Egos, Batons, and Commemoration... Oh My!
has no satisfactory answer - what will happen after the NVA? Shall there be a new WFA styled group to carry on the reins, the continuation of NVA Branches as Lunch Clubs - taking on wider membership, and what direction will the Normandy Commemorations take?
Since 2009 I have referred to Normandy as a Circus, and increasingly authorities have been clamping down on re-enactors running rough shod over events. Frankly the worst bunch are the US Airborne re-enactors, bombing around in Jeeps, swinging 50cals at traffic, waving and parading as if they own the place. Almost always they seem to congregate in the British Sector, oozing out of the densely packed American sector - tooled up to the 9s, for posing, photos and general tomfoolery.
Unfortunately this year reached a whole new level of tastelessness, at Bayeux there were several American re-enactors, then when we arrived in Arromanches around 40 US Paratrooper were smoking, waving, showing off their gats (naturally with goatees and shades), in the cheapest reproduction uniforms around. It was 6 June, and the NVA were having their final parade and Ceremony, and just to the right of this were a load of insensitive re-enactors, enjoying their moment of glory. By the time I saw 12 Russian re-enactors jiving on the promenade, I promptly gave up and stopped caring. By that stage I was beyond despair, what gave these people the right to stand there and do as they saw fit, detracting from the real brave men now sitting on seats, in the hot sun, exhausted after a long day. The facetious side of myself mutters, in a Mel Gibson accent, 'They fought for your Freedom!' But basic standards were lacking, and they appeared as the embodiment of 'Over Sexed, Over Paid and Over Here'.
Returning to Britain this increasingly dogged me. Many veterans I have interviewed do not approve of re-enactment, not least most of it is so poorly done. Few re-enactors know even the basics of what they portray, what a slit trench looks like, and then go to shows to 'educate the public' - they make even the shoddiest historian look like an Oxbridge Academic.
In previous years, and decades, such links would have been moot - and frankly I'd be clutching at straws. I was told in 2009 that the NVA would be 'evolving' into an organisation akin to the Western Front Association - taking on new blood, focusing on the past, and also looking to create a good basis for the future. Nothing happened. This year I heard far quieter, vague statements from a few NVA members, it was a great step back from 2009 where it looked like there was a clear vision driving the project. And this is why we are heading towards an awkward storm.
With the imminent demise of the NVA as a major body, devolving into small Lunch Clubs or simply disbanding, there is likely to be no 'official' successor and Normandy is likely to consider spinning in a downward spiral, into a perverse Dark Disney. There were rides by Port-en-Bessin, how long until we have the 'Eboat Dodgems' and 'Daimler Dipper', or even the 'Wittmann Waltzer'.
"Only one veteran was present, if we had not attended in kit as asked, there wouldn't have been such a turn out."
A Re-enactor on their attendance at a Ceremony in Normandy
On my return I heard that a number of re-enactors had turned up uninvited to a number of ceremonies. Sometimes they turned up in full combat gear, occasionally in Walking Out dress. Substantial offence was caused at Port-en-Bessin and a number of re-enactors were ejected for their antics. Elsewhere groups misbehaving at bars and restaurants led to blanket bans of any non-service personnel in uniform, and groups grinned as they posed for photos with bemused veterans. Others even claimed that 'our veteran' would be in attendance with them, and effectively claimed lineage stretching back to long amalgamated Regiments. It has become a topsy-turvy world.
Back in Blighty one re-enactor boasted about their attendance at a Commemoration, "Only one veteran was present, if we had not attended in kit as asked, there wouldn't have been such a turn out." This struck me, on three levels. First the arrogance of the re-enactor to believe that it was their appearance which drove people's attendance, and secondly that a single veteran was not a draw, thirdly that when no veterans or re-enactors were present, no one would give a damn.
It became apparent that many re-enactors were not over their for 'honest' reasons, many were seeking self-aggrandisement, and general promotion, often lacking a rudimentary understanding of what had really happened where they stood. This creates an awkward relationship, as now they are attempting to actively involve themselves in areas where they should step back, or leave it to people to pay their respects.
Also do re-enactors really increase the draw? Do a load of (frequently) middle aged, overweight, men who lack the knowledge on what they represent, really count as an attraction at Ceremonies? Some will of course scream "Yes!" with passion, in an attempt to drown out debate, but these questions have to be asked, and engaged with.
Living History, Re-enactors, Vintage?
"I could be misinterperating it but it was noticably different to what the guys in fancy dress got. You felt like people could see you were 'Living History'."
In some ways it feels like an awkward crossroads has finally been reached, with Normandy acting as a catalyst. When re-enactors were banned from the WW1 Centenary Commemorations some WW1 're-enactors' were up in arms over what they saw as a disgusting and disgraceful betrayal by the locals. In their mind how dare the locals tell them how they - as Johnny Foreigner to the Belgians and French - are allowed to turn up and pay their 'respects'. Obviously the concern stemmed from the fear that the usual 'Curlers and Bunting Brigade' would make an appearance... which is prevalent on the British re-enactment scene.
