalry came near.  Today we wanted to try and stay in formation to march back.
We were cheered again, and I gave them a 'Vive L'Belgic!' back, 'Creep!' someone japed but I pointed out we had just lost a battle in a foreign country, I didn't intend to get turned over to the Prussians!

The battles were done. No more drill. No 6 o/c reveille. The event a success. Tomorrow the last day for most. What to do you think happened? Mostly people got drunk.  In the beer tent singing escalated up to 'The Marseillaise' with people standing on tables, waving bottles and stamping Feet, and barely an actual French person between them.
Those of us there went back to the Sappeurs tent (it had started raining almost as the battle ended) and carried on, with a few songs here and there until it was time to hit the straw.

Packing up camp is always sad, mainly sad, unless the event was a wash out and this certainly wasn't, John Flapjaques proclaimed it the best Waterloo ever for him. We went and looked at some stalls and got a couple more souvenirs, and had some very good ravioli. and so, away. The event that had been spoken of for the last ten years had come and gone. Biggish events would still happen.. but where? Marengo? Austerlitz? Talevera? Wagram?  Nothing needs to be overshadowed by that years 'big draw'. I am left with many memories of those six days in a usually quiet three mile stretch of Belgium, the big cheese of Waterloo, long in ferment, had been devoured.

W a t e r l o o, part Two.

                                                 Another night with some time round the fire.

Then Friday. Reveille at six, which means the poor musicians have to get up even earlier. Bleary eyed people get the breakfast fires going, trickier today after the rain but some wood is always stored where it will stay dry.
Drill is pretty much the same as yesterday except for a break as each unit sent a couple of men to que with paperwork at the black powder tent which was guarded by troops with fixed bayonets to turn anyone with no business there away. Later there was a brief march in full kit for the benefit of our newer members so that they could get an idea of how much they would be carrying and whether to ditch any unnecarsaries. Water of course was essential.

5.30 was muster. We had a reporter with us from the Telegraph who had drilled and been at a couple of events but was balled out for being late 'I haven't been shouted at like that since I was ten!' he said but understood why, only not that 5.30 really means fully ready about 5.15. You hurry up and wait.

                                         Part of the epic 360 degree panorama, the red lancers!

The next hour was march a bit. Stop. March a bit. stop, but finally we were on the main road down to the field, both ahead and behind seemed an endless stream of soldiers. Camera phones all along the march were clicking away, even the police were stopping to take the odd snap.

Then arriving on the field. Wow. Once marshalled onto our position we all stood and looked down over the regiment in front at the gathering army across from us on the opposite slope. Lines of red and green, skirmishers in the front. knots of horsemen. Gun batteries. and still they came. It must have been a terrible prospect to see a full army arrayed before you and know the only way to win was to do great massed violence unto them, more than they can dish out to you, or break through and force them to retreat or be outflanked.  If I was a General I would never want to order a head on slugging fest unless there was no option.


After some wait the French artillery suddenly roared into life and everyone cheered! The British guns returned fire. Soon after we marched. En Avant! Going through the wheatfield was real Waterloo ground (I felt a sudden conviction that I had to snatch an ear of corn and pocket it away as if some sort of talisman) and we were about the same place as the real 45eme had advanced that bloody day. It was not easy going wading through and on previously ploughed ground, plus swarms of horseflies were disturbed and here and there patches of waist high nettles rose up that being shoulder to shoulder you could not avoid. It was the only time I wished I had thicker trousers.

Cavalry charged for the brigade ahead and we got a great view of them wheeling around the big French square before galloping off in the hope of finding an easier target. I saw a Belgian carabineer (?) get thrown off his mount and vanish into the wheat, rising and then falling again, his horse ran wild and disappeared somewhere to our left. The rider reappeared and didn't seem injured.

