I was there – a Kiwi at Pickett’s Charge

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Back in 1998 I travelled to the USA to take part in a huge reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. The highlight of the three days was taking part in Pickett’s Charge, the doomed frontal attack by the Confederates against the Union infantry and artillery ensconced behind a stone wall. In the real battle in 1863, the majority of Confederate troops fell or retreated before they got to this stone wall, but a few did make it over, until they too were killed or captured.

To reenact this turning point in American history, it was important that just as many reenactors fell before they got to the wall. Because every Confederate reenactor wanted the distinction of climbing over the wall, this was done by way of a lottery, with everyone except the winners having to die or retreat before reaching the wall – I was very fortunate to be one of the few who drew a winning number!

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There were about 12,000 Confederate reenactors involved in Pickett’s Charge, which meant we were doing a full scale reenactment of the event. We had to cover about half a mile of open ground, before finally reaching the blue-uniformed Federal infantry, lined up about four deep for the entire half-mile or so length of the low stone wall and fenceline.

In silence, each Confederate brigade headed off towards its ‘destiny’. We did a few obliques (diagonal movements) to place ourselves in the correct position, having some problems with our line bowing all the time. It seemed no time at all till we reached the first obstacle, a wooden fence denoting the Emmitsburg Road.

At this point the yell came for those who had drawn ones in the lottery to take a hit. Marching onwards, it must have made an impressive sight to the spectators, as the units shrunk with casualties streaming our behind their trail – it certainly looked it on each side as brigade after brigade of Confederates headed towards the long line of Union soldiers behind their stone wall. (Jill Russell photo)

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Down went our twos and threes, our corporal shouting for them to go down. Then at a run, instinctively bowing our heads, hunching our shoulders, and leaning forward as though walking into a headwind, we crossed the final gap towards the stone wall, the fours going down all around us. I clambered up onto the wall, behind which there was a twenty-yard gap, filled already with Confederate and Union ‘bodies’, then the solid line of Union blue. I ran towards them, watching others round me crashing down to the ground.

I felt someone brush past me, and saw it was General Armistead, carrying his hat pierced on the end of his sword (a famous moment in American history). At this moment, I made it to the front cover of the special Gettysburg edition of Civil War News. The photo below depicts General Armistead during Pickett’s Charge, and there I am right beside him! (Julio C Zangroniz photo)

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I then decided that it was time I went down myself.  I stayed down for a while, watching Union troops shooting, and hearing their ‘Hurrah!’ as the Confederate assault was thrown back. I looked back at the field, which was totally covered with casualties and retreating rebels running back individually and in small groups. There was a group of Confederate and Union soldiers standing near me, so I ‘limped’ over to see what they were looking at. In the centre of the group lay the ‘dying’ General Armistead.

After a while the shooting began to ease off, and it was evident that the battle was at an end. Taps was played on a bugle, and in a very emotional moment, we all, Confederate and Union alike, stopped and took off our caps to honour those real soldiers who fought 135 years ago.

Note: You can read more about my three days at Gettysburg on this old posting about my Gettysburg experience (posted back in February 2012).

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Kapiti Fusiliers: Battles of Rusty Creek and Gettysburg

Getty_9This weekend marks 150 years since the Battle of Gettysburg, the iconic battle of the American Civil War.  

To commemorate this historic engagement, you could re-visit two old postings about my time as a Confederate soldier during the massive 135th reenactment event way back in 1998, first here and then more photos here.

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Or you could read the following one of my resurrected postings from the old Kapiti Fusiliers website describing a Civil War game. Originally posted on September 2005 by Fusilier Paul Crouch, who had recently moved up to Auckland, it describes a spectacular game played on John Berry’s 14′ x 6′ table …

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We played an American Civil War game. There were four on each side, so eight of us all told, including all my old wargame friends from many years ago. Fusilier Mark Strachan was along there too.

The rules used were a set put together by the group up here. They really do work well and capture the flavour of the American Civil War and the ebb and flow of battle.