Anticipating a massive influx of re-enactors to battlefields, commemorations and memorials the Belgians took a rather remarkable official step. It is worth noting that Ypres City Council banned them as it considered them "hobby-play soldiers" with a "[lack] of historical validity".
The 'Suspenders Resistance' Movement has become synonymous with poor standards in the UK, representing the lowest rung of standards. Cheap, or plain modern and incorrect gear, slapping an FFI armband on, grabbing a cheap wooden MP40 and running around screaming "Liberte!" Again what education is this? Many of the worst impressions are worn by vehicle owners, effectively as fancy dress to give their vehicles some form of setting - which is (often unfairly) accompanied by the groan of 'MV Owner' when you see a beautifully restored WW2 truck being driven by a guy in CS95s, wearing a MICH helmet, and wearing Raybans. Since they are trying to 'look the part' are they to be held to the same standards as others, and what if their general pootling through Normandy encroaches on other areas, and accidentally cause offence? Some chaps in US gear were frenetically waving at every coach and car that they passed at Juno - despite looking like some bizarre, dystopian mash up of 1990s vehicles (Maharinas converted to look like Willys MBs), M41 jackets - with a large US flag emblazoned on it, jeep caps and jeans.
Living Historians are a different bunch, who try and embrace the period as much as possible - not just dress, but attitude, food, and general hardship of digging in on their todd. They practice period drill, patrolling, and tend not to invite photographers along to take pretty pictures. There are several proper LH Camps in Normandy authorised by local museums, often these tend to attract the creme-de-la-creme of Living Historians, who actually tend to be somewhat qualified, or at least authorised by the local Museum, in aiding education. Unfortunately they are also few in number.
It doesn't help that many re-enactors fail to understand where failings come from their own equipment. A recent article, penned by a re-enactor, discussed at length the poor quality of British uniform, how crap it was and generally slating it. The key problem which underlined the author's argument was that his uniform was a cheaper reproduction, which sat well below the original BD waistline. Thus of course there would be movement issues, when combined with the incorrect tailoring of the uniform. I have met larger gentlemen who wear BD and tend to have no issue if the cut follows the original specification, which strongly indicates that it was the type of reproduction that deserved such scrutiny, not BD itself. Similarly an indie war film currently in development, The 13th, claims unerring accuracy down to the lacing of boots - however they incorrectly identify the enemy that 13 Para faced, wear the wrong Denisons and assorted kit and effectively fall down the same trap. Such rookie mistakes, appearing in print and films greatly emphasising accuracy, help no end to constructing re-enactorisms - easy factoid myths which are rapidly disseminated, especially when they are at shows 'educating the public'.
Re-enactors are the most awkward, they have general grasp of what happened, but lack the knowledge (or perhaps drive) to get it right. One of the saddest examples I experienced was a poor British re-enactor charging around a battlefield as a member of the Duke of Wellington's in NWE, with a MkVII gasmask flapping unsecured on his chest. I approached him and his group afterwards, explaining he wanted the 'lightweight' bag, when this drew a blank I said 'Airborne bag' and they understood. What struck me was that he was allowed to make himself look like a tit, when the Association they were part of had offered them no guidance. They were generally speaking keen individuals - but lacked the prerequisite knowledge that would have made their set up stand out, or even be accurate.
With the disbanding of the NVA in August, an era is passing. Within 20 years there will be few, if any members who are able to pass on their experiences - and even fewer who were at the teeth end of any action. In s'Hertogenbosch last year they announced it was the final year of commemorations thanking 53rd Welsh Division for liberating their city.
Oddly enough this story is still very, very poorly known in Wales, which is worthy of an article in of itself, but then a couple of weeks ago during the Wales vs Holland football friendly, 146 Dutch children met the Welsh team to pay respect for 53rd Welsh Division's fallen during the fighting in Den Bosch. I was greatly encouraged by this, and then I heard that it was possible that there may be a re-enactment of the battle this year... with German re-enactors. Few British re-enactors hold their weapons correctly, 'Northern Irelanding', or using modern commands, modern drill, hand gestures, tactics and movement... its not great. But the thought of German re-enactors standing there, and battling against them is deeply distasteful. I also cannot see it going down well among veterans, or those who are still alive and witnessed the battle. Is recreating s'Hertogenbosch, Gold, Merville any more distasteful than Waterloo? Will it soon be time to re-enact Lidice or Oradour? When do such things become acceptable, if ever, or are they wider symptoms of modern warnographic history? Is Ypres City Council right in banning "hobby-play ? Would a 'good' German Living History display dispel White Knight myths, and kill the disturbing cult of personality which has turned Wittmann into an Aryan Martyr, and his grave into a Shrine?
So where do we go with this? It is clear that the baton must be passed in some way... with the last major Association disbanding, