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Posted on May 27, 2006 in Armchair Reading, Front Page Features

Fiction: Moving Out

By Roach

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Prologue

Some years ago, not quite at the dawn of time but when I was still actively re-enacting (for want of a better term), my unit’s basic ethos towards re-enacting was fairly simple, straightforward and to the point. Essentially, if you were going to do it (portray a WW2 soldier in the field) then you had to do it properly and take it seriously, and, at the same time, what you did ought to be some sort of learning experience which would give you some significant, if small, insight as to what it would have been like to be a WW2 combatant – in my case, a member of an American infantry rifle squad in WW2.

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Although no longer a ‘re-enactor’, much of my free time in the past has been spent, well, in the past, and the infantry uniform of a WW2 GI has, at times, virtually been a second skin. The more I was in that skin, the more it seemed to become vital to attempt to actually learn something from what I was actually doing. In fact, it seemed that to achieve anything less than that would be to achieve nothing. This attitude, although frequently bandied about by most groups was in fact the raison-d’etre for the unit to which I belong. Essentially, if we were going to do this thing, then we felt almost honour-bound to do it right!

Back in the late 80s, early 90s, the usual type of ‘private’ re-enactment battle that I had become accustomed to was usually short on authenticity. Groups talked a good game but usually failed to deliver it, with the average re-enactment wont to develop into farce depending on the varying mindsets of those attending, and with supposedly pre-planned scenarios often turning into a ‘chase one another around the woods playing silly buggers’ affair. A somewhat less than satisfying state of affairs admittedly, but one that is probably still very much the case today if my own more recent experiences of some behind closed doors events are anything to go by.

Now this of course might make me sound like an ‘authenticity nazi’ but frankly, in my opinion that is not necessarily a bad thing; and as one of my colleagues always maintains, it is just as easy to do things right as it is to do things wrong. This is especially so in this day and age where WW2 re-enactors or impressionists have no excuse for not delivering a 100% accurate portrayal, at least visually, such is the availability of almost every piece of kit you could possibly need, be it genuine or a reproduction.

But I digress.

Experience ‘in the field’ had long taught the members of my own unit the same lessons that it taught every other re-enactment group whose hobby involved acting as military men: that men who do not have to obey orders if they do not feel like it cannot be reasonably led if they do not wish to be led, and that every re-enactment is liable to disintegrate into the aforementioned farce once the first blank has been fired in anger.

It has also long and oft been said that the attempt to create the illusion of a WW2 battlefield scenario in a re-enactment environment evaporates with the sound of the first shot and the first cry of “you behind the tree, you’re dead!” – a cry that is usually repeated soon after with the odd expletive structured into the statement somewhere for greater emphasis when it was apparent that the tree hugger who had just been targeted was ‘not taking their shot’.

Quite obviously such a circumstance is less than satisfactory; and as a learning experience in attempting to achieve something of what it was like to be a WW2 rifleman it fails totally.

Obviously there are limits to the level of authenticity that can be achieved with the absence of the constant threat of sudden death being the most obvious – and let’s face it, the line has to be drawn somewhere!

But there are other things which can be achieved, and other lessons that can be learned. For example, the plain and simple day to day life of a WW2 GI in the field (minus the sudden death!) can be experienced to the extent of day to day routines involving, eating, sleeping and similar less-than life threatening experiences. Basically, all those things that fall within the ‘hurry up and wait’ process that actually can at times occupy the man in the field more than anything else. Seems straightforward but how many re-enactment groups take the trouble and time to give it a go?

Unfortunately, too many people would rather hear their weapon go ‘bang’ than dig a foxhole, or boast about their kill ratios rather than work out what that hand signal means.

So, basically, the first obstacle in attempting to recreate a high level of authenticity lies with those who are attempting to do it. In some groups, the highest common denominator is also the lowest, but if you are to achieve anything approaching worthwhile, then the very highest standard has to be the lowest acceptable denominator. In short, you have to have people who not only want to do it, but also want to do it correctly.

My own unit which depicted (and still does on occasion) a rifle squad of the 29th Division, were a well established group with exacting standards of authenticity so it only became a matter of time before we felt the need to do things better – smaller but better. Generally speaking, many private re-enactments tend to be grandiose affairs with large numbers of men and grand plans – plans which usually disappear in a relatively short space of time. The aims are high but the execution usually falls short.

As a result of our own observations, it seemed obvious that to achieve any degree of authenticity in the field, the type of event we wanted to run had to be kept small both in terms of the area of land being used and the number of personnel involved. Control was the key.

Hence, the idea was hatched to recreate a static 36 hour period of life of a rifle squad in the hedgerows, Normandy style, set during the advance towards St Lo, but when the American advance had temporarily stalled amidst the maze of hedgerows that was the bocage.

An American rifle squad would face off a German counterpart across the hedgerows with the emphasis not on attempting to achieve ridiculous body count numbers but instead to get down to the business of learning what it felt like to be in the line, using equipment as it was meant to be used, and generally achieving that cold and miserable look!

Objectives would not be to expend large amounts of [blank] ammunition and ‘kill’ people, but to keep your head down, do what you were told, observe the enemy where possible and generally attempt to gain something from the experience. Basically, the idea was that you would get out of the event what you were prepared to put into it.

The 36 hour timeframe was to be exactly that – 36 hours. Ever minute of every hour was actually going to be spent in the field. That doesn’t sound like any great shakes, especially to any serving members or ex-members of the forces, but for some re-enactment groups where nipping off to the pub cold be written into their constitution, the concept is something of a novelty!

In this instance though, there would be no breaks to return to vehicles, or to visit hostelries or take shelter somewhere warmer because it was raining too hard or because the night was too cold and, “actually, this GI blanket is rather thin”. It would be 36 hours of continuous activity with the only toilet breaks being those where you retreat a few yards with an E-tool or possibly just dig your foxhole that little bit deeper at one end…

Essentially, the plan was that once you were in the field you were in it, as the saying goes, for the duration.

As already mentioned, the scale would be small; a squad on each side, totalling no more than 25 – 30 people, slightly over a squad apiece but ‘extras’ are always handy. Certain of our own ‘boys’ commitment, we would also handpick the enemy on an invitation only basis, choosing only those who we knew would be up for something a little bit more authentic than the usual ‘chase me until I am out of breath event!’, and who were as eager and as willing to ourselves to attempt to learn something from a weekend in the field.

[continued on next page]

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