Living History: A Soldier’s Life
Some years back I read about the world of historical reenacting in the worthwhile book Confederates in the Attic, by Tony Horwitz. It was a vivid book that followed the passions of a Civil War reenactor and historian named Robert Lee Hodge. Shortly after its publication, the book received a great deal of attention, winning prestigious awards and earning its way onto the university reading list at UNC. It piqued my interest and I always wondered what it would be like to witness such a thing.
There are some things that simply must be observed for oneself—those things about which hearing or reading simply won’t do. Several years after reading the book, I decided finally that I must see a living history encampment for myself. There is one that is held every spring near my home—one that commemorates the soldiers of WWII.
It was mid morning by the time I reached the county park in which the redux war would be staged. Large crowds were already gathered and so I parked my vehicle in a lot some distance from the hostilities. The only way to approach was on foot, and so I walked a plain looking paved sidewalk and noticed that, as I neared the base camp, the density of vehicles shifted from Honda Accords and Ford Explorers to olive drab Willy’s Jeeps and camouflaged halftracks. I also began to see comparatively fewer park goers in white sneakers and bright fleece jackets, and more scruffy looking helmeted soldiers with grimy tunics and heavy rifles slung over their shoulders. On short, crooked posts hung hand-painted signs that pointed to Berlin this way, Paris that way. Rolls of barbed wire uncoiled to cordon off areas of ammunition crates, pup tents, and and make-shift canteens. As I crested a small hill at the edge of the camp, I looked down into a shallow valley. A world of 1944 lay before me. Tanks and trucks of various design were lined up neatly in a motor-pool area. Artillery pieces pointed their barrels skyward. Sand-bagged machine gun nests were scattered throughout the perimeter. Uniformed soldiers were everywhere. Some soldiers marched in small columns, others milled about futzing with historical artifacts.
Standing on this small hill, I could see that the base camp was, if anything, quite orderly. Tents were lined up in perfect linear order. Equipment was stacked and stowed neatly. I could discern sectors of different national origin and one clear dividing line. To one side lay axis troops, to the other the allies, and between the two, only a small footpath about four feet wide. Each nation’s encampment was made of tents of different shape and color—some dark green, others mustard yellow, a few splotchy camouflage. To make clear their allegiances, each grouping of tents flew a flag.
If there was anything disconcerting about the scene, it was the general peace between the soldiers of belligerent nations. I was immediately struck by fraternization shared between a group of American soldiers who were admiring the weapons of a group of Germans. They passed their rifles back and forth and chatted and laughed and wandered off together talking as old friends. From a distance I watched them, waiting for one group to get the drop on the other and take prisoners or mow down their enemies. They just continued talking and laughing.
The camp was what living historians call a static display—and with few exceptions, it was entirely open to the public. People are encouraged to wander around, ask questions, and inspect the historical materials. I began a short walking tour of the displays.
The troops whose presence was most numerous was by far the Americans. They were everywhere and their camp was sprawling with dozens of pup tents, officer’s tents, supply tents, and even a surgical tent that displayed an operating theatre including all the medical accoutrements. The American encampment lacked no necessity, nor any luxury.
What the Italians lacked numerically, they made up for sartorially. While there were only a handful for them, they wore the most beautiful uniforms to be fielded in battle. Their tunics were tailored smartly, with stylish coloring and artistic design. Had it been possible to win a war with accessories, we would all be speaking Italian.
Ah, the French. There was no order to them. They wore no uniforms and they had no rank or hierarchy. Instead, they wore trench coats, pinstriped suits, and cordovan shoes. They roistered around between encampments but carried no weapons. Instead of rifles, they hefted bottles of wine, bread bags, and placards that derided the Boche. There was also no encampment of their own–no tents. I imagined they had some faux brothel into which they slinked during the later hours of the evening.
Approaching the Soviet camp, I was startled by a human skeleton (fake I assume) that was dressed in a Nazi uniform propped up at the gateway to the camp. A wooden sign hung around its neck that labeled the corpse “Fritz.” He was the grim mascot that reflected the depravity that resulted from siege.
The last encampment I visited was a group of German SS soldiers who were particularly well-outfitted. By far they had the finest quality equipment and the most orderly campsite. I also noticed that they were the only historical representatives with mounted cavalry—their horses pastured nearby. This deepened my interest immediately and I began inspecting the horse tack and other equine curios that they had on display. I asked several questions of the representatives that were standing by and they also seemed impressed by my curiosity. In return they asked me questions–Have I ever thought of reenacting? Would I like to participate? They explained that they were always looking for members with an interest in history and especially a background in equestrianism. Quite offhandedly I muttered something about not being eligible to be a Nazi and I noticed a sudden change in the tenor of my hosts. They didn’t need to say a word—their grimaced faces said it all—We aren’t actually Nazi’s, we are playing a role here. They might have also verbalized something to this effect, but I didn’t hear over the beaming and flush embarrassment upon my own face. Without thinking, my comments had just delivered the most undeservedly severe insult imaginable. I was horrified by my own indelicacy and I apologized and left quickly.
I planned to return to the camp the next day. In the morning, a large battle was scheduled, and it would be attended by all present nationalities. I looked forward to the spectacle of it. But I knew I must return with a different perspective and understanding that this was all, of course, theatre.