Re-enactments are thrilling. They’re noisy, flashy, and have horsemen riding full-tilt across the field in elaborate and colorful uniforms awash in gold and silver braid and buttons. And when you have a cast of 6000 people, 300 horses and 100 guns, it gets a lot flashier, noisier and more elaborate.
The re-enactment of the battle of Waterloo took two nights(thank heavens the real battle didn’t). They did not bother to include the preceding battles at Ligny or Quatre Bras. That would have complicated the situation. They did, however, commit their mayhem across a large portion of the actual battleground. And while they inexplicably decided to carry on the battle about a quarter of a mile away from the stands, it is still a visceral thrill when a line of cannons belch fire and smoke, seconds later letting off a deep crack that echoed across the sloping fields. It is thrilling to see a line of cavalry thunder past, tack jangling and feathers and fur rippling in the wind, hooves pounding through the high wheat and riders raising a harsh cry. It is fascinating to watch the lines of red and blue snake across the ground, led by the thin wail of pipe and fife and punctuated by the rattle of drums, breathtaking to see the slash of fire and smoke as the first volley rips out from an infantry square.
And then you think that there weren’t 6000 people fighting, but over 130,000; not 100 horses but 25,000 horses. You see a line of twenty horsemen cresting the hill and you think of it lined from end to end with pawing mounts, strong men carrying sabres that glinted in the sun, possibly metal breastplates called cuirasses(in fact, one of the lingering images from the actual battlefield was the blinding glare of the sun striking off hundreds and hundreds of cuirasses lying over fallen cavalrymen), possibly lances with red and white pennants lifting a bit in the breeze. You hear the crack of those cannons and you think what they must have sounded like multiplied by four. When the gunfire begins popping and tearing non-stop, and the smoke rolls out from thousands of muskets and a tens of cannons, and you can’t see a thing but smoke and fire, you wonder how anyone could have possibly been able to unravel just what was going on and direct it.
It is an impressive display, no question. It was amazing, as much in the dedication of the people who replicated the battle as in their movements. It was a lovely tribute to the men and women who occupied that battlefield, for those who survived, and those who didn’t. We even had a moment of silence before the onset of the conflict to remember the actual combatants.
What it wasn’t, was realistic. After all, how can you possibly know what Waterloo was really like unless you saw its impact; the ground carpeted in the bodies of horses and men contorted into grotesque shapes? How can you understand the cost if the soldiers fighting stay clean and unbloody, their movements carefully choreographed to keep them safe? If Chateau Hougoumont, even as a plywood replica, doesn’t become a horrific inferno from howitzers igniting thatched roofs? Those who actually fought and survived, even those who came later to search for survivors, all spoke of the dead and dying, the wounded crying for help or water or surcease, the dying and dead horses, the hell inside Hougoumont.
Reenactments are amazing. They’re theatric. They’re as true to the maneuvers and players as they can be. But they aren’t real. Not real enough. If we are going to honor the boys and men who had the unspeakable courage to cross that killing ground again and again, and stand in an implacable line against those attacks, we should show what it cost in blood and sweat and sanity. But we can’t. Thankfully, we’re far too civilized for that.