I’d normally assume that battlefield re-enactments are rather naff and amateurish. But this week’s re-run of the battle at Plancenoit (part of the main Waterloo battle) proved me wrong.
Plancenoit is about 3 miles east of the main battlefield site at Mont St Jean, Waterloo, where the late arriving Prussians defeated the French defenders. There’s a re-enactment here every year around the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. But despite living near the site for the last 4 years, I’ve never been to see it.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, it starts at 9am on a Sunday morning, an hour generally considered to be entirely fictional by all right thinking people. Secondly, it’s carried out by battlefield re-enactment types – so it must be amateurish rubbish. The latter statement is based on my acquaintance with a member of the Sealed Knot – an English group which dress up in roundhead and cavalier gear on their days off.
He was a short rotund 50-something who maintained a riotous and fulsome main of curly dark hair and a closely trimmed moustache and goatee in the cavalier style. He was also a bit of a plonker, and my perception of re-enactors was thus established. The thought of him and 2000 others like him (this is a pretty big event) marching around and playfighting for my enlightenment and entertainment was not appealing.
I was wrong.
Having decided that we really ought to go and see the spectacle at least once, we got up unfeasibly early this Sunday, drove the couple of miles to the outskirts of Plancenoit, and then walked to the centre of the village (a good mile further on). On the way we passed a number of infantry companies of various hue (Prussian, British, and Brunswick(ian?), and were passed by a couple of small groups of very impressive cavalry. Everything looked authentic (to my untutored eye at least) even though there were more than your average proportion of rotund 50-somethings of many nationalities. I always thought that being a ‘camp follower’ was pretty naff too – “something for the ladies” in true bobastic, chauvinistic XXXX fashion.
Mind you there was one particularly outstanding and ‘authentic’ camp follower – which made it worth the outing…
Parts of the battle were re-enacted in the village centre itself and then, with the French retreating, a large field outside the village. The noise and smoke of rifles and cannon was impressive, as was the organisation and the choreography of the combat which lasted about three hours! Though it lacked the real sense of horror and bloodiness of such a battle it seemed a fair demonstration of weapons, tactics, and formations. While two thousand participants couldn’t be the same as the hundreds of thousands involved in the actual battle, you got a sense of what one small part of it would have been like.
With the temperature reaching 30ºC, we retired to the pub in the village for a welcome beer and Ben ran up and down a hill while we timed his attempts to break Asufa Powell’s new 100m world record (he never stops).
Half an hour later, soldiers in uniform started arriving. Peeling off their woolen greatcoats and pack, I watched as one guy took off his shirt and wrung it out, leaving a small puddle on the cobbles. Fair play to them. They must all have been sweltering, but they had got on and done the job they came to do. And it was well worth seeing.