Living History: A Soldier’s Life Part II
When I arrived back at the encampment the next day, I noticed a change in the overall demeanor of the living historians. The fraternization between allies and axis had ceased. Soldiers were moving about with urgency and purpose. They were checking weapons, handing out (blank) ammunition, tying boots, buckling straps, and so on. Soon, everyone would be heading out to the battlefield.
American troops began to gather in an open staging area away from the tents. They swaggered in from their enormous encampment with their rifles cradled in their arms like they were off to rabbit hunt. They wore their protective helmets raffishly cocked to the side, their rucksacks slung over one shoulder. Hand grenades hung casually from the straps on their uniforms. While they stood around talking, a small convoy of troop trucks rumbled into the staging area. One by one, the GI’s climbed into the backs or over the sides of the trucks. Their movements were informal and un-rushed. They helped boost one another up to the floorboards, then handed up their rifles. A few of the GI’s sitting in the trucks leaned over the sides and kissed the Clara Bow lips of sweethearts who wore flowered print dresses with their hair up in rolling waives and curls. The trucks popped their clutches and rumbled off down the path, sweethearts waiving and calling to their beaus.
The German troops approached the staging area in lockstep formation, their jackboots pounding the path’s surface in bone chilling, precise unison. They lined up beside the path and stood at attention while their sinister looking halftracks roared to a halt. From attention, they snapped into choreographed and robotically efficient movements, climbing into the halftracks. They sat at perfect attention again, holding their rifles directly in front of them, their vacant eyes locked to the soldiers sitting across the aisle. They swayed only a bit as their vehicles lurched forward. Shouts brought the halftracks to an almost immediate halt, however. The Italian troops were running and gesticulating as they approached from the direction of their camp, their medals jangled, ribbons fluttered in the wind, their ornately decorated headgear nearly toppling from the tops of their heads.
When they reached the back of the halftracks they clambered to get inside. The first heaved himself up and flopped to his belly onto the floorboards. The second heaved and did not make it, heaved again, and then reached up to be pulled up by his already boarded comrade. This went on a half a dozen times, and the whole time they did not stop chattering. They finally took seats next to their silent German allies. The large feathered plume jutting from an Italian’s hat tickled the cheek of a German soldier seated beside him—the German sighed and rolled his eyes.
The French troops were nowhere to be seen.
The Soviet troops marched through the staging area without stopping. They had no time to waste. They had some distance to travel, and had to do it on foot. They were followed by their unit’s one vehicle—a Ford Model A, painted in Soviet insignias, outfitted with a single machinegun, and laden with troops who hung from the running boards like a Tijuana Taxi.
I had the same distance to walk, and so I fell in behind the Soviet column. I noticed the disposition of their troops was decidedly more female than the others—which is incidentally not at all anachronistic. In fact, the Soviet army in WWII was comprised of a very large percentage of women. And like their historical counterparts, the women who marched in front of me wore the uniforms and carried the weapons of snipers. In the 1940’s, Soviet officers reckoned that women were more capable of patience, prolonged periods of discomfort, and vengeance. They were right. Thousands of women snipers held back the German invasion of Stalingrad and in a major way, defeated the Nazi menace one well-placed shot at a time.
I broke off from the Soviet column and made my way to the spectator area. There, a large crowd looked across a cordoned barrier to a large field with dense treelines to the left and right. In the middle lay faux architectural ruins, a few bunkers, and some pill-boxes. There were yet no troops to be seen, until a single mounted soldier—one of the SS cavalry—rode his horse alone out into the middle of the field. He was a screen, or patrol, meant to be the eyes of the larger force that followed him.
In the opposite treeline I noticed British troops who had been, heretofore, unseen. They were preparing to pounce on the German patrol—but in a “keep calm and carry on” fashion. Some of them sat astride idling armored cars futzing with their cravats and lighting pipes. Others stood by–mustachioed and bekilted, Enfields in hand. The British forces did not follow the same path or arrive in the same location as the rest of the allies. Monty. Typical.
The shooting began, and I cannot say who started it. In a few moments, the field was awash with rattling machineguns, cannon fire, rumbling tank tracks, and shouts–the din of which was surpassed only by a Briton blowing and banging away on his bagpipes.
As the battle raged on I thought about comments that people made to me when I explained what I would be watching this day. Some were curious. Some were uninterested. Many were dismissive and snarky—They’re grown men running around in period costumes. True. Similar to a baseball game or a church service, I suppose.
This battle, like all others, eventually ended–and in the end, the allies were left to gather the spoils, pick over the dead, and march off POW’s at gunpoint.
I left the battle with mixed feelings about the entire affair. Or maybe not mixed, but rather with complicated feelings. I reconsidered the question I had been asked the previous day by the German troops—would I reenact? It didn’t seem likely that I would. Was it simply that I would be discomforted by representing Nazi’s? That was part of it. But I suspect I would be similarly discomforted by the role should I play a Nazi in the legitimate theatre. I tried then to imagine myself portraying a more heroic role. Maybe a day-cravatted Briton with a swagger stick and bagpipe accompaniment. Or a Polish Uhlan mounting a cavalry charge against German armor. No, and no, I decided.
It isn’t that the pastime is beneath me. Nor do I find it the least bit offensive. But the reenactment lacked the parts of the story that I always find most compelling. Where were the starving civilian refugees? Where were the political prisoners? Where were the poor souls who dig the graves? Those are the stories that I want to learn. Besides all of this, I have never been one to be theatrical. Not intentionally, anyway.
While I don’t believe I could ever participate, I do appreciate the living historians. They live to preserve the details—the minutia of a soldier’s life. During World War II: How did an Italian soldier button his tunic? How did a German prepare his breakfast? How did a Soviet clean the rust from her weapon? These are questions that would be difficult to answer with a history book. But I am sure that these historians could explain—and with great detail. There is some value to that.
Looking back on my weekend observing living historians, war reenactors, or whatever we shall call them, it is clear to me that this is a pastime that has existed for time immemorial—and indeed has been a significant part of our culture…
Excerpt from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer:
Tom skirted the block, and came round into a muddy alley that led by the back of his aunt’s cow-stable. He presently got safely beyond the reach of capture and punishment, and hastened toward the public square of the village, where two “military” companies of boys had met for conflict, according to previous appointment. Tom was General of one of these armies, Joe Harper, General of the other. These two great commanders did not condescend to fight in person — that being better suited to the still smaller fry — but sat together on an eminence and conducted the field operations by orders delivered through aides-de-camp. Tom’s army won a great victory, after a long and hard-fought battle. Then the dead were counted, prisoners exchanged, the terms of the next disagreement agreed upon, and the day for the necessary battle appointed; after which the armies fell into line and marched away, and Tom turned homeward alone.
~ Mark Twain