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The Way Things Were. Maybe.

By David Flin

He's not happy.

In some circles, it is considered fair game to sneer at historical re-enactors as plastic imitations, as distortion-itis, as rose-tinted spectacles, and quite a few more epithets in addition to these that are unsuitable for a family audience. For example, Terry Pratchett in Feet of Clay [1] pokes fun at the English Civil War re-enactors the Sealed Knot [2] (transformed into the Peeled Nuts in the book).


In some cases – perhaps many cases – I can’t really argue that these criticisms aren’t deserved. There’s a lot of historical re-enactments that portray “life as we like to think it was”, giving a Downton Abbey-esque approach to actual history. History is changed to suit the preferences of those presenting it, without the slightest concern for accuracy.


However, there is also a hard-core element in any re-enactment society that tries to do things as authentically as possible. It’s generally the case that the real battle lines in historical re-enactments is not Normans vs Saxons, or Royalists vs Roundheads, or North vs South, or Vikings vs defenceless Monks (adjust for appropriate period), but Casual vs Hard Core. That’s where the true battles and hatreds in re-enacting lie.


I have a confession, a dark secret. Some time ago, back when I had a back and two kidneys, I was involved in such things. Curiously, given that I am British, I was involved in American Civil War re-enacting. What’s more, having done soldiering professionally previously, I was regarded as a natural sergeant. One day I will not get typecast.


But today is not that day, it seems. That said, the keen re-enactor will come up with a backstory for their character, in a manner that will be all too familiar to RPG players.

I seem to have digressed.


One thing I quickly discovered was that when you did things with what they had available, the easiest and most effective way of doing it was the way they did it back then. It always comes as a surprise to a lot of people that people did this, and those tropes of time-travellers going to the past and teaching people how to use their tools more efficiently is, well, nonsense.


It can also prove to be a significant learning experience. I’ve mentioned (Editor: interminably) that I had been a sergeant in the Royal Marines and, due to the curse of typecasting, I was quickly made sergeant of the unit I was with. Which meant I had to take close-order drill. Curiously, this was a huge learning experience for me. Oh, I’d done close order drill before. That bit was easy. People may mock at close order drill, but it is an efficient way of getting a body of men from one place to another while remaining a cohesive unit.


But I had never needed to do so over broken ground before.

Moving a formed body of troops over broken ground isn't easy, I assure you.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons, taken from the history of the 9th Connecticut Infantry.

If I had thought about it, I would have guessed that it wouldn’t make that much difference. Actually doing it made me realise I would have been wrong. It does.


Broken ground is not uniformly broken. Pretty obvious, you would have thought, but it’s not something I’ve seen much of in fiction, historical writing, or films. In these, ground tends to be broken or clear, and gradations rare, and everyone in the line has the same degree of difficulty.


Things get complicated when one end of the battle line is crossing a relatively smooth piece of ground with a slight incline, while the other end is struggling with a huge number of rabbit holes over ground that rises and falls alarmingly; when you can’t shuffle the unit right or left because other units are in those spaces; when you can’t simply say: “Break ranks. Five minute break. Reform by that stone wall,” because there is notionally an enemy force in the vicinity – then it takes some judgement in pacing things.

Broken ground. Good luck.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I learned more about close order drill over broken ground than I ever did in the Marines.


That wasn’t the only thing I learned.


Reading memoirs of Union soldiers who took part in repelling Pickett’s Charge on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg (that well known POD that is about as hard as Sealion to get it to result in a change to the overall outcome. Indeed, the term ASB was first used in describing this premise. But I digress....), those memoirs were quite specific that, as the soldiers rose to face the oncoming slavery-supporters, a murmur ran down the line. The memoirs were all terribly coy about what that murmuring was, but it was definitely something that many, many different participants referenced.


Fast forward to 1988 and the 125th anniversary of the battle. There was an enormous re-enactment arranged at the site. For reasons too complicated to go into here, I was working in America at the time, and managed to talk my way into participating. On the Union side, of course.


We sat at the stone wall while the Confederate artillery burnt powder, with about as little effect as in the real thing. “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Any comments about what this quote says about this narrator will be cheerfully ignored.


Then our officer came along and told us that he’d soon give the order to stand, turn and fire, and that we were to get ready.


The moment drew close. We could tell because the Confederate artillery stopped, and there was relative quiet. Then, to our left, we could hear a murmuring coming down the line. It was faint, but unmistakeable, and growing louder as it got closer.


“All right, boys,” said the officer while we puzzled over this as the murmurs got closer and louder. “Stand and turn, and be ready to fire.”


We stood, turned, and saw...




...and saw a huge field of grey undulating through the smoke towards us. As a digression, I should note that while Americans of the period were often described as “lean” or “rangy”, while Americans attracted to re-enacting the ACW as Confederates were better described as “rotund”.

It went on in both directions.

Picture courtesy Sixpounder.

Never mind the fact that we had the numbers and a solid position. When you glance to left or right along the line, you can only see about half a dozen people in each direction. You have the sensation that there’s about a dozen of you. However, you can clearly see down the slope, and you can see millions and millions* of greybacks coming forward in what looks like an unstoppable wave.


