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Re-enacting a battle from the WW1 - Preserving military hist

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BerichtGeplaatst: 27 Dec 2008 11:20    Onderwerp: Re-enacting a battle from the WW1 - Preserving military hist Reageer met quote

Re-enacting a battle from the First World War - Preserving military history

Making History
I shot a guy and I liked it
Published:Dec 07, 2008

War re-enactment is not just about indulging childhood fantasies, it’s a way of preserving history. Oliver Roberts heads to the trenches to fight for the British.

I shot someone last weekend. On a beautiful Bloemfontein morning. In cold blood. I’d been chatting to him just minutes before, and now I had him in my crosshairs. He was a gentleman — quietly spoken, kind and generous — but when I spotted him sporadically popping his head over the trench wall and firing in my direction, I had no choice.

Crouching in my dug-out, explosions going off all around me, I placed another cartridge into the hot chamber of my rifle, cocked it, slowly raised my head over the edge, and rested the long barrel on the dry soil.

I couldn’t see him, but I could see his rifle, standing upright like a wicked flagpole as he loaded it with another slug.

Wait, wait, wait. Wait.

His helmeted head appeared and he fired another round towards one of my comrades.

He was just where I wanted him.

Without hesitation, I curled my finger around the trigger and, after a smoky pop, I watched him disappear into the trench. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I was burdened by grim guilt — I had just mowed down MC Heunis, the guy who leant me my British uniform.

Heunis is one of 295 members of the Free State chapter of the SA Arms and Ammunition Collector’s Association, who meet regularly to re-enact famous battles and generally blast the hell out of each other using blank cartridges, thunder flares, rockets and smoke grenades. There are similar groups elsewhere, such as Battle Group South in Joburg and the Heritage Group in Cape Town.

It’s like playing army in your backyard all over again, except with real guns, real uniforms and real explosions. You get to blow stuff up and drink beer immediately afterwards — there can’t be a man on this earth who wouldn’t find this fun.

“History can be really boring at school, or only witnessed in books full of black and white photos,” says 33-year-old Heunis, who is a mechanical engineer when dressed in normal clothes. “It’s no good having weapons and uniforms just sitting in a museum. The purpose of war re- enactments is to educate people with living history. And to wear scratchy wool on Saturdays.”

On this particular Saturday, we’re at the Leeuwberg Estate to relive the Western front in commemoration of Armistice Day on November 11. There are only about 20 members taking part, but avid re-enactors like Heunis dream of a day when they’ll be able to field a few thousand soldiers, as with re-enactments in the US and Europe.

It’s the first time the association is re-enacting a battle from World War I, but that doesn’t mean there’s a shortage of authentic equipment. All re-enactors are collectors of some kind because, to qualify for club membership, you need to own an unaltered military rifle. Few, however, stop at the guns and fork out huge sums on vintage uniforms, sold for as much as R50000 by local military antique dealers.

Or, if you’re lucky, you’ve inherited uniforms and medals from long- dead relatives.

Colin Steyn, an advocate for the National Prosecuting Authority and great-grandson of MT Steyn (president of the Orange Free State during the Anglo-Boer War), established the association with 19 others in 1995. He has a large collection of militaria, including vehicles from World War II. He recently spent R14000 on an antique machine gun. “It’s like collecting table spoons,” he says. “It’s a disease, highly infectious.”

A serious and slightly eccentric war historian, Steyn, who served in the Special Service Battalion in Angola in the ’80s, describes the re-enactments as “a big fancy-dress party at the Hilton New York, but not likewise”. Today, Steyn is dressed as a German officer, so he’s another guy I’m going to shoot.

However, my plans for King-and- Country heroics are nearly thwarted before the battle begins when I am threatened with a court marshal because of my unsightly shoulder- length hair. I promise to tie it up, conceal it under my helmet, but this is only met by scissory scoffs. Seconds later, I am saved by a fellow officer’s observation that my slim build and sunken cheeks do a great impression of an undernourished Tommy. It’s decided that I have been in captivity for a year and gallantly returned to the trenches before having time for a good meal and a haircut. Okay, sir. Sorry, sir.

While both sides make final preparations in their respective trenches, a dog fight commences above us — two remote-controlled planes whizzing and twirling under the hot sun. By this stage, I expected to feel silly — lying in a fake trench with men twice my age, dressed in full battle gear, pretending to be scared — but instead I feel an appalling pride knowing that men never really grow up.

