A Brief History of Re-enactment

By Howard Giles

What is re-enactment?

Re-enactors through the ages. Photo: Howard Giles.In exempting re-enactment from most of the clauses within the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, the British government officially defined re-enactment for the first time, as "any presentation or other event held for the purpose of re-enacting an event from the past or of illustrating conduct from a particular time or period in the past". In effect, re-enactment is a recreation of the past - any date prior to today's - involving military or non-military recreations of pretty much any kind. These are usually staged as a leisure activity by enthusiasts, ie as a hobby, although there is a small yet increasing number of professionals who offer services to heritage venues, schools and the like. The term "Re-enactment" thus covers a very wide range of activities, to include the restaging of battles, military displays, everyday life through the ages, living history scenarios and encampments, as well as a wide range of historical entertainments. As such I use the terms "re-enactment" and "re-enactors" throughout this article for the sake of consistency.

Re-enactments can vary from a small-scale recreation of the past in incredible detail by a single person for example, a Roman soldier or an C18th gardener) to larger scale historical events including multi-period ancient to modern era "spectaculars" staged by organisers such as EventPlan Limited, designed to entertain as well as educate. Every year, the historical eras and themes grow larger as more and more of the past is explored. Castles, historic houses, parks and other venues increasingly turn to re-enactment and living history groups as exciting, colourful attractions. The film and TV world also utilises the skills of top groups, including through professional agencies such as EventPlan Limited.

Dark age and early medieval warrors at Sutton Hoo. Photo: John Walton.Whilst most re-enactors tend to recreate eras and "impressions" relevant to their homeland, many embrace wider historical themes and nationalities. British redcoats in a re-enactment at Waterloo might turn out to be portrayed by enthusiasts from, for example, Germany or America, opposing "French" soldiers from Russia or pretty much anywhere else, and so on. This breadth of theme is particularly widespread in the UK, where groups re-enact a huge variety of different eras and nationalities from Classical Greek hoplites to American Civil War rebels, or Great War French to World War Two Germans, and much besides.

Re-enactors come in all shapes and sizes, from every background, and increasingly, from all over the world. Who they are, and how old, is irrelevant. It doesn't matter if a re-enactor is a doctor or a dustman, an office or manual worker, the only thing that really counts is enthusiasm.  Although the majority of re-enactors are male, families often take part too and in some groups, depending on the levels of authenticity agreed, women are permitted to fight as soldiers (a quite popular choice for them). There is a great deal of positive escapism involved, with re-enactors sometimes portraying people or soldiers of entirely different nationalities to their own, and as far back in history as they choose, from the Stone Age onwards.

Re-enactment and living history offers participants a unique chance to enjoy recreating history within a great social scene, and for the millions of people who watch these enactments, a fascinating window on the past in the form of great entertainment. Of course, no-one can expect these re-enactments to be entirely accurate, for certain things (disease, filth, squalor, battlefield wounds and general gore) would be far too shocking to experience "for real" at most live recreations. And although it can be argued that as a result, re-enactments can't be truly accurate so cannot be taken too seriously, they certainly offer many people their best opportunity to see, smell, touch, feel and generally experience the essential essence of past eras. Of course, its hard to beat Hollywood films for recreating the past on an epic scale through computer generated imagery - but for a real, usually much more accurate, 3 dimensional interactive recreation, re-enactment is impossible to better.

Re-enactment as we know it today appears a relatively modern invention, but in fact its roots go back far into the past.

Ancient stirrings

Re-enactment as a concept is as old as civilisation itself. As part of their infamous public games, the Romans refought past victories in the Coliseum (unfortunately for the combatants, usually to the death), possibly even flooding the arena to recreate a naval battle. Tasteless and violent, it wasn't re-enactment as we know it today, but it did address the common theme of people being interested in what had happened in the past.

Medieval tournaments shared many aspects of re-enactment (especially when "health and safety" rules were increasingly introduced to try to keep the combatants from killing each other (either purposefully or accidentally), but on the whole tourneys were really a sport for the rich - albeit with a wide following - so perhaps really was more of a sport than re-enactment as we understand the term today.
 An early C17th musketeer, illustrated within a military manual of the time.
Mock skirmishes and military displays staged before audiences seem to have been quite popular in the C17th. On one such occasion in 1635 the London Trained Bands successfully demonstrated their prowess in front of King Charles I, but things went horribly wrong when mingling with the public afterwards. Someone lit up a pipe near the gunpowder store and a stray spark caused an explosion that left a dozen dead and over fifty injured! This obviously didn't put anyone off though as in 1638 a stylised battle between Christians and Moors, entitled Mars hys triumph, was staged in London. In 1645, during the English Civil War, Parliamentarian troops chose Blackheath on which to restage one of their recent victories, although still actively at war with surviving Royalist forces.