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John and the boys certainly put on games ‘in the grand manner’ and there was no lack of troops on the table. It was a magnificent sight. As you can see from the photos we reckon there were up to two thousand 25mm figures on the table.  They were mainly Dixon, but Wargames Foundry were in there too.

I tried to focus as many as possible of the photos on John’s buildings to let you get the feel of them. Hopefully you can see the work he does on them. The close-up of the forge (below) is brilliant.  He scratch builds a lot of the stuff you see in these pictures. Also the limbers and wagons in the photos are all John Berry originals.

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The game was a fictional encounter somewhere in Georgia called Rusty Creek, late in the war … a last desperate attempt to throw the Damn Yankees out. I fought with the Johnny Rebs, and held the left flank with two brigades of infantry and artillery.

I was attacked repeatedly throughout the game – in fact my flank was under pressure from the word go. I had three brigade generals killed during the day, a battery of artillery smashed to pieces, and one of my brigades shattered – but they all died gallantly for the cause!

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Above: My own Confederate troops make a guest appearance on the left flank. Under pressure for most of the game, and suffering heavy losses, they held the flank with honour.

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Above: Brewer’s Farm, the centre of the Confederate position.

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Above: Confederate troops mass around Brewer’s Farm.

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Above: Through the cornfields come the Rebels under the command of our host John Berry, on their way to prop up the left flank. This shot reminds me of a scene from the movie Gettysburg … stirring stuff!

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Above: Union troops – loads of artillery. Note the wagons that John Berry has made.

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Above: Reb cavalry under Forrest move out on the right – almost to a man these brave lads were wiped out before the Reb infantry arrived.

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After the smoke died down it was decided that (as in all these large games) a fighting draw was the outcome. The Union hadn’t really coordinated their attacks, and the Rebs had defended stoutly in the face of the blue tide.

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23,000 reenactors at Gettysburg – more photos

As promised in my last post about participating with 23,00 reenactors at Gettysburg in 1998, here are some more photos of the event.  Remember to click on them to see them full-size.


This banner sat at the entrance to our company’s camp throughout the reenactment.


Some of the company relaxing in our camp in the woods.


The horse-lines at dawn … or was it sunset?  I can’t remember!  Lovely, though.


Lieutenant (that’s Loo-tenan’) Bill Russell and my host Ed Christopher survey the massed Confederate army – or part of it, anyway.


Reenacting is a family hobby, especially down at Sutlers’ Row, a veritable shopping mall of tents selling every sort of 19th century paraphernalia. .


Ladies in hooped crinolines and snoods in their hair compare study the event programme in the sun.


A group of colourful 14th Brooklyn soldiers in their distinctive French-style chasseur uniforms.


The evening ball was another of those spine-tingling moments when I slipped back a century – beautiful belles waltzing and dixie-reeling with dashing soldiers to period music.


Time off from the hard work of reenacting in order to have a drink and a sit-down in Sutlers’ Row.


A Union bugler boy.


A Confederate drummer sounds an official note at a regimental square ceremony.


A female vivandiere and friend, in front of a row of carefully stacked rifles and equipment.


I have a feeling this wasn’t a shot I took, but one given to me. It shows a Union artillery limber, flag and guns, in swirling black-powder smoke.


Two Confederate horsemen. Note the modern artillery puller in the background – fortunately such modern anachronisms were removed from sight once the reenactment formally began.


Mounted Confederate officers and standard bearer.


Confederate ‘casualties’ lie prone beneath the guns of a Union advance into the woods.

A Kiwi amongst 23,000 reenactors at Gettysburg

Gettysburg, 1998 – 23,000 uniformed reenactors re-fight the great American Civil War battle that took place there 135 years earlier.  And this Kiwi was there as a private in the 47th Virginia Infantry.  

After the interest displayed in my previous posting on the 2005 reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo, I thought people might also like to find out about my experiences of a few years earlier at one of the biggest reenactments ever held, which took place on the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.  