“This is all great fun,” says 65- year-old Shalto Rothbart, who’s fighting in my trench today. Like fellow founding member Steyn, this burly pensioner has also served time in the army, as a member of the Rand Light Infantry from 1962 to 1965. “We look at every- thing light-heartedly. By re-enacting, we’re not perpetuating war, we’re trying to show what war was and can be, and demonstrating the folly and heartache of it all.”

The planes are gone now and the battlefield silent. The guy next to me warns of the impending explosions and says I must be careful because last time he got dirt in his eyes when a thunder flare went off close to his face.

The fuse is lit on some fireworkish explosives and we all turn away to wait for the detonation that will signal the start of the battle.

“The adrenaline rush seconds before the first shots are fired is the best,” says Heunis. “Then catching the first glimpse of the silhouettes of your opponents across the battlefield; your sweaty hands tense up around the century-old rifle and the first shots are let loose.”

I’m in it now. The air is popping and crackling with fire and my nostrils burn with gun powder from random blasts. I peak over the trench and see a row of dark-blue helmets and rifles pointing right at me. A cherry bomb hurled from the enemy trench lands a few metres from me. “Get down!” someone yells; I turn my head, close my eyes and, in a loud instant, dirt trampolines off my helmet.

There is no danger, of course, just a kind of imagined terror, but it’s enough to overwhelm your senses. Grimacing explosions, smoking cartridges popping from the chamber, a rocket whistling past, dirty fingers fumbling for bullets, huddled men shouting. It’s thrilling, but I’m constantly aware, amid all the jocose laughter, of how frightening this must have been all those years ago at places like the Somme and Verdun.

“Shouldn’t one of us die?” someone asks. This is when I decide to stop my haphazard firing and actually aim at someone. The genial General MC Heunis to be exact.

Within 10 minutes, we’ve all run out of ammunition. In an effort to prolong the battle, some begin throwing sand clogs, and I join in. I haven’t thrown a sand clog since I was 10.

In accordance with history, the Germans raise their hands in surrender and we walk from our trench and take them captive. Their punishment — buying the beer.

Seeing the German uniforms up close, with their iron crosses, skull and crossbone badges and aquiline insignia, is almost offensive. It’s only historical impulse to worry that one or two of these re-enactors might be neo-Nazis.

“That is definitely not the case,” says 27-year-old Johan Wolfaardt who is dressed as Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia.

“I had family who served for the German army in both wars so that is where my heritage lies. I’m not trying to offend anyone. It’s also about trying to destroy some of the Hollywood myths about Germans — they weren’t all terrible people.”

Re-enactors are very firm on this point. The association has attracted insalubrious characters in the past and they have been swiftly dealt with. Political sways of any kind are unwelcome in this fantasy land.

Heunis, who is now a dead man walking and drinking and eating a boerewors roll, contemplates the battle: “Doing this gives you a rare insight into what those poor but heroic souls must have experienced back in the day.

“Afterwards everybody has a good laugh about who did what and the old enemies shake hands and congratulate each other on a well-fought battle without any casualties.”

Little does he know.

Playing with fire

The annual Gettysburg re-enactment in Pennsylvania, held during the first week of July, is the war fanatic’s Mecca.

This re-enactment first began in the early ’60s, though re-enactments took place even during the real American Civil War, in recognition of fallen soldiers. The 135th anniversary re-enactment in 1998, the largest so far, attracted over 20000 participants, ranging from age eight to 64.

Gettysburg re-enactors are generally placed into three unofficial categories: "farbs", "mainstream" and "hard-cores". Farbs are those who spend little effort or time on authenticity and wear incorrect clothing like jeans and sneakers; mainstreamers are the most common types, making an effort with clothing but generally only acting in character in front of spectators; the hard-cores immerse themselves in the experience, eating, sleeping and fighting as they did during the 1860s and staying in character for all three days of the event.

There are more than 50000 registered civil war re-enactors in the US.
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Geregistreerd op: 24-12-2005
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BerichtGeplaatst: 28 Dec 2008 0:32    Onderwerp: Reageer met quote

Dank voor het posten. Laat ik een aantal van hen nu gewoon kennen, maar dan als boerwar re-enactor, wat ik zelf ook doe.
"Het eenige wat ik ervan onthouden heb is, dat mosterdgas niet van mosterd wordt gemaakt, maar er meen ik wel naar ruikt en desalniettemin erg ongezond moet zijn". Reserve-kapitein. J. Ronhaar in 1935 over een slechte gasles.
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