Friday, 26 October 2018

Völkerschacht 2018

Five years ago I came to Leipzig for my first continental event, what a kick off that was with thousands of participants and my first time in battle firing a proper musket. Could the 205th anniversary be as rewarding?

Old Leipzig.

New Leipzig.

I flew out for a couple of days before the actual reenactmenty-bit and really enjoyed myself, Leipzig is a great place to visit for its cafe culture, museums and art, both classical and modern and sometimes painted onto big buildings. Having been twice I now regard Karl-Liebkneckt Strasse, known as 'Karlli' as my other neighbourhood.

It was Friday lunchtime when I found my way to the bivouac at Tollhaus Dollitz, one of three sites, this was for the artillery park of both sides and the Prussian brigade.

Now, originally there had been an idea of Landwehr unit from England joining the brigade alongside the Russo-Prussian artillery (UK) but for various reasons it ended up with... just me.
 I did consider going as an Austrian officer who was separated from his unit but a musket was available to borrow and so I stuck with the original plan, and did not regret it. The Landwehr were a militia who in reenactment terms the only real addition I had to get was the litewka (coat) and feldmütze (cap) as equipment was in short supply in 1813 and much was supplied from abroad, such as Britain or from captured gear.

Different regions had different colour facings (piping, collar, capband etc). Mine was yellow and Silesian, from the East, which included many non-German speakers. True to form my comrades were Czechs and Poles.

Hauptmann-Joe adds my name to the roster. I got to experience first hand what was a common feature of the black powder era, being a foreign soldier assigned to a unit as the flotsam and jetsom of war. On Saturday morning there was drill and I was glad a lot of the basics were similar to French, especially footwork, some French commands that sound like a whole sentence are just Two words in German, perhaps surprisingly.. Only a rather convoluted  ein-twie-drei-hands-knees-and-whoosy-daisy musket wheeling move confused me, but that never actually came up in the battle of course.

First official engagement had been the opening of the event at a ceremony at a palace (well, a very large fancy house) just north of the city centre which was present in 1813 and used as a hospital. It was quite a modest turn out as it was still Friday afternoon with many people just arriving. The Russo-Prussian artillery therefore made up the largest single regiment and everyone got a double ration of the beer laid on.

Day of battle.. after the drill we marched to the Markleeburg camp for lunch. In the UK  battalions do not fit bayonets very often, and certainly don't melee with them attached, which I think is a shame as it does look better and more imposing as well as being the right impression. Everyone with a musket knows not to point the barrel at anyone so this naturally leads to a bayonet never being level when troops come to the fray as they naturally become raised and crossed, but.. oh well.

Anyway, we marched to the big field.. we marched over the big field.. we marched across the next big field.. until we were apparently at Liebertwolkwitz and then took a rest as everyone formed up.

We in the Prussian brigade along with some Swedish troops and Tyrolean jagers were the reserve and after a short fiery speech from General Blucher we were left in the field behind the battle. The Austrians spearheaded the attack and most of the artillery was already in place. We waited and listened to the guns and the rockets and the cries.. I hoped we were not going to march on just near the end.
One of those moments that stay with you occurred when the cavalry passed down a narrow track in file with dust and smoke siloetting them between the trees, when we marched on between a gap in those trees another scene occurred as marching up a slight slope you could see everyone in our brigade, we had the sun ahead of us so that it passed through the silk of the flag.
Suddenly we were fighting, loading
and firing at the French.

Above is the moment we took to the field and the contest opened up.. soon a major charge made us fall back in disarray. We crossed bayonets with Poles and Bavarians and having fought through the latter I was outnumbered and fell.. I called on one of them to remember he was my brother and join us!  He didn't, but did give up on trying to steal one of my shoes, so it was a partial win. A doctor and nurse assistant ran to my aid and I managed to limp back to the unit.

The combination of dust from the loose soil and drifting smoke made for some atmospheric scenes.

Charged by dragoons and hussars we formed square amid the human wreckage of the fighting.

Das booom! not pictured but very much present was an Austrian mortar which used up a whole bag of powder with each mighty shot, the rockets were also noteworthy for adding to the atmosphere and I saw a couple land on spots where soldiers had been only moments before.

I confess I wasn't sure about the presence of British and Scottish troops (other than the Rocket troops who famously were there) because your putting on an historical battle then adding troops who had nothing to do with it.. and partially because if I travel a thousand miles across Europe I don't want to see more $%^*ing riflemen!  But on reflection I do see that in a land where most events are recreations of an actual battle that took place if you live in Dresden and want to be a Highlander you'd have to constantly travel to Belgium or Spain.. but then there was something like 23 armies involved in the Battle of the nations and 1813 campaign.. did none of them take your fancy?

So it was a great battle with us being well employed, as I think everyone was, and being quite mobile. A fine balance between being well organised but not scripted, I've no idea how much went as planned. The Saxons defecting to our side near the end was doubtless so and the length of the battle was about right.

Admitting defeat Emperor Napoleon leaves the battlefield his anger making him eschew the bus service provided.