This article was originally posted on my old Gettysburg website.  I’ve updated the article and added a whole lot more photos.  Some of these pics are pretty impressive when enlarged, so don’t forget to click on them. Note that these images are scanned from my old paper prints – one day I’ll take the negatives to a photographic shop and get better quality digital prints made of them.  

Anyway, let’s slip back to the year 1998 (and, with luck,  maybe even further back than that to 1863) …

‘Shoulder arms! …Right face! …Forward march!’ shouted our First Sergeant. Hefting my musket onto my shoulder, I stepped forward, keeping in line with the other men of the 47th Virginia Infantry of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, who were ranged in two ranks on either side of me. A soldier carrying a bright red flag emblazoned with a blue diagonal cross and white stars marched in front of our formation, while from behind us came the steady rat-a-tat-a-tat of a drum. The sun glinted off our bayonets as they swayed above us in time to our gait.

On either side of our lines, we could see other companies stretching off into the distance, all clad like us in a mixture of well-worn grey and brown uniforms, topped by battered hats of all shapes and sizes.

From my place in the rear rank, I could look over the shoulder of the man in front of me to where, a hundred or so yards in front of us, an apparently solid line of dark blue stretched away on both sides. The glinting of bayonets and the fluttering red-and-white-striped flags showed that this blue line was the waiting enemy.

‘Company! …Halt! …Front!’ came the shouted order. ‘Load!’ I pulled a paper-wrapped cartridge out of the box attached to my belt, stuck it between my teeth, and ripped off the end. Carefully I poured out the black granules of gunpowder down the barrel of the musket, then reached into another pouch on my belt for a small metal primer cap, which I fitted over a nipple near the trigger.

‘Fire by company! …Ready!’ I brought the loaded musket up in front of me. ‘Aim!’ Being careful to ensure that neither the end of the barrel nor the primer cap were right next to the ear of the soldier in front of me, I lifted the musket up and pointed it at the wall of dark blue in front of me. ‘Fire!’ With a sound like ripping canvas, the whole company fired in unison. The effect of this volley on the enemy was impossible to discern, as a blanket of white gun-smoke billowed out in front of us.

I suddenly felt the trappings of the twentieth century disappear. I was experiencing what my fellow reenactors termed a ‘period rush’. I really was a Confederate soldier, it really was 1863, and I really was fighting for my country in Pennsylvania, near a small market-town called Gettysburg!

How did I come to be in Gettysburg like this, feeling as though I had travelled back in time 135 years? The answer to that question has more to do with modern technology than history.

Civil War Re-enacting

The previous year my family had finally joined the Information Age by investing in a smart new computer, complete with Internet connection. Among the software we installed on our machine was the game Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, a recreation of that famous American Civil War battle, fought by tiny animated soldiers across a colourful map.

Making this game even more appealing was the ability to play it over the Internet against opponents all over the world, and so I met (or, to be exact, virtually met) Ed Christopher, a retired US Army officer living in Culpeper, Virginia.

Ed spoke to me about his hobby of reenacting American Civil War battles in real life rather than on computer screens, a pastime I had never heard of. We exchanged a lot of e-mails in which I asked Ed all about his unusual hobby, and in the end Ed invited me to join him and Company I of the 47th Virginia Infantry at the forthcoming 135th anniversary reenactment of the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg.

‘Hot, tired, often miserable, sore feet, dying of thirst, bathed in sweat, eaten up by insects,’ Ed promised me, ‘but it will be the most fun you have ever had in your life!! Just wait until you see (and join) the first massive infantry formations, bayoneted muskets glimmering in the sunlight like a virtual forest of steel, colors flying, and the fifes and drums playing. If you don’t get chills down your spine something’s wrong!’

With the 47th at Gettysburg

The original Battle of Gettysburg took place over three days from July 1-3 in 1863. The Confederate army, under General Robert E Lee was defeated by the Union army commanded by General George Meade, with over 51,000 casualties to both sides.   The reenactment took place right next to the original battlefield, and involved 23,000 reenactors, including 700 cavalry and 135 cannons.