  A volley or two was fired at some lurking British then we were marching left toward Le Haie Saint, then passed it, and on towards Hougonmont (A painted knock up), for a few moments the whole building disappeared into a thick bank of smoke, then as the wind changed was suddenly there before us. Redcoats could be seen behind the walls and began firing as we lined up and loaded whilst another French unit attacked the side wall, one man bodily throwing himself into the barricade and a redcoat overblanced and was dragged over the wall.
En Avant! our turn, I was in the front rank, and crossed muskets, then saw a break in the wooden wall and heaved to push it back, a piece broke away, others joined in, British braced themselves against the otherside to stop us. A tolerable crush began and a British Sergeant was trying to push my arm out but it ended up more pushed down, someone trod on my ankle, making the back of my shoe slip loose.
Fallback Fallback! but I couldn't immediately due to the Brit against my arm, and wiggled my shoe back on as I broke away. Reforming was a bit of a mess, ranks completely mixed up. Everyone was saying 'I was by Mark, weren't you behing Colin?' etc and the Officer and NCOs were quite miffed. The man besides me wasn't feeling great.
Three times we gave them a volley and then took a turn at charging, I scopped up a piece of broken wall as a souvenir.. Each charge became more cordial than the last until we were pretty much just trading banter with the defenders.

                                        These two fantastic pictures are from La Libre (Belgium).

We left Hougonmont (with our Norwegian comrades and the doughty Sappeurs) and marched east, I am not entirely sure about the next twenty minutes, a couple of shots were fired and a march up the slope now crowned by a few blazing fires, some magnificent rolling vollies were seen through the smoke and gathering dusk. The French had captured Le Haie Saint. A cavalry charge went up the slope but too far away to see if they were ours or theres, and so they might as well have been a mile away. Actually, they probably were.

Finally we halted near the top, one of my comrades collapsed and our in-house medic went to help. Two more had gone down from the rear ranks without me knowing, to exhaustion and a leg injury. We were all blessed by the weather though.. if it had been proper summer heat it would have been more.
It all ended in fire, the gathering darkess made each blast of cannon fire and musket volley stand out, battle was still sounding but it wasn't our battle anymore, we were marching away. It was over.

There were cheers as we came off the field which we tried to rise to but the people giving out water were a Godsend. After a bit of a bottleneck units seemed to disolve, it was like a real retreat in the dark as clumps of men banded together or walked alone, it seemed like a long walk as every-which-way I carried my musket it seemed heavier than usual. This was the most demanding event I had been to, a combination of action, encumberance, ground conditions and warm weather.

I felt like I was mildly stunned by the whirlwind of noise and sights that I had witnessed when back at the camp, but getting kit away and opening a beer sorted everyone out. Our dear chap who'd been with the medics rolled in and broke out special brandy for his birthday!

We would sleep well tonight.

Monday, 22 June 2015

W a t e r l o o, part one!

Where to start? narrative or vignettes?  Bit of each, so back to the beginning..

Le voyage!  naturally it was a warm day as I set off with everything packed into just my pack and a breadbag, although this did mean wearing the biggest item of clothing, the greatcoat, over which I had my bayonet crossbelt, giberne, canteen and breadbag, and of course musket bag to carry. I would be marching at a slow pace in the warm weather, but would still arrive on time. I needed to book somewhere to stay in Dover at quite short notice and did so at 'Dover packpackers' which is actually in a pub that Arthur Wellesley used as an office when overseeing troop embarkations in 1793. Nice little connection there for the start of my own voyage. Adequate but no thrills accomodation to be sure.

Met John Flapjaques and Bob next morning. no trouble on the ferry, they must have constantly had people taking guns over for a few days. Only hic-up was missing the ring road and driving through centre of Brussels, where any form of road sign is few and far between, or occasionally just blank.

Registration was easy, tents went up, straw collected, stuff done. It was nearly mid-summer and I didn't know how busy we would be with drilling and 'official' engagments over the next few days so wandered up the road towards the battlefield, after all 'A summer's evening is as long as a winter's day.'

                                                                     Waterloo sunset.

In England Waterloo is the most famous Napoleonic battlefield and to look across it in the evening light and pick out features like the reverse slope and see Le Belle alliance and Le Haye sainte was quite poignant. I have always felt that some trace of events yet echoes in places like this. Below is the wounded eagle monument where the Imperial Guard made their last stand as the army was retreating. This is all Napoleonic hallowed ground.