The commemoration ceremony was a modest occasion on the Sunday morning, at first in the open park where there was a speech and 'Meine gute Kamerad' was played on a bugle. At the close there was a shout: French contingent: 
         Vive L'EMPEREUR!
         Vive L'EMPEREUR
                Viiiiiiive L'EMPEREUR!
         Blücher: We still won.

There was then a brief gathering of a few French and Saxons by the Napoleon stein.. a monument to where Napoleon apparently lost his hat when leaving the field. I visited the giant Völkerschlacht memorial and bid many of my comrades of the weekend farewell and marched back into town. I may well look into going next year, such a fantastic place! or see what other events are on such as Grossbeeren in the suburbs of Berlin, having made some friends I'd like to think I can drop in and join them again.  Bis Spater! (See you later!)


Friday, 12 October 2018

Orchestral manoeuvres.

When is a reenactment event not a reenactment event?  As an example of the fabulous opportunities that can come up for reenactors I think it belongs here..

A post went up announcing that members of the 1914-21 society had been invited to attend the 'Concert for reconciliation' featuring the Royal philharmonic orchestra, in London, on Wednesday the tenth.
I said I'd like to go and got in touch with the organiser, however it appeared there were only two of us and both representing the central powers.. I offered to contact a couple of other groups. No takers. I had to cast my net wider and field a few enquiries, times, changing rooms, what duties were involved?.. but eventually we had a respectable team. I had not planned to become the point of contact but was pleased with how it worked out.

No one was going to sit next to me on the train.

It was a warm early evening and I strolled to Cadogan hall from Victoria station and with only one misstep soon found myself loitering outside and the other folk began to arrive. We then moved into the entrance hall and broke into strolling amongst the guests until the call went up for people to take their seats.
It was a mixed programme with Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Vaugn Williams and George Lloyd amongst others, there was a strong Russian influence as the Embassy was involved in bringing the evening together, and our own involvement in it.

Sneaky picture, pointy finger.

More mingling at half time in the foyer and in conversation someone mentioned we were welcome to the refreshments in the hospitality room... Ding!  actually I was very good and let my fellows know about it before accepting a triangular sandwich and a glass of wine with some of the Chelsea pensioners who had come along.
The music continued but I think you would have been hard put to know there was a reconciliation theme to the evening, according to the programme many of the composers had connections with the great war but nothing was expressed and rather oddly two scenes from Henry V were enacted by an actorrrr.. including the Saint Crispian's day speech which is rather feisty.. not really a call for peace on earth!
Me, Fredericke Krum, the opera singer, the head of culture at the Russian embassy and... his mum? 

But the evening was not over yet and our host, Sergei, took us to a restaurant.. literally just walking into Sloane square and finding a place with spaces, a French restaurant. It was all excellent, from service to food but then this is quite an, er, exclusive postcode!

..and then I was homeward bound after such a glittering evening, again an opportunity I would never have had if not for living history.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018


And so it was I rendevouzed with James (Cyclist chasseur) and Carolyn (The French refugee) and off we went to Zonnebeke, a village in 1914 that was soon totally destroyed in the heavy fighting that was constant for almost the whole four years of the war.

We called in to see the Menin gate on the way and see a little of Ieper, called Ypres by those who had trouble with pronunciation.. because its so much easier.. or Wipers by those still confounded. At Zonnebeke we set up in the grounds of the park that surrounds the museum, traces of trenches can still be seen and one wonders if some of the ponds are not simply shell craters long since filled with water.
At the start of the 1917 offensive a number of giant mines packed with explosives were set off under the German lines, but three on one flank were not needed and left in place. one actually exploded in 1954 when struck by lightning and the other two are.. lost.. somewhere in Flanders there are two masses of explosives packed under the ground because of a lack of record keeping. Lets home they have long been flooded out.

After a night out at the pub turned restaurant that is The Volkbund we returned to the site and I went to see where my group were encamped, one of the fellows half-jokingly mentioned there was a little cottage type building just off the path I could sleep in.. and so of course I investigated and found a little house that must have been an outbuilding for the main house built in the thirties, maybe for a gardener, a single room with flagstone floor, a fireplace, round windows, but no glass. It would be my little house now!

Last year the event had been about twice the size as it was 100 years since the battle of Passchendaele that the museum most commemorates but many still returned for this occasion when the end of the war was drawing near.  

How many things can you make out of condensed milk, corned beef and jam?

I thought as I'd brought my gasmask/case and stahlhelm I should get some use out of them, plus I get the impression that not taking your gasmask around is a no-no. Gas discipline must be observed!
 I have a theory that gas attacks went on right to the end of the war even though with protective equipment casualties must have been far fewer (some of the later gases like Phosgene could actually be absorbed by the skin) but the sheer effect of wearing a gasmsk is quite disabling. You must get your helmet off to affix it and then cannot do the chin strap back up, so youd need to hold it on if running or climbing and even with little exertion I found condensation forming on the lenses, which themselves could slip out of place, also sound is muffled and you have to raise your voice to speak. For disrupting orders and communication as well as perception it is ideal, you just want to sit and wait for it to pass.

Andreas from Italy and the big Belgian(?) gun.

Sports afternoon.. A tug of war match or two, and a bicycle and a motorbike race. I had a go on the vintage bicycle and it was a little clanky with handlebars in a U shape but I could certainly see myself doing a messenger role, and I could also use it to get to events a few miles from the railway station.

Bigger people and bigger studs on boots is a big help for the British. Booo!

Cabaret night at the Spiegeltent! Acts from amongst the re-enactment groups were called for, on top of which was a professional can can dance troupe and a singer and pianist for a bit of class. There were songs from many lands, mostly music hall.
 One song was certainly suitable for troopers and was abit close to the bone with its tale of Prussian soldiers and Belgian girls 'She's surely too young to be f*^ked by the Hun!' I seem to remember was one line... and I was prompted to stand up at the end and deliver a retort that as a German soldier this song made me sad and that I (and my comrades) were in fact VERY NICE.  Which seemed to go down well with the audience, a lot of whom were the general public, and one of the Rumanians came over to thank me later for speaking up at that interval.  Normal service, and a great time, continued. I did get up and sing one song as part of a group though I had to read of a little song sheet in German! Minding my Js and Ss.  

It was a bit frosty overnight and naturally I was up for breakfast of fried bread and eggs and several coffees. The evening before had been a curry and everything cooked on field kitchen equipment with recipes from the time. What a great touch.

'It's a long way to Dresden.'

 There was a whole corner of the park dedicated to medical matters, including this hospital set up and a horse drawn ambulance that someone had built from scratch.

We came up with a skit we did a few times where James would play music to Carolyn, possibly soliciting for money, only to be interrupted by me as a German saying 'No busking!'. The fearful refugee would run away and I would spot her handbag left on the bench and run off with it in opposite direction. seemed to amuse the onlookers.

One man and his (temporary) dog. We had been chatting to a lovely chap from Wales called Neil who quite wanted to go into the museum but it was no dogs allowed. solution; we shall look after your lovely dog, Gwynn. They came back the next day too.

the only real set activity for the weekend was the service of remembrance at 10:30 on Sunday which involved songs, prayers, letters and poems in several languages, and everyone encouraged to hold hands and greet the people around them. (Picture from Eric Compernolle)

Everyone universally understood 'free coffee and cake' from the closing speech, actually a waffle and tea, coffee or rum, or rum in your coffee if you prefer. We had to leave about an hour after the ceremony but stopped at the Tyne cot cemetery en route to Calaise. I still find the whispering voice very moving, every fifteen seconds or so a girls voice reads out a name and an age. then a silence. the voice could go on for years and never repeat itself.

It was a fantastic weekend, once again very different to Napoleonic events, they are different animals, and the organisers had asked for groups to favour 'No officers, no medals' if they could. Common soldiers, all in the same boat. I was very glad I went for with the centenials coming to a close we may not see its like again.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Postcard from Dover.

Another year another trip to Dover (actually there are usually two but we were away on an escapade for the spring open day). This one is more a few postcards...

Mini-Western heights. Bit too small for 6mm wargames. Damn shame those large buildings in the centre have long been demolished. Even as late as the sixties I understand a lot more original features remained.

Napoleon has tweeted! 

The skirmish of day one kicked off with us emerging from the cantonments and trading a few vollies before the redcoats retreated up to the main open area with us following, each on one slope we went into open order.. but it began to drag a little as both sides had a few misfires and none of the British seemed to want to die so that we could then advance and capture/defeat the outnumbered survivors, in the end we just went in and their colour was captured! (with prior agreement) HURRAH FOR FRANCE!

As well as ourselves and the British there was a group of various WWII Germans. I chatted with them and one subject was the recent gutter press outrage about NAZIS at the National trust! After ONE person complained about people in German uniforms being at a World war two event. What did she expect? One of the guys here had just been asked some leading questions by a man who was standing there with his phone set on 'record'.
  I recently saw such an event advertised as featuring 'Allied and other re-enactors'. Other? Other?? Wonder who that could be.

 Must be Saturday we don't have our big coats on.

After a trip into town for dinner by the little harbour and quite a dry and mild night the rain came and would pretty much carry on until five minutes after the event ended. The firegrate was moved under the awning causing steam to rise off the top. There can be a certain cosiness to rainy days as everyone huddles under an awning until its time to march out.

The casements became the centre of events especially with their supply of tea and cakes although the tunnels were also dry and worth a visit.. and of course the show had to go on, skirmish at the time advertised! it was still rainy but I managed to get more shots off than the day before but of course it was the Brits time for revenge and we were soon all dead except for the drummers.
..and thus ended the day, and the year for 45eme events. wet tents were taken down, hands were shaken, hugs were given. Next year the drums are already sounding for Eggmuhl in Bavaria (1809), my favourite Napoleonic year!