There were around 100,000 spectators over the three days of the reenactment. This was the biggest-ever battle reenactment held in the United States.

Reenactors are not real soldiers, but enthusiastic amateurs who do this as a hobby, with clubs portraying various Civil War units spread throughout the United States.  I played the role of a private in the 47th Virginia Infantry, a Confederate regiment which really fought at Gettysburg.

My fellow soldiers in the 47th included school teachers, farmers, grocery clerks, active duty and retired US Marines, a lawyer, a retired US Army officer, high school and college students and many others from all walks of life. There were one or two women who were uniformed as men (well enough to hide their gender), and the drummers and fifers were mainly young people.

My host, Ed Christopher

The reenactors went to great lengths to ensure accuracy. The uniforms were made of the correct heavy wool cloth, right down to the weave. They carried authentic replica weaponry and equipment. Even the shoes had to be replicas of 135 year old brogans.

‘I usually wear a (dirty and stained by the years) butternut sack coat and a pair of filthy and patched gray wool trousers,’ Ed told me. ‘I often sling a filthy patchwork quilt blanket roll over my shoulders, but when it is too hot, I usually leave it off. I always wear a beat-up brown slouch hat. I never clean either my coats or trousers, and they look and smell like it too!’

Accommodation was in period-correct tents with straw for bedding. The camp was situated on a large rolling wooded farm. One could walk for an half-an-hour in any direction and not be out of the confines of the camp.

At night the effect could be magical.  ‘The camps are illuminated by hundreds of campfires,’ commented Ed. ‘Meals are cooked in iron skillets and pots over the open fires. Around many of the fires, the boys break out the fiddles and banjos, and we listen to and sing along with all the old Civil War tunes and songs.’

I had to learn how to load and fire the fully-working replica musket, and also how to march in the intricate manoeuvres used on the field of battle in those days. The marching turned out to be easier than I expected, as it did not require the spit and polish expected on modern parade grounds – soldiers of those days ambled in formation, rather than marching, in time to the music of fife-and-drums.

‘There is nothing that will stir your blood more,’ Ed added, ‘than when we march in massive long columns to the fifes and drums. Dense gray and brown columns of Confederates, flags flying, muskets on shoulders (with fixed bayonets gleaming in the sun), that stretch as far as the eye can see; all swaying in time to the fifes and drums playing Bonnie Blue Flag, or Gary Owen, or Dixie, or any of a hundred other tunes, as we march onto the fields. Rebel Yells, screams, and cheers soaring above the columns, dusty hats being wildly waved above heads, and the cheers and applause of tens of thousands of spectators on the sidelines as we march by…. It sends chills down your spine!!!’

Health and Safety

Safety was rigorously enforced. Before every engagement the officers would carefully check every musket. These, of course, were loaded only with gunpowder and no bullets. But there was still the real potential for injury from concussion, paper wadding or unintentional discharges. Closer than fifty yards muskets were to be aimed five feet over the enemy’s heads, not at them. Despite the safety checks, one reenactor was shot in the throat by a bullet accidentally left in an officer’s pistol – fortunately he survived.

Ed warned me that one time when injuries could occur was when fighting for the enemy’s flag. ‘I have grabbed Yankee colors before,’ he explained, ‘but had the sense to clearly let the colorbearer and anyone of his nearby comrades know that it was really for ‘show’ and I wasn’t going anywhere with them……yeah, right!! However, in about every case I was (rightfully) beaten to the ground.’

‘In the making of the movie Gettysburg I went over the wall with General Armistead, and on one of the ‘takes’ found myself face-to-face with the colorbearer – who got a bit too far ahead of his men – of the 72nd Pennsylvania. I ‘bayoneted’ him in the gut, he went down gloriously with his colors, but before I could even hope to touch them, I was literally clubbed to the ground on top of a pile of other bodies. I got up bleeding … and this was for a movie, for God’s sake!’

The other main danger was caused by the extremely high temperatures. There were over 300 cases of heat exhaustion on the first day alone. Our officers often checked that our canteens were full of water and stressed the need to drink often.

