So, Saturday the 20th after we stopped by Hougoumont, our tour group got a chance to go into the encampments that were set up around the battlefield. Well, the allied one. Nobody really wanted to go to the French side(guess how many French people were on our tour?) Actually, I think this was my favorite part of the entire reenactment. Because anybody familiar with reenactors and reenactments knows that no one knows better about the details, nobody is more faithful to their role(while on site), than a reenactor. You might see Civil War reenactors at a McDonald’s in full kit, but you’ll never see McDonald’s on a battlefield bivouac.
The same held true here. If I wanted to get a real feel for the period in which I wrote, this was the place to be. The gate into that bivouac was like the standing stone on Outlander. We walked straight back into the beginning of the 19th century. All across the rolling hills of grass and grain, tents were pitched almost as far as you could see, their sharp white lines softened by the last mists of morning. Horses, staked over by the makeshift stables, were plucking at the lush grass, and children ran by with hoops and balls, all in broadcloth and cotton(I dare you to find a polyester blend anywhere). Women clustered by fires stirring pots of something or playing with the kids and chattering with their friends, all in bland-colored everyday regency dresses and aprons, some in bonnets against the clearing sun. Soldiers gathered in crimson bouquets, smoking pipes as they cleaned muskets or honed sabres or fed horses, their units differentiated more by facings and hats. Red and scarlet were the colors of the day, although you certainly saw the dark blues of the Prussians and the black death’s-head insignia of the Brunswickers(when I saw them, I wondered if I should commiserate on the death of their Duke).
As each unit progressed into camp, they did so at the march, led in by their fife or pipe and drum bands, their colors wafting in the chilly breeze, their feet stomping in rhythmic unison, their backs straight as swords. When a soldier happened to be standing along their route, he immediately snapped a sharp salute to the flag until it passed. These guys weren’t just throwing on a Halloween costume for the weekend; they were living the part. All of them were. Even the women dressed in their best silks and furs and feather-adorned bonnets who strolled among the officers. And when the troops marched in, the women and children followed right behind.
I admit I was amazed at the commitment. I shouldn’t have been. The Civil War re-enactors certainly live their parts. But there was an extra sharpness, a heightened impression of reality that I couldn’t put my finger on. Well, until I walked among the men with my tour guide, who happened to be a very recently retired General, and more than one man saw him and came to rigid, respectful attention until he smiled. It turns out that not an insignificant number of these re-enactors knew my general quite well, because they’re active military. Not only that, they reenact in their own units–or the fore-bearers of their original units. It makes perfect sense, after all. If you have a loyalty to the Guards or Fusilliers or the Dragoons, if you have been imbued with the glory of your unit’s history and the sacrifices that were made before you, the perfect way to honor them would be to show others just what they had done. And heaven knows you already know how to play the role.
One near-casualty of that devotion, though, came the first night of the reenactment. Our friends in the 41st told us that the Life Guards who were guarding the plywood Chateau Hougoumont were in actuality active Life Guards. The problem came when the French soldiers who attacked decided that this time the results would be different, and they would take the Chateau(keep in mind that the Chateau had to survive until at least the second night of the reenactment) (especially since the actual one survives until today). You can imagine that the guards protecting the chateau didn’t look on this plan with favor, and retaliated. As our friend said, “There was a right old scuffle” and most of the walls of the Chateau were destroyed. The French, however did not get in. (Of course, the next morning the Guardsmen were heard to complain of certain stiffnesses….with a smile)
It was amazing to see the reenactment; to see the lines of men snake along the ground swells, up to their waists in wheat, the horses canter past in order, the pennants flapping and the swords and sabres glinting red in the sunlight, the horses snorting and the tack rattling as over 300 of them passed. To hear the odd, paper-tearing sound of a volley and see the slash of fire and smoke, to wince at the hard crack of cannon shot and follow the giant, jellyfish smoke rings into the clouds, to feel the rumble and growl of battle in your chest. But what made it all real to me, what imprinted this battle in my mind so sharply that I think I can write far better about it, was meeting those who fought it. Even if they were pretending. They weren’t.