Fetes, pageants and entertainments (often with a historical theme) were staged in villages and great country houses throughout Britain in the C18th, C19th and C20th, reflecting the Romantic Movement of the time.  In 1821 the Duke of Buckingham staged mock Napoleonic naval battles on his lake at Wotton House for the amusement of family and friends, using boats and firing real cannon balls!  These are occasionally dug up on the bank of the lake even today. The Duke of Newcastle later did much the same at Clumber Park, using small cannon and a 40 ton, third scale frigate (eventually sunk by accident by boisterous children during WWII!). And in 1824 the grand extravaganza The Battle of Waterloo was staged at Astley's Amphitheatre (a famous circus venue) in London.

Victorian aristocrats would sometimes hold parties and dress up in costume and antique armour - for example, in 1839 Archibald Montgomerie, 13th Earl of Eglinton organised a full medieval style Eglington Tournament at Eglinton Castle in Scotland, featuring 13 fully equipped equestrian knights. Sadly, bad weather ruined it, to the (financial) embarrassment of all those involved. The event however inspired a 'Tournament and Siege', staged a few weeks later at Astley's Amphitheatre in London.

In 1876 and a whole continent away, survivors of George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry returned to the scene of the Battle of the Little Big Horn in Montana to re-enact their part in the disaster for the camera. Through a series of static poses, the soldiers recreated their harrowing experience for posterity. This was still a long way from live re-enactment as we know it now but it wasn't long until previously extremely hostile Native Americans found themselves re-enacting the very same battle to huge international audiences (and early movie cameras) as part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, which set out to recreate scenes from what was already seeming a lost, distant era. Perhaps the closest so far to modern audience-orientated re-enactment, the show was a huge success and toured for years in America and Europe. However, what the Native American participants thought of all this can only be guessed at.

18 years after the defence of Rorkes Drift in Natal, 100 or so members of the Gloucestershire Engineer Volunteers recreated the famous battle as part of a Grand Military Fete in February 1895 at the Cheltenham Winter Gardens. The objective of the fete was to raise funds for their new drill hall. 25 redcoats took on 75 "Zulus" in the re-enactment.

Many years after the American Civil War of 1861-65, camps and gentle "re-enactments" were organised on the old battlefields for the veterans of both sides, who would take part together without any animosity towards their once deadly enemies. These continued until all the old soldiers had faded away and had become part of the history they had made.

During the early twentieth century re-enactments were popular in Tsarist Russia, including the Crimean Siege of Sevastopol in 1906 and the Napoleonic Battle of Borodino in 1912. In 1918 the Soviets recreated the C17th Taking of Azov and on its third anniversary in 1920, the 1917 storming of the Winter Palace, no doubt for propaganda purposes. It was this re-enactment which apparently inspired scenes in Eisenstein's film October: Ten Days That Shook the World. Meanwhile in 1914, the 150th anniversary of the founding of St Louis was commemorated in a huge American pageant.

A page from the programme for the 1934 Aldershot Tattoo. Curtesy of Ian Tindle.During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Royal Tournament, Aldershot Tattoo and other similar British shows often recreated events from earlier eras, sometimes on an epic scale in front of delighted crowds. Click on the picture (left) to see a page from the programme for the 1934 Aldershot Tattoo, which amongst other displays featured scenes from a large-scale recreation of the Siege of Namur, 1695. One wonders at the effort that must have been put into producing hundreds of uniforms and other items of kit for just a 6-day show. This fondness for past glories continued in 1935 with large scale and extraordinarily well-presented depictions of the Manual and Grenade Exercise for eighteenth century Grenadiers, royalty through the ages and scenes showing how battles changed from Waterloo to the modern era. These annual shows must have been truly very impressive. Less politically correct but none the less rather amusing, old postcards show more re-enactments of the Zulu War, with "Zulus" depicted by soldiers swathed head to foot in ill-fitting black body stockings!

The tradition of British military "spectaculars" continues to this day with huge events like the Colchester Military Tournament. An interesting article by Graham Priest on British military tattoos and pageants by Graham Priest appreared in Issue 30 (April/May 2004) of Skirmish magazine.

Click here to view a film made in 1935 of Royal Marines changing the guard on HMS Victory with a detachment dressed as marines of 1805 (best with your sound switched on). In this re-enactment carried out during the 130th anniversary year of the Battle of Trafalgar, the 1805 marines are fairly accurately dressed, immaculately drilled as you would expect, and use most of the correct drill for their era (for example, marching without swinging their arms). Soon though, war clouds would gather and such re-enactments would become a thing of the past. For meanwhile, history was being manipulated elsewhere for sinister and ultimately murderous purposes. In the 1930s the Nazis used allegedly historical pageants to "recreate" a bogus past to reinforce their belief in a (mythical) golden Ayran age (1). The ghastly results of this creed are only too well known. World War Two put an end to "live" re-enactments for many years, although much used in films, and it would only be when peace and relative affluence coincided that live re-enactments began again. Whilst the idea of dressing up and superficially recreating the past was clearly established, it would be the early 1960s before historical re-enactment as we know it today truly developed.

To view various newsreels  of C20th historical re-enactments (including the signing of the Magna Carta, and Napoleonic Battle of Salamanca), visit the fascinating Pathe News web site and tap “Re-enactment” into their search box.