How to Die!

The actual engagements were awe-inspiring experiences. I ‘died’ four times during the three days of the battle. In general reenactors ‘took a hit’ when it was obvious that they should. ‘You will notice,’ Ed explained, ‘that often the officers (and the rank and file) will start shouting ‘Take hits, boys!!! We need to take some hits!!’ This is the case when we are clearly in a situation where we should be falling like flies due to the massed musketry and/or cannon fire directed at us. Then, we start to fall here and there or in clusters.’

‘Dying’ was also a good way of just having a rest and enjoying the sights and sounds. Returning to life had to be done very discreetly so that it would not be obvious to spectators. ‘The battle-lines ebb and flow back and forth most of the time,’ Ed told me. ‘If you are lying on the ground dead or wounded, when your own battle-line passes over you again, simply get back on your feet and blend into the mass of men. No one can see you do this from the spectator standpoint, and we all do it. I make a habit of it. Where it really looks unprofessional is when fellows rise back up in the middle of the open field with no one around them, and resume their fight.’

Pickett’s Charge

The highlight of the three days was the reenactment of what has become known as Pickett’s Charge, a doomed frontal attack by the Confederates against the Union infantry and artillery ensconced behind a stone wall. In the real battle, the majority of Confederate troops fell or retreated before they got to this stone wall, but a few did make it over, until they too were killed or captured.

To reenact this turning point in American history, it was important that just as many reenactors fell before they got to the wall. Because every Confederate reenactor wanted the distinction of climbing over the wall, this was done by way of a lottery, with everyone except the winners having to die or retreat before reaching the wall – I was very fortunate to be one of the few who drew a winning number!

There were about 12,000 Confederate reenactors involved in Pickett’s Charge, which meant we were doing a full scale reenactment of the event. We had to cover about half a mile of open ground, before finally reaching the blue-uniformed Federal infantry, lined up about four deep for the entire half-mile or so length of the low stone wall and fenceline.

In silence, each Confederate brigade headed off towards its ‘destiny’. We did a few obliques (diagonal movements) to place ourselves in the correct position, having some problems with our line bowing all the time. It seemed no time at all till we reached the first obstacle, a wooden fence denoting the Emmitsburg Road.

At this point the yell came for those who had drawn ones in the lottery to take a hit. Marching onwards, it must have made an impressive sight to the spectators, as the units shrunk with casualties streaming our behind their trail – it certainly looked it on each side as brigade after brigade of Confederates headed towards the long line of Union soldiers behind their stone wall. (Jill Russell photo)

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Down went our twos and threes, our corporal shouting for them to go down. Then at a run, instinctively bowing our heads, hunching our shoulders, and leaning forward as though walking into a headwind, we crossed the final gap towards the stone wall, the fours going down all around us. I clambered up onto the wall, behind which there was a twenty-yard gap, filled already with Confederate and Union ‘bodies’, then the solid line of Union blue. I ran towards them, watching others round me crashing down to the ground.

I felt someone brush past me, and saw it was General Armistead, carrying his hat pierced on the end of his sword (a famous moment in American history). At this moment, I made it to the front cover of the special Gettysburg edition of Civil War News. The photo below depicts General Armistead during Pickett’s Charge, and there I am right beside him! (Julio C Zangroniz photo)

I then decided that it was time I went down myself.  I stayed down for a while, watching Union troops shooting, and hearing their ‘Hurrah!’s as the Confederate assault was thrown back. I looked back at the field, which was totally covered with casualties and retreating rebels running back individually and in small groups. There was a group of Confederate and Union soldiers standing near me, so I ‘limped’ over to see what they were looking at. In the centre of the group lay the ‘dying’ General Armistead.

After a while the shooting began to ease off, and it was evident that the battle was at an end. Taps was played on a bugle, and in a very emotional moment, we all, Confederate and Union alike, stopped and took off our caps to honour those real soldiers who fought 135 years ago.

