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...