Modern-day re-enactment begins

The modern day hobby of re-enactment grew from the centennial commemorations of the American Civil War, naturally enough held in the United States. Although the standard of authenticity of costume, weaponry and drill was at first fairly lamentable - indeed, in many cases downright dangerous - these early re-enactments of famous battles caught the nation’s imagination and started a trend that quickly spread first to Britain and later to mainland Europe.

Re-enactment in the USA developed on an epic scale. In 1998 perhaps as many as 25,000 “troops” took part in a huge recreation of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. This was probably the largest re-enactment in history and has not been matched for size since. Large re-enactments were also staged in 2003, 2008 and 2013, including contingents from Britain.  In many respects this illustrates the growing international nature of historical re-enactment, with enthusiasts increasingly willing to travel far and wide to take part in events.

Approximately 12,000 Confederate re-enactors advance en masse during Pickett's Charge, Battle of Gettysburg re-enactment 1998. Photo: Philipp Elliott-Wright.

The American Revolutionary War, French and Indian Wars and other eras of United States history are also very popular, although events are relatively small by Civil War standards. There are also small groups dedicated to other historical periods, from the Classical Greeks onwards. Meanwhile, the enormous Society for Creative Anachronisms continues to stage many events, although as a multi-era group their presentations are somewhat different from most re-enactment groups.

British re-enactment

Members of the Sealed Knot march through Banbury during the 1970s. Photo: Howard Giles.
The UK’s first modern re-enactment group was The Southern Skirmish Association, formed in February 1968 from a group of friends who wanted to restage incidents from the American Civil War. At first very small, it grew to a medium-sized and well respected society, still going strong, with numerous members regularly taking part in re-enactments in America as well as here in the UK.

Later that year probably the most famous of all re-enactment groups, The Sealed Knot, was formed. Named after a Royalist secret society active after the defeat of Charles I, it was the brainchild of Brigadier Peter Young, a colourful ex-commando who possessed the vision and ability to organise enthusiasts and command them in mock battles. Although originally formed for a one-off party, the SK swiftly grew, eventually consisting of thousands of members. Over 45 years later, although smaller than it once was due to an explosion of interest in re-enacting other eras,  it is still the biggest UK re-enactment society by far. In the 1970s, members of the Knot left to form the English Civil War Society, and like the SK, still stages major events today.

British and Austrian soldiers of the Sabre Society, pictured in 1975. Photo: Howard Giles.In 1971 The Sabre Society was formed, a Napoleonic group, followed in 1976 by the Napoleonic Association, the latter swiftly growing in size replacing the Sabre Society to become the largest grouping of re-enactors representing the era in the UK.  Around the same time, enthusiasts formed the Norse Film and Pageant Society (originally a WWII group but rapidly turning to the Viking era, and later spawning Regia Anglorum) both still thriving (2). By the end of the decade there were numerous societies recreating a number of different eras.  One or two also experimented in film making, the Southern Skirmish Association for example making a short film called War, following the fate of soldiers in battle.

At this time there were some general trends which most groups followed. Groups operated in almost complete isolation from each other and rarely had the opportunity to see each other "in action"...and because of the newness of it all, probably saw other groups as rivals rather than fellow enthusiasts to chum up with. They mostly met to refight battles and because it was primarily a hobby for participants, the groups didn’t think about the audience or occasional sponsor as much as they could have. Although very enthusiastic, most also had yet to tackle their relatively poor standards of authenticity. However, this all began to change with a new concept - authentic living history. First class groups such as The Ermine Street Guard (Romans) - still regularly staging displays -  and The White Company (15th Century) - sadly no longer with us - showed how this could be achieved. The scene was set for a major leap forward if a catalyst could be found.

English Heritage and the Special Events Unit

Coral Sealey, Howard Giles and Helen Christou of English Heritage's Special Events Unit at a windy event at Monk Bretton Priory in 1987.  Photo: Neil Holmes.Until 1984, staging re-enactments in the UK was by its very nature rather a fragmented and fairly localised affair. Battles and other events were staged by re-enactment groups at stately homes, local pageants and other venues, but there was no organised co-ordination or any national programme as such. However, in the autumn of that year experienced re-enactor Howard Giles (3) joined the newly formed government agency, English Heritage, which had taken over all the Department of the Environment’s English historic properties. Appointed with a remit to make EH castles and historic houses more interesting, Howard's belief in and enthusiastic backing for historical re-enactment would soon have a major impact on the development of the hobby.