Overall the reenactors were not glorifying war. ‘For most of us,’ commented Ed, ‘this is genuinely stepping back 135 years and seeing and hearing and doing what our great-grandfathers experienced. Many in the ranks claim a direct connection to the war, and Gettysburg in particular. A direct desendant of General George Pickett is in one of the units. We are what we call ‘living historians’ and do our utmost to be very professional about all this. For ourselves, for our forefathers, and for the public who attends.’

To me the sincerity of what they were doing was obvious. Some were honouring those who had fallen (often direct ancestors), some were there to add to their already extensive knowledge of Civil War history, some were genuinely feeling what it was like to live 135 years ago in a time of bitter strife, and some were there more for the simple pleasures of an old-fashioned way of life than for the battles.

All in all, it was amazing to be able to travel not only half-way around the world, but also 135 years back in time. My sincerest thanks for an amazing experience go to Ed Christopher and the men and women of the 47th Virginia Infantry!

I’ve got quite a few more photos of this huge event, so I’ve added another gallery here.

Father and son bonding at Waterloo

What, is it already nearly seven years since my son and  I took part in the re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo?  How time flies!

I was recently browsing though my old Favourites (as you do!) and found myself re-reading my old article about our experiences at Waterloo in 2005.  I thought it might be worth resurrecting it here for those you who didn’t see it at the time.

“Vive l’Empereur!” comes the enthusiastic cry, as the familiar grey-coated man on a white horse canters past, escorted by his Chausseurs à Cheval de la Garde. Like the rest of my comrades in the 85ème Régiment d’Infanterie de Ligne, I place my pokalem hat on the end of my musket and wave it up in the air. It is as if I have stepped back 190 years, and really am shouting out my allegiance to my emperor.

But, no, the time is the present, and this is not the real Battle of Waterloo, but the 190th anniversary reenactment, which is taking place near the village of Plancenoit, part of the original battlefield. Along with about 2,500 other reenactors, I am playing the part of a Napoleonic soldier, in my case a French fusilier in the 85ème Régiment d’Infanterie de Ligne.

For some time I had been planning to visit Europe with my teenage son, and decided that it would be interesting to watch a reenactment event whilst we were there. So I posted on The Miniatures Page to find out what events were happening in mid-2005 that we could see. Fons Libert of the 85ème promptly replied, saying that not only could we watch Waterloo, but we were welcome to join his regiment!

So here we were, a few weeks later, camped near Plancenoit with a large group of fellow “French” reenactors. Our camp was just one of several dotted over the Waterloo countryside. The Imperial Guard was quartered at Le Caillou (Napoleon’s headquarters), the British and Dutch at Hougoumont, and the Prussians at Plancenoit.

Fons had asked us to ensure we had white trousers and shirts, but all other uniform and equipment would be loaned to us. At the depot tent we were supplied with greatcoats, cartouche boxes or gibernes, gaiters, and pokalem undress hats.

I decided I would like to have a hat to keep afterwards, so I had commissioned Eunice, a member of the 85ème, to make me a pokalem beforehand.

The campsite itself was a sea of small white tents, most containing just straw and old blankets for bedding. Cooking was all done on open fires. In our case, the cooking was done under the charge of Dèsirée, a lovely Swedish/Dutch lady who seemed to have everything well under control. And what wonderful food she and her crew produced from such a rudimentary kitchen!

One thing I found interesting was how much of a family hobby reenacting is in Europe. There were nearly as many women as men in our unit, most portraying camp-followers and civilians, but some dressing as men in the regiment. There were even several children. One of the women told me that she loved reenactment events even though she was not at all interested in military history, because she just enjoyed leaving the stress of modern life behind and camping in a simple back-to-basics style. No mobile phones, no barbeques, no refrigerators, no computers!

The 85ème Régiment d’Infanterie de Ligne is a particularly interesting reenactment unit, as it is so multinational. Unlike most other groups, which are based in individual countries, the 85ème has separate files in various countries, all of whom come together for important events such as this one. So we had members of the Dutch, Belgian, French and English files all taking part, not to mention some Germans, Australians, Poles, a Mexican and even some New Zealanders!