*Gentle reader, it was only about 10,000 (compared to around 12,500 in the original version). I can assure you it looked like more.


Upon seeing this grey mass, an exclamation came to my lips, instantly and unbidden, of a nature that I cannot repeat here.


That explained the murmuring reported in all those period memoirs.


The third event that I’m going to mention is one involving cavalry and infantry. Everyone knows that when cavalry comes into contact with a solid body of heavy infantry, the cavalry bounce right back off. Cavalry against disordered infantry is another matter, but cavalry against solid, cohesive, heavy infantry results in a lot of dead horses.


Oh, it looks cool on film to have cavalry charge and plough through hapless extras or CGI pretending to be infantry, but the historical evidence is overwhelming. When cavalry charges formed, cohesive heavy infantry, regardless of era, it doesn’t end well for the guys on the horses. That is why the hole history of cavalry versus infantry tactics has been one of cavalry trying to get the infantry to lose cohesion.


If you’ve read The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Military , you’ll recognise that word.


But proving it? That’s harder. Especially with all those films with cavalry riding over infantry. Well, back in the day, I was at a re-enactment ACW event that had cavalry. On real horses.


Naturally, the people who were the cavalry were – how can I put this politely? – came from that section of society that has plenty of privilege and little sense of responsibility. In short, they were idiots.


Being on a horse gives one a sense of superiority, and these guys already had an abundance of this. They discovered that it was great fun during “off-periods” when the public weren’t around to rush at infantry who, not wanting to get into trouble, ran away.


They cavalry got as excited as though they were on a new sort of fox-hunting game.

Confederate cavalry. They wished they looked like that.

Picture courtesy Frank Leslie.

I was getting quite annoyed and very concerned at this. Annoyed because it was ahistorical nonsense, and annoyed because the infantry was behaving like a rabble, and concerned because it was looking like someone was going to get badly hurt.


Then they saw us, and decided it was our turn. I’m told that at this point, my precise words were: “Bu**er this. Fix bayonets. Present.” I got them into line, made sure that no-one had loaded muskets, and hoped that this would persuade the cavalry to go elsewhere.


No such luck. They took this as a challenge to their manhood, bolstered by sitting astride a half ton of equine status symbol.


They were idiots, and the horses they rode had more brains than they did.


They came charging in and, to be fair, it was scary. There was a temptation to break and run. However, cohesion was maintained (I am reliably informed I used language that would be unsuitable for publication to remind people not to break the line because that would make me very unhappy). Whatever the reason, we held firm as the horses and idiots got closer.


Then, when they were about fifty feet away, something strange happened. The horses saw a hedge of sharp things pointed at them as they got close enough to see properly. Because they – unlike their riders – had brains, and they realised that if they continued, they would get hurt. Running onto sharp pointy metal things was not what they were getting paid for.


These were not trained warhorses. They abruptly stopped heading towards us. Some stopped sharply. Some ran away. Some swerved to left or right. Some tried to throw the idiots off as well.


In a matter of seconds, a unit of a dozen or so riders had been scattered from here to Hades, and we’d done nothing other than stand still.


Lesson 1: Without horses being trained to the situation, a charge against formed infantry isn’t going anywhere. Horses aren’t stupid and don’t care for getting stabbed, and it takes a lot of training to turn a horse into a warhorse.


Lesson 2: Keeping the infantry in line and holding firm is harder than it looks. I mentioned this in the interminable Gettysburg anecdote above, but while you can see the enemy in front of you all too well, you can’t see much of your comrades. Maintaining cohesion takes some getting used to.


Lesson 3: People who ride horses are idiots. I’m sure there’s something about being on a horse that reduces the common sense of the rider. And these guys had little enough to start with.


Lesson 4: A little irrelevant to the discussion in this article, but I learned that internal politics seem to be endemic in any organisation. Despite all the evidence suggesting that the cavalry here hadn’t done a thorough risk assessment of their actions beforehand, one thing I should have realised was that the cavalrymen had money and status, and we in the footslogging side of things – and me in particular – didn’t. Which meant that the society Committee required me to apologise to them, which came as a surprise to me. Apparently, the Committee regarded the riders as acting out of high spirits, and they provided a lot of financial support to the Society. Anyone who knows me could have predicted how that would turn out. Suffice it to say that I left the Society that day.


Which, I guess, is also a lesson in period attitudes towards the lower orders (be that race, class, gender, or other distinctive grouping).




This was intended to be a a brief filler, but it seems to have expanded uncontrollably. It’s almost as though I can’t stop talking about anecdotes. I haven’t even touched on making coffee on the march, or why the Roman army tuba player wore different armour, or the difference between drawing and pulling a bow, or what happens when a longbow archer doesn’t wear a wristguard, or...


If there is interest in this area, I might do a follow-up if I’m running low on reserve articles. I don’t think any of us want that.


Discuss this article Here.


David Flin obviously has too much time on his hands, because he’s been a prolific author, as can be seen Here. [4]






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