An experimental programme of historical events on English Heritage properties was arranged for 1985 and 1986. These were deemed such a success that in January 1987 the Special Events Unit (SEU) was formed under Howard's direction to further develop the concept of re-enactment and, increasingly, living history displays, as visitor attractions. The programme was proving a huge hit with visitors to English Heritage properties and a spectacular visit to the UK by hundreds of American War of Independence re-enactors later that year quickly highlighted its potential for attracting and entertaining huge numbers of people. However, not all English Heritage staff were as enthusiastic and before the programme could realise its full potential, many hard internal battles had to be fought with grounds maintenance staff and academics who had served under the Department of the Environment who simply didn't like re-enactment, or felt it to be irrelevant. Gradually overcoming stiff resistance from these less imaginative staff, the programme (featuring a variety of events, not all re-enactment-orientated, but emphasising it) became very ambitious, increasing in size each year from 100 events in 1987 to 700 in 1999, with a special programme of over 1000 during Millennium year. This offered re-enactors a chance to enjoy more events including at new venues, whilst English Heritage benefitted from the increased number of visitors - so it was (and still is) a symbiotic relationship in many respects. Significantly, events were responsible for recruiting and retaining many thousands of EH members every year and generating a "family friendly" image for the organisation.  

When booking re-enactment groups, Howard and his team actively encouraged improvements in authenticity and presentation, balanced by audience-orientated scenarios to maximise visitor enjoyment. It was a sometimes tricky tightrope to walk, but it worked, and groups willing to embrace a more professional attitude were offered events at EH properties and in return gained interesting venues to display at and professional standards of planning on site.

Howard Giles liaising with Normans and Saxons before the Battle of Hastings, 1990. Photo: Neil Holmes.The programme could never have succeeded without the hard work and dedication of Howard's fellow members of the Special Events Unit, particularly Coral Sealey, Helen Christou aka "Peeps", Karen Cooper, Thomas Cardwell, and later, Jane Dobre, Natasha Lees, Mark Selwood, Joanna Coope and Emily Burns, the latter being English Heritage's current Head of Events. The same of course goes for the re-enactors themselves - Howard has always been a keen exponent of the hobby and has never forgotten that without the enthusiasm of the many participating re-enactors, most of English Heritage's (and now, EventPlan's) most memorable events could never have happened.

Although the SEU was unique in organising a nationwide programme, it was far from being the only group of professionals to realise the "artistic value" and potential for re-enactment, so all over the country historical displays were increasingly staged at castles, historic houses, county shows and fetes. Living history displays became increasingly popular, with non-military themes being developed. In Wales CADW and later, Historic Scotland, followed English Heritage's lead and introduced historical events programme, although on a smaller scale appropriate to the historic properties they were responsible for.  Independent annual events such as Kentwell Hall’s  Tudor living history and the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival became firmly established.  For those more interested in WWII and military vehicles, the enormous War and Peace Revival at Folkestone Racecourse in Kent became an annual fixture - and still is.

The 1990s

The 1990s were a great time for re-enactors as the popularity of their displays and shows continued to increase. Further, English Heritage's policy of working with re-enactors for mutual benefit encouraged the formation of numerous new groups in the UK, which in turn influenced existing ones, especially following SEU’s introduction of innovative multi-period events in 1992. In doing so, Howard was following up the concept he had participated in as a re-enactor at a British army-organised event at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst in June 1987. In an innovation that was to greatly influence later events, Soldiers through time featured members of four re-enactment groups (The Ermine Street Guard, Sealed Knot, Napoleonic Association and from Belgium, La Musique de la Garde de Waterloo) performing alongside regular army bands and soldiers. Although a one-off event, the idea firmly lodged in Howard's mind and later led to some of Britain's most memorable large-scale multi-period shows such as History in Action, first staged in 1996 and featuring a significant number of groups for the first time. For the next 7 years, History and Action grew in size and scope, becoming the largest and most spectacular event of its kind in the world.

The 1990s: A mass volley of muskets and cannon during the finale of History in Action II, 1997. Photo: Neil Holmes.

With a combination of English Heritage sites and other organisers staging well over a thousand events each year, the nineties witnessed a true explosion of creativity in the world of re-enactment. The formation of the National Association of Re-enactment Societies (NAReS), also marked a major advance. Leading groups sat round the table together for the first time to discuss issues concerning the hobby. Re-enactors now had an "official" voice that could respond to proposed government initiatives that could affect the hobby, such as gun control. Although muskets and cannon hardly constitute a threat to public order, it is all too easy for laws aimed at criminals to impact on this harmless and popular hobby. NAReS, together with English Heritage and other bodies have to date successfully shielded re-enactment from inappropriate legislation, a notable "battle" being to successfully protect re-enactment from the sweeping restrictions of the Violent Crime Reduction Act.

Throughout the 1990s, re-enactment continued to change. Standards of authenticity continued to improve and even previously sceptical academics accepted that living history could play a role to play in keeping history alive.

The very large battle re-enactment societies such as The Sealed Knot and English Civil War Society continued to flourish, but maintaining the level of membership began to prove more difficult as members discovered that unlike in earlier days where choice was limited, there were now many other eras to re-enact and groups to form or join. This also occurred to event sponsors and organisers, who were increasingly looking for something new and, preferably, cheaper to stage. These trends towards smaller and more diverse re-enactments continue to represent a major challenge for long established larger groups to this day, although for sheer spectacle, multi-period events and large-scale battles are difficult to eclipse.