The regiment is broken up into a number of pelotons (platoons), which are each divided into escouades (squads) led by a caporal (corporal). Our caporal was Ian Dickie, the editor of the well-known wargaming magazine ‘Miniature Wargaming’.

With myself and my son Oliver, and also my brother-in-law Robert, representing New Zealand, and David, Tracy and Patrick from Australia, we joked that the 85ème even had an Anzac file! This was emphasized by David wearing his Australian slouch hat during light-hearted moments – though from a distance one could be excused for thinking it was a civilian hat that might well have been worn by French soldiers on campaign.

The first task was to learn the drill – firstly just the recruits, then the whole company, and finally joined by another unit (the 45ème Régiment) to drill as a battalion.

The commands were, of course, all in French. “Peloton, garde à vous!” (platoon, attention). “Peloton, par le flanc droit , à droite!” (platoon, right face). “En avant, marche!” (forward march).

I was especially impressed with our Sergent and Sergent-Major, who had to instruct us in both fluent English and French – they did this seamlessly.

Only veterans were allowed to fire their muskets during the reenactment. But we recruits still had to learn how to load and fire, as we were given replica muskets to carry. Before long, we could follow the commands, and were able to simulate loading and firing with the best of them. “Armez!” (cock the hammer). “En joue!” (present). “Feu!” (fire). “Chargez!” (reload).

After the drill sessions, I had a bit of time to wander over to some nearby stables where the horsemen of both armies were quartered. What a sight to see such resplendent uniforms that I had only seen before in books and on model soldiers!

The day of the battle dawned. We were woken by the rattle of drums, and emerged to a sultry hot day. In fact, the heat during the whole of this event was incredible, and caused quite a few cases of heat exhaustion. We carried as much water as we could, and had to continually stop to take sips and keep hydrated. Although Oliver and I wore heavy greatcoats, their looseness apparently makes them feel a little cooler than the tight jackets worn by most reenactors. I can now see how such heat must have been a killer back in Napoleonic times.

After falling in and receiving a pep-talk from our Captain (and founder of the 85ème, Mark Evans), we marched off down the lane towards Plancenoit village itself. I felt moved to be marching along the same roads that Napoleon’s men would have tramped on their way to meet the Prussians during the final hours of the real Waterloo.

The battle was in three stages. First there was a short spell of street fighting in the village of Plancenoit. We then made our way to a large field, where several aspects of the real battle were recreated, including the massed infantry attack, the cavalry charges, and the artillery cannonades. This was all done in front of huge crowds of spectators.

During this battle an incident occurred which shook even the most experienced members of our unit. A lone British cavalryman charged towards the 85ème. But instead of swinging away at the last minute, as reenactors are supposed to do, he charged straight into our ranks and lunged at the eagle. The guys who were in the way of the horse had to jump aside, and were lucky not to have been injured. He didn’t quite manage to grab the eagle, so galloped back to his squadron. [The above picture of this incident  is well worth clicking and enlarging.]

I have never seen someone as angry as our Sergent-Major, who stormed over to the British cavalry unit and almost hauled the man off his horse. I understand that non-scripted actions such as those of this cavalryman are an absolute no-no for safety reasons, and that our unit has since lodged an official complaint with the organisers. But my son Oliver, who was standing near the eagle, will forever dine out on the time he was charged by a heavy cavalryman!

The last part of battle recreated the final square of French retreating as the battle was lost. For this iconic moment of history, all the French units present joined together to make one large square, whilst all the allied units (British, Dutch/Belgian, and Prussian) massed around and fired into the square in a series of ripping volleys.

Many of us in the 85ème decided this would be an appropriate moment to “die”, so fell down after the next British volley. This gave us an impressive view as the British redcoats advanced to mop up the square.