However sight seeing was to continue next day as nothing 'official' was happening until Thursday and only the first wave of the regiment was here. First though was unit shopping at Carrefore.. I was put in charge of getting cheese, cold sausages, apples and biscuits for 24 people for two days, crisps were also mentioned but I might have accidently-on-purpose overlooked them because I knew what would happen..
I have a thing about crisps in normal life.. so the thought of people in our camp or even on the battlefield waiting for the off to be eating crisps, unthinkable!  Sure enough though the organisers gave us some food as well.. including crisps (and bizarrely tinned fish) and when the packlunchs were given out there was immediately a couple of people who started grazing and just plonking the packets on their plates with all these people who had come to see an authentic camp, I lightly suggested covering them over but those concerned were too busy chewing to do much more than shrug.
The shopping was halted several times by questions and locals wanting to pose for photos. Additional supplies for myself were purchased, not including the offical big cheese of Waterloo, but did include some lovely Normandie Calvados.

Supplies delivered, some of us went to the visitors centre, newly redesigned for 2015, a great place and just 2e for reenactors. There was a gallery of painting where smoke, snow, or sand moved across or the painting itself scrolled across the scene. Lots of uniforms and a set up of the Marshals at the battlefield HQ, relics and interactive maps.. and a giftshop, might as well get the T-shirt if your going to fight the battle.
Then we climbed the Lion mound for a panoramic view and I had my first of several interviews with a French news team, just next to some (proper) Belgian soldiers who were quite friendly and looking out for Prince Charles, Putin, and half the Belgian royal family who were dropping in that day, kicking many of the allies out of their own camp until they had gone.
This day was the 17th and I decided it would be appropriate to sleep outside for this one, as so many thousands had on that night, fortunately it did not rain.. quite so much.

Up early for drill, first by pelaton (platoon), then division then battalion.. I'm not sure why a smaller grouping is called a division and the larger a battalion.. we were brigaded with a Norwegian regiment in red coats and either bearskins or Corsican hats and their Captain (Erich) had to quickly interpret what an Englishman was saying in French into Norwegian and pass the order on. There were some difficulties as they have a faster marching pace than us.. with orders of 'Mush!' for slow pace, 'Mush Mush!' for regular pace and 'Mush Mush Mush!' for charge. There grand chaps who we were camped with at Leipzig and have to line up for cod liver oil at medical inspection and have sentry duty run all through the night.
As at Wollaton people made jokes and rolled eyes at some of the big maneuvers we had to practice which made it worse if it went awry and we had to hope the Colonel didn't make us all do it again.

After a lovely lunch of vegtable soup I decided to visit Placenoit which was about a fifteen minute walk, as long as I could home in on the Church steeple. Here was some of the hardest fighting on the right flank as the Prussians arrived and there are a couple of monuments and damage caused by the battle can still be seen. A man in a grey suit seemed to be marching all around waving a big French standard and I was asked to be in a photo with it. The Church can be seen in the background, and a Prussian, many of whom come to visit Placenoit. I then had some food in the cafe opposite when the man in the suit marched in, seems he was the mayor, and started waving the flag and singing French songs. I guess we know what side he's on!

I don't know what the experience of the allies was but I got a real sense that the local people were much more pro-French in sympathy than with the British or Prussians, we had cheers and 'Vive L'Empeuers' and saw more French flags than any other, despite the Belgians being officially part of the allies. I would like to know what the soldiers felt at the time, the British distrust of them is well recorded and maybe that colours modern attitudes as well. In the shops there was Napoleon slippers, Napoleon cutlery, Napoleon chocolates, etc etc etc but not a Blucher coffee mug to be had for love nor money.

That night was a big fireworks display with music and pageantry called 'The inferno'. (we weren't there) Sadly some of the reenactors involved were injured by pyrotechnics and that day the man who represents Marshal Ney was thrown from his horse and injured which would have repercusions in the battle next day.

This was the 18th June. At various times I stopped to think of what was probably happening on the very spot I stood and as the sun set I thought of how the world had changed by nightfall and how the whole world was waiting to hear the outcome from one day in the wheatfields between two Belgian slopes..