Re-enactment, primarily Napoleonic, began to be increasingly popular in mainland Europe. Indeed, at the end of the 1980s it came as quite a surprise to many to discover that behind the Iron Curtain, thriving medieval and Napoleonic groups had been developing in parallel to the West, despite fewer resources and more restrictions. Czech re-enactors even made complete sets of armour and weapons out of Skoda cars (which, they joked, was actually the best use for the latter!). With the fall of communism, all these enthusiasts began to meet up.  Of all periods of history, it was Napoleonic era that has brought the most nationalities together.  Commencing in 1990, the major re-enactments held every few years on the actual battlefield at Waterloo in Belgium feature groups from as far away as Russia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. Recreations also began to be staged at Borodino near Moscow, a cataclysmic battle from Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812.

The English Heritage events programme reached its zenith in Millennium year, with just over 1000 events. It was the largest programme ever staged and included History in Action 2000, probably the biggest multi-period event in the world. This featured over 3000 participants from 100 groups from Britain and Europe and even included a trio of Spitfire fighters strafing German positions in a WWII battle. The same year, hundreds of other top-quality shows were staged throughout Britain at a variety of locations. UK re-enactment had come a long way since its modest beginnings over 30 years before.   

The creation of EventPlan

Howard Giles at The Battle of Orgreave, 2001. Photo: Dick Clark.Having largely achieved what he set out to do at English Heritage and having been responsible for the staging of over 5,000 events, Howard Giles decided to leave after 16 years in September 2000 to found EventPlan Limited, still with the aim of organising events that both audience and performers alike would enjoy, but this time on behalf of new clients including TV and film channels such as BBC 1, BBC 2, ITV, Sky and Channel 4.

EventPlan’s first major project was the very unusual and hugely successful Battle of Orgreave, which on June 17 2001 recreated the climactic clash between police and NUM miners almost exactly 17 years before in 1984. Utilising 800 re-enactors from many societies and local extras including Orgreave “veterans”, convincing forces of riot police and miners were created for what many have described as the most realistic live re-enactment ever staged in Britain, which was filmed for Channel 4 by Hollywood director Mike Figgis. The Channel 4 film of this event was shown in October 2002 and has been regularly repeated. See our "Articles" drop down menu for more about the event and film.

Since Orgreave, EventPlan's programme has developed each year with new and repeat clients, numerous multi and single era events successfully staged and as many as 100,000 people enjoying them annually.

Re-enactment today

British-based Indian Raj Skinners Horse officers tent pegging. Photo: Wyrdlight Photography.It is thought that around 20,000 people now belong to re-enactment societies within the UK alone. Whole families are discovering how enjoyable it is to spend their weekends recreating distant eras. The quality and variety of events continues to improve, offering venues an incredible choice of displays from small living histories up to enormous multi-period shows. Many award-winning groups continue to develop and demonstrate an understanding and knowledge of their chosen era that even academics would envy.

Rising disposable income amongst many re-enactors has encouraged the creation of a whole new mini-industry of craftspeople who supply period clothing, weaponry, pottery and other props, whilst expensive armoured vehicles and jeeps now regularly augment WWII displays.

Top re-enactors are also being recognised and utilised by TV and film companies. From the epic American Civil War film Gods and Generals to comparatively humble documentaries, it almost seems compulsory now to feature reconstructions by skilled groups and individuals from the re-enactment world. Historical Film Services, the TV and film division of EventPlan, has often called upon the services of top re-enactors and other specialist extras for productions.

Civil War troops prepare to march. Photo: Red Zebra.Anniversary events are proving especially popular.  A major re-enactment was held at Waterloo in June 2005, on the 190th anniversary of the great battle (even though, as usual, Belgian local government politics complicated arrangements). In 2006 a snowy 200th recreation of the decisive battle of Jena was held in Germany, and as the 200th anniversary of the Napoleonic Wars continue, more recreations are expected to to be staged until the last battle of that long and bloody series of wars is recreated once again at Waterloo, 200 years on in June 2015. Anniversary re-enactments of the War of Spanish Succession (which raged throughout Europe 300 years ago) have also been staged, albeit on a much smaller scale. More peacefully, English Heritage and others staged events to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the accession to the throne of King Henry VIII in 1509.

Recreating an earlier but crucial moment in British history, English Heritage has organised major international re-enactments of the Battle of Hastings 1066, in October 1990, 1995,  2000, 2006 and 2012. Participants travel from all over the world to join around 3,000 others in defending Senlac Hill with King Harold, or attacking up the long grassy slope alongside Duke William of Normandy. Indeed, restaging these battles on the exact spot whenever possible (quite usual in Europe but rare in the United States due to long-established National Park Service policy) always adds a truly unique feel to these occasions. English Civil War battles and sieges between Parliamentarians and Royalists are regularly recreated, as are battles and other events from the C15th Wars of the Roses (particularly Bosworth 1485, refought every year as close to the actual anniversary as possible). Indeed, both C17th and the current series of 550th anniversary medieval re-enactments are set to continue for many years. Key 1940's anniversaries are also commemorated on a regular basis, for example the Battle of Britain, D-Day and the Battle of Arnhem. Some anniversary events involve rather a lot of travel - perhaps the most distant for UK re-enactors being the re-enactments of the 1879 Battle of Islandlwana in Zululand, South Africa. Meanwhile, in the United States, a programme of sometimes huge 150th anniversary American Civil War battles are currently taking place, often with many thousands of participants and achieving truly spectacular recreations. The current economic woes of the UK, USA and other countries appear to only moderately dampen enthusiasm for these anniversary re-enactments, such is their appeal.

Members of The Spitfires, the popular 1940's all girl trio. Photo: Red Zebra.The trend towards more, smaller living history groups first seen in the late 1990s is continuing, posing an ongoing worry for bigger, mainly battle-orientated groups as some of their membership decide to re-enact a different era. Many groups are also finding that as their membership ages and members gradually drop out, there are not enough younger members joining to replace them, perhaps partly because of cost, perhaps because many younger people are content to game on a computer rather than actually get out and "do it for real". The level of participant and visitor interest between different eras of history also continues to evolve, some declining, others increasing, with one above all clearly in the ascendancy - the 1940s and "vintage" generally.

2014 marks the centenary of the start of the Great War 1914-18. Established and specially-formed re-enactment groups – primarily living history rather than battle orientated – will be taking part in numerous commemorative events in Britain, France and Belgium over the next few years. With public and media interest in the “war to end all wars” at a (modern era) all time high, these events should help current generations understand the reasons for and the course of this terrible conflict, but most of all help remember and empathise with those caught up in it.

There are many reasons why the Forties scene in particular may be booming - the amount of “hardware” that can be displayed (and driven about!), the sheer firepower of the weaponry, the vast number of roles available, and the ease of empathy with our immediate forebears (much easier than relating to the thoughts and deeds of, say, people during the English Civil War). 1940's shows can feature tanks & armoured vehicles, jeeps, trucks, large guns, machine guns, aircraft, ships, steam trains, you name it – along with a huge amount of other activities and entertainments that can allow entire shows to be staged even without a single “bang” being required (ideal for the more “genteel” historic properties)….music, song, dancing, fashion, vintage cycles, motorcycles, cars and trucks, living history, fly pasts and all. With such a mix on offer, events of all sizes and themes can be organised as required. Most of all, the visiting public enjoy the shows as much as the participants, making them a popular choice for venues large or small. To read an article entitled "Why are the Forties are booming?" see Issue 94 of Skirmish Living history Magazine (details below).

Authenticity versus fun

Re-enactors do what they do for many different reasons - indeed its fair to say that almost everyone involved has a different reason for doing it. However, most primarily do it to enjoy themselves, probably including the tiny minority of professionals. Within this, all can be defined by the eras chosen and by their standards of re-enactment - and the latter is usually a constant topic for debate. Whilst standards of historical accuracy and authenticity have vastly increased across the board over the past 45 years, interestingly the attitude to its importance varies enormously.

Down to the grime, these menacing C18th highwaymen certainly look the part. Photo:  Des Knock.The Historical Maritime Society recreate the Nelsonian Royal Navy in perfect detail, including their replica 23 foot launch. Photo: Howard GilesWithin any given recreated era, there will be those who constantly strive to increase the accuracy of their "impression" to the point that if you dropped them via a time machine into the era they portray, they would superficially be hard to spot. I stress superficially as nobody from the C21st could easily "become" or replicate someone from say the C17th with its distinctly different values, religious views, standards of health and hygiene, day to day life etc.  However, "progressives", "hard core re-enactors" and "living historians" (5) certainly look the part as much as possible, thoroughly understand their subject, and present superb depictions of the past to the public. Very often they prefer to stage private events so they can completely discard the need for a "show" and immerse themselves in a chosen "time and place" as accurately as possible down to the equipment carried and food eaten. This might take the form of a WWII skirmish in the woods, or an American Civil War winter camp, or a "campaign" lasting days, cut off from the modern world as much as possible. Although a minority within the hobby, they are growing in strength.

Meanwhile, the majority of re-enactors are "mainstream". They are primarily out to enjoy themselves whilst presenting a reasonably accurate portrayal of their chosen subject amongst themselves and to the public. Modern compromises are often made (for instance, allowing women to fight in battles as soldiers) and uniforms and kit may have minor faults (eg machine stitching on recreated pre-industrial clothing) compared with the originals - if the latter survive (there are no surviving C17th soldiers' coats for example, so modern reproductions are based on interpretation of known information). Some mainstream groups camp under period canvas (authentic during the day but often with modern luxuries "after hours") whilst other groups simply bring their modern tents and caravans, with no attempt to replicate the past once the public have gone home. Mainstream re-enactment comprises the majority of the hobby today, whether in Britain, the USA or elsewhere, and usually includes the larger societies and their displays.

Finally, there are a significant number of poorly uniformed/clothed groups and individuals which Americans generally call "Farbs" and the British "Beer and Bash" (although "farbs" is catching on). Having little interest in "getting it right" and purely out to enjoy themselves, they often embarrass other re-enactors with blindingly obvious faults such as incomplete or poorly made costume, eating burgers and drinking out of plastic cups, wearing modern glasses and footwear, and so forth - simply not caring  that other re-enactors and worse, an increasingly sophisticated public, often spot and laugh at all this. More serious re-enactors detest this as they feel this undermines their efforts and reputation, creating a "sad" image amongst many non-re-enactors and making them an easy target for the media. Unfortunately, many farbs belong to larger mainstream groups and resist all attempts to upgrade their appearance or behaviour to a more acceptable standard, but it was ever thus and no doubt will continue to be.  Whatever group they may belong to, farbs usually find events to go to and sometimes one has to ask the question "do the public really care?". The answer seems to be that those who are "tuned in" historically certainly do care, whilst those who don't are quite happy to enjoy their day out and munch their ice creams without wondering about the validity of the show presented to them, thus believing what they see to be true when it isn't. Yet with the restrictions of the C21st such as health & safety, weapons legislation and public taste, even progressives have to make compromises sometimes, so few modern depictions of the past can really be completely accurate. Indeed this is also a major topic of debate amongst professionals, academics and living historians alike. Suffice it to say that most UK organisations like English Heritage or the National Trust, together with organisers such as EventPlan (and in America, the National Parks Service and similar bodies) strive to ensure that acceptable standards of authenticity are maintained at their events, tend to favour progressives and the better mainstream groups, and do their best to avoid farbs altogether.

Showing some less attractive aspects of the past can be just as important as ensuring that the clothing and weaponry are correct! Photo: Geoff Buxton.
Some non-re-enactors have a problem with the motivation of re-enactors as they don't understand them. This is perhaps not surprising considering the vast range of eras covered and the different standards of accuracy referred to above.  For example, some ex-military personnel feel that the re-enactment of C20th warfare or "dressing up as soldiers" trivialises the horror of the real thing. But this is only part of the story and other war veterans are truly delighted by the efforts made by, for example,  groups depicting WWII British troops as it keeps the memory of their achievements alive. As one veteran recently said to a friend of mine, "don't ever let them (the public) forget what we did". This is definitely the chief aim of the Khaki Chums who parade at the Cenotaph in London each November 11 uniformed as British soldiers of the Great War, as part of the Western Front Association's act of remembrance. As with all things, there are always contrasting opinions but it is noticeable that understanding of and sympathy for many re-enactors' genuine love of history is increasing, particularly when it comes to their efforts in honouring the soldiers of the two great wars.  Re-enactors also tend to be staunch supporters of the troops currently fighting overseas, and often raise funds for military charities such as The Army Benevolent Fund or SSAFA (Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen Family Association).

Possible threats to re-enactment and living history

Re-enactors have to keep on their toes as the government periodically produces legislation that adversely impacts on re-enactors. Fortunately they usually recognise re-enactment as a legitimate past time so usually take it into account when wording legislation to ban this or that type of weapon in the public interest, or licensing the transportation and use of gunpowder.  The constant worry remains that unless very carefully scrutinised at the consultation stage, such legislation could severely damage the ability of groups and historic venues to present displays to the public.  Re-enactors are cautiously optimistic about the future, but remain on their guard!

Other potential threats are rather more prosaic but if anything, more likely to influence the eventual direction that re-enactment takes.  Many re-enactors, having joined the hobby in the 1970s 80s or 90s, are aging and gradually giving up, especially if “battle orientated” and in their own words “too old to keep on fighting!”    Meanwhile, fewer younger people are stepping into the ranks to take their place, partly because of economic pressures and partly as PC gaming is now so popular and is “easier”.   Battle re-enactment is definitely taking the brunt of this trend, with groups suffering from reducing numbers, not helped by economic recessions and venues being by necessity a lot more canny with their money and so often opting for smaller, cheaper shows.  Indeed it is pretty clear that the “golden era” of large scale battle re-enactment has long since passed, except perhaps for key anniversaries.

Perhaps the only major era  to escape the above trend is the 1940s, because it offers so much choice to participants and is firmly lodged in the minds of the public, who continue to enjoy and be willing to pay to see major WWII re-enactments. However, being dependant on using relatively modern weaponry and ammunition, the era is far from immune from crime-driven gun legislation and the sheer cost of staging shows.  “Pay to play” is already fairly common within 1940s groups, and this may have to become more prevalent.

The passing of major anniversaries, for instance the 150th of the American Civil war and the 200th of the Napoleonic Wars (both in 2015) could also see “veteran” re-enactors hanging up their uniforms for the last time. Enthusiasm for English Civil War re-enactments peaked during its 350th anniversary years but fell away  thereafter, and the same may apply to the above, but we shall have to wait to see.

Meanwhile, smaller scale but high quality living history looks set to continue to flourish, as the number of participants is not so important and displays generally cost less to stage.  So perhaps it is fair to say that whilst the more expensive and/or large scale displays may gradually reduce in scale and frequency,  smaller groups and events  should survive as long as they are interesting and offer value for money to the commercial venues that often host them.  Long may it be so.