After the battle, we came back to life and marched back into camp, to the applause of the many thousands of spectators. Back in camp we formed an inwards facing square and performed the moving ceremony of wrapping the flag and casing the eagle. Even though we were just reenactors, and the eagle was a mere replica, one could still feel the homage that Napoleon’s soldiers paid to these symbols. This was another moment I felt I slid back into time.

Later on, several of the 85ème “Anzacs” ventured over to Hougoumont to meet another group of Australians reenacting on the allied side. What a shame I had not thought to bring a New Zealand flag!

Hougoumont itself is an eerie place to walk through, with so many memories of the hard fighting that went on there 190 years ago. In front of a small chapel in the chateau confines, the allied reenactors placed several wreaths and an honour guard. This, I felt, was entirely appropriate to remember the sacrifices of those real soldiers of so long ago, who had had to combat much more than just the heat and the charge of a lone horseman.

Many thanks to the wonderfully hospitable men and women of the 85ème Régiment d’Infanterie de Ligne, for giving Oliver, Robert and myself an experience that will always live in our memories.

My Waterloo photo wins a national newspaper competition!

A photo that I took during the 2005 reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo has just won me a digital camera!  This occured in the weekly ‘Smugshot’ travel photo competiton in the Sunday Star-Times,  one of New Zealand’s national Sunday papers.

Coincidently, the camera I have won is the exact same model that my wife recently bought me!

Here’s the caption of the photograph in the Sunday Star-Times:

Waterloo, Belgium

Roly Hermans, Paraparaumu

My son and I travelled to Belgium to a reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo.  One morning we were walking across the site where the battle actually took place in 1815, when we heard the sound of hooves behind us.  We turned to see the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, riding towards us with his cavalry escort.  Even though the ‘Emperor’ was only an actor, we felt awed, and as the cavalcade trotted past us it felt like we had not only had travelled halfway round the world, but also nearly two hundred years back in time.

Below is a better view of the winning photo (click on the pic to enlarge it).  I must admit that I have always been particularly pleased with this shot.  The composition worked out really well with the horsemen rounding a bend, and the morning light and dust in the background really emphasise Napoleon on his white horse.  And, if it wasn’t for the electric fence in the background, this photo could almost have been taken in 1815!


You can see lots more of my photos of the 2005 Waterloo reenactment, and also read my reminiscences of the event, on this posting.

 

 

Reenactment of the Treaty of Waitangi (1840)

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The forthcoming launch of the Empress Miniatures range of figures for the New Zealand Wars of the 1840s has brought to mind the part I took over 20 years ago in an unforgetable  reenactment event.  

In 1990 I was one of five New Zealand police officers selected to take part in the official reenactment of the Treaty of Waitangi on the 150th sesquicentennial anniversary of its signing.  We represented the five New South Wales Mounted Police troopers who accompanied Captain William Hobson RN from Australia in 1840.  Hobson was the new Governor of New Zealand, and he signed the Treaty on behalf of the Crown with the chiefs of many of the tribes of New Zealand. 

The reenactment  featured well-known actors and descendants of the real-life Treaty signatories.  It was played on the grounds of the Waitangi meeting house in the beautiful Bay of Islands, in front of a large audience, including Queen Elizabeth II. 

The five of us were all police history buffs, so we researched the NSW Mounted Police uniforms of the time,  and had them sewn up for us by a theatrical company.  So overall we were probably relatively realistic – from a distance, anyway.  The same could not be said for the naval officers, whose uniforms were definitely not accurate from any distance.  The Maori chiefs, however, really looked the part.

While the reenactment was mainly about the discussions and debates that went on before and during the actual signing of the Treaty, the highpoint for me was being rowed ashore in a cutter with the official party at the start of the event.  The crew were all in period costume.  On each side we were accompanied by several huge ‘waka’, or Maori canoes.  It was spine tingling listening to the paddlers chanting across the water.   It was one of those moments in reenacting when you feel as though you have really stepped back in time.  The memory will live with me forever.

To see much bigger images of the pictures from the slideshow at the top of the page, click on the thumbnails below.