Yet tomorrow we would march in those fields.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Beating the retreat.

'Beating the retreat' is a yearly parade at Horseguards and given it being 200 years since Waterloo it was decided to have that as the theme. The Napoleonic Association was invited to take part although exactly what we would be doing would not be revealed until rehearsal day in a briefing that reminded me of the armoured division one from 'A bridge too far' with Arnhem replaced by the royal box.

So we had our directions and a Guards NCO to help co-ordinate and having marched round from Wellington Barracks to Horseguards everyone went on for a run through. It didn't go great. The music meant commands could not be heard, the 'road' on the map that marked our stopping point was only where some small flagstones under the gravel were, and one man's 'A short distance' is quite different to anothers. It was run through again. Then there were sandwichs. then it was run through again. and again. but it worked, it was much improved and with it came confidence. Everyone was happy. 'It'll be alright on the night.'

My favourite bit was when we as premiere section march to the far end in column behind a band then turn to line and in spaced pairs run between the open files of the band as the music plays and they stamp there feet. It was one of those moments that stays with you and must have looked pretty good, one unit passing through another to reform as a firing line in front.

Those of us staying were bussed back to a cadet training centre in Blackheath with dorms and comfy beds, and with most of the next day free a bunch of us wondered down to Greenwich which seemed a nice place, remind me to buy a house there one day, there or Richmond. We looked at the Cutty Sark and had brunch and bought some drink for that night after the show.

Bussed back. Wait about. Ate vege chow mein for £1.57 curtesy of the barracks canteen. form up on the front parade ground (and wait) and away! Everyone was in full fig uniforms now, shiny breastplates and bearskins. infact shiny everything! the bands played us down birdcage walk and around into the park as the Napoleonic invasion was meant to be a surprise. Waiting and watching. Played spot the snipers. Failed. Half a point for observers.

Then on, I felt a bit nervous as we rounded the corner onto the parade ground, most of us did. The bright lights. The open ground. The music. The crowds. The fear of tripping over your own feet and knocking a bandsman flying!
Through the band and into line, once loading and firing all nerves are gone, it's the same old battlefield miscocosm. Before we know it we are falling back and forming up to stand to attention at the front left.
There followed several musical pieces, including a choir singing 'Amazing Grace' that merges into the same tune from the pipes and drums and was another moment to remember, fireworks went off, The German and British national anthems go by after a bugle was played that had been found next to a dead bugler at Waterloo. The German ambassador was whisked away in a car.
Then everyone was marching off the parade ground.

March back to Wellington barracks, a bit of singing, people are in good spirits. Back on the bus. A few beers and chatting and before you know it it's half two. Time for bed.
Next morning get up a bit later, relaxed morning, clean musket out in the garden with other folks sewing and mending and cleaning.
Pack everything together and get kitted up. Back on the bus.

Things run pretty much the same as yesterday. The Queen had been anticipated but for whatever reason didn't appear.. but the Duchess of Cornwall and the current Duke of Wellington were in attendence.

It was great to be part of this. I never would of imagined four years ago that one day I would be marching and firing on a famous parade ground with the British household divsion in front of Generals, ambassadors and royals, and being quartered and fed and getting a bandstand view of some of it.

I got to see all the behind the scenes preparation and rehearsals and a working army barracks, there were some aching feet and backs involved by the end, especially on last day as I was going to get the train after and had everything I'd taken in/on my pack, in fact the forty minutes or so of standing to attention, eyes forward, was probably more demanding than the short span of running about before it, but it was all part of a wonderful experience.

Fantastic few days, and this time next week I'll be in Belgium at the actual Waterloo, it's all suddenly upon us all!

Monday, 1 June 2015

Western Heights, Slippery slopes.

Fouth trip to Dover! I wondered if I'd have much new to recount but there certainly was! It was quite a warm day but I elected to pack my habit (jacket) and wear the greatcoat so as to best spread the load without wearing both. I would just go at a steady pace..