The future

British soldiers of 1914 recreated by the Manchester Regiment 1914-18. Photo: Des Knock.Re-enactment and living history look set to remain extremely popular activities, although there is a growing trend whereby many UK re-enactors - who would once regularly travel the length and breadth of Britain to participate in shows - are steadily becoming more "regional" in their choice of events to attend due to the increasing cost of fuel and the cost of living generally. There are exceptions of course and major annual and anniversary events are still very likely to attract participants from all over the country (and sometimes from abroad). Many UK re-enactors also seem more willing to travel to Europe and even the USA for highlight events. English Heritage continues to stage hundreds of historical events every year, in particular their major Festival of History (now History Live), the successor to History in Action (above). The National Trust, once very conservative in their choice of events, seem set to increasingly embrace living history displays although usually on a fairly low key basis due to budgetary constraints. Many local councils, private historic houses and other heritage attractions value historical events and show no sign of changing their minds. Other established events like War and Peace and Military Odyssey are also set to continue flourishing so long as the participants and visitors keep on coming.

Looking ahead to more anniversary events, 2014 as mentioned is likely witness a large number of commemorations and re-enactments marking the anniversary of the start of the Great War 1914-18, with annual anniversary events following on to 2018. 2015 will be another busy year - in June, the last and very bloody battle of the Napoleonic Wars will be refought on its 200th anniversary at Waterloo, almost certainly on a very impressive international scale. Also, a large scale event is planned to commemorate the 600th anniversary year of the famously decisive Battle of Agincourt, 1415, including a battle, and an impressive arrow storm demonstration. The organisers are likely to field 1,000 archers for this unique and unforgettable demonstration of the power of the medieval English longbow.
On the whole, re-enactment has never looked back since its humble beginnings despite ever tightening government controls on the ownership and use of cannon, muskets, rifles and gunpowder, as well as increasing insurance premiums generated by the current and rather distasteful "no win no fee" litigation culture. The rocketing cost of black powder (gunpowder) and blank C20th-era ammunition is also proving challenging for groups and event organisers alike. But with a huge variety of eras available and more quality groups to work with than ever before, together with increasing opportunities for international events, the future of re-enactment should prove extremely exciting so long as potentially damaging government legislation takes note of the legitimate needs of re-enactors. But life is never simple and new threats to re-enactors' freedom to recreate history are likely in future.

EventPlan continues to offer top quality historical events for various clients, please see our list of show dates for more information.

Acknowledgements, comments and anecdotes

The story of the 1635 display mishap was rediscovered by Malcolm Atkin and published in True Relation, the journal of the Fairfax Battalia. A short account by Mick Kippin of the 1895 re-enactment of Rorkes Drift appeared in the May/June 2003 issue of Armourer magazine.

Thanks to veteran re-enactor Peter Seymour for his helpful comments including more information about the Eglinton Tournament, other early recreations, and the immergence of "modern" Viking re-enactment, included and/or referred to above.

This brief history can only scratch the surface of a fascinating hobby, especially with regard to the origins of modern re-enactment. If you were a re-enactor in "the early years", we would be interested in receiving any reminiscences and/or pictures.

Interested in joining a re-enactment society?

Historical re-enactment is an extremely popular hobby. It's enormous fun and can often involve the whole family if wished. Multi-period events bring together a number of Britain's top groups, so if you are interested in finding out more, do consider coming along to these events for an instant overview of the hobby. Simply ask any of the re-enactors what their society could offer you. Some groups set up information tents with this very purpose in mind.

With so many groups to choose from it's important to spend a little time deciding what era you are most interested in and how you might get on with groups you see. One thing's for sure - re-enactors are immensely friendly people and are nearly always seeking new members to swell the ranks! So whether you fancy being a Saxon warrior, a civil war soldier fighting for King or Parliament, a Napoleonic redcoat, a camp follower or one of hundreds of other roles, these events are certainly worth visiting to find out more! See our events list (link on the menu bar above) for more details of shows to visit.

Alternatively, you can discover the huge variety of groups and eras by exploring the many web sites and publications devoted to the hobby.

Living history and re-enactment magazines

Try these magazines for interesting articles and pictures from the world of re-enactment:

Skirmish Living History magazine.  A magazine for re-enactors,  living history enthusiasts and those who like to visit their shows.  For more details please visit www.skirmishmagazine.com

Gunmart magazine usually includes a regular re-enactment feature. The Re-enactor is sent monthly as a PDF file to all registered readers in 35 different countries around the world. It covers all periods of re-enactment history and is available from jason.okeefe@btopenworld.com

Exploring the re-enactment world on the net

There's a huge number of re-enactor web sites to explore. Take a look at those featured on our site - click into the list of groups featured on individual event pages for starters, or try these re-enactment portal sites:  Histrenact, Living History.co.uk , or for the Wikipedia article about re-enactment, click here. If you'd like to buy interesting historical reproductions, find out more via www.domusantonius.co.uk, an on-line historical traders' directory.  

Travelling to an event and staying over?

Then check out  The History and Heritage Accommodation Guide

 Updated 22 February 2015  13:03