It was the usual long train trip along the coast and I ended up at last change over at Ashford international where there is a bit of a wait.. the platform supervisor I met before invited me into the office so that he could get his colleagues to see a musket and gear, something I am glad to do.. and maybe it was all for the good as once back on the platform a conductor asked me about it, I didn't like the cut of his jib, him quoting regulations about no firearms being allowed on trains, fortunately the platform staff guy was there and took my side saying 'He's got no ammunition and it's been deactivated' (not the correct term which I expect he knew as he used to work with the marines).. and the guard shrugged and went away but without this intervention I wonder if he might have refused me travel.
As I work on/with trains I have asked about this before, even to British transport police and they don't mind if you have a licence, a reason to carry it and it's all kept in a bag. If you enforced every railway byelaw to the hilt there would be a serious cut in passengers but you always get a few 'by the book' people.

I arrived at the camp site in fairly good, non sweaty form, though was glad to shed the coat and pack. The Highlanders and Guards were about to march up to the fort at the top for drill and I tagged along shortly after.. and was shot twice and stabbed with a spontoon to add a bit of comedy action to the British drill, and spoke to a few people about the French point of view.

A chap who used to be in Sharpe was there, Jason Salkey, who is well know on the circuit.. I said hello and half expected him to be a bit 'Galaxy quest' (the film where some jaded actors from a cult TV series keep doing conventions etc to pay the bills) but he seemed a really nice guy and was interested in what was going on, and remembered my name a bit later.

As evening drew in the temperature began to drop a bit and I was glad to have the coat, it was time for a Napoleonic bayonet kebab and drop of wine.

The lights of France appeared across the water but soon faded as rain arrived and killed the off the fire (most of the wood was already damp) and those of us left retreated into the biggest tent where most stayed but come sleepy time I took to my canvas cover and slept quite well, once waking up with cramp that despite resistance made me get up and hop about for a few minutes. I next woke at dawn with a sound of the rain and dawn chorus, which gave a lovely impression as I usually wake up to the sound of downstairs washing machine...  but drifted off again. When I got up more of the 45eme were just arriving.

Wind and rain would be on and off throughout the day and awning up and everyone dressed we marched up to the top to do some drill and a firing display and have coffee and cake... and march back down again.

The skirmish was at 2.00 and it remained dry but my musket was already a bit rusty and the sandpaper I took to remove it had got wet and disintergrated! So I changed the flint and hoped to get a few shots off at least. It was the usual suprise attack and capture the fort scenario.. with the redcoats coming back to take it. I did a nice bit of scrabbling up and down embankments and after a couple of shots began to have misfires.. not getting the sparks.. but it wasn't too bad, about half my shots still went off before I was captured and pitched to the ground as Duncan, our Officer was last to be caught.. as they planned to shoot him I managed to sneak off from my guards with a pantomime SHHHHHhh! to the crowd, I almost got away before a Highland light infantryman spotted me and I was chased right round the back of the main mound only to briefly appear at the far side before stopping when just out of sight.. running in a full pack is not good for you.

Back at camp there seemed to be a flurry of photographers about, one of our unit, Carolyn was firing for the first time as 'Soldat Rene'.. which seems a tradition at Dover, as I and a few others had burnt our first black powder there, and one photographer got a great shot of the first round going off. A chap from the Footguards (Micheal Hastings) took a lot of portrait pictures of us, such as the fantastic one below.

Then it was about packing up time. Any hopes that my load would be a bit lighter by wearing habit under my coat and having eaten/drunk provisions were quashed by the fact some of my stuff was fairly wet, which was an illustration of how much difference rain would have made to being on the march.
I heard that the British used to sleep top-and-tail with one blanket beneath and one on top of two men, if it rained in the night the soldier whose blanket was on top would have to carry a heavier load and most likely complain about it. This gave rise to calling someone who moans about something 'A wet blanket.'

Got back last night and I'm off today, writing this is a good way of putting off sorting out my gear (particularly hard on the trousers this weekend), really going to town on cleaning and de-rusting my musket and attempting repairs to my shako which has suddenly decided to have multiple bits fall off it. Sigh. See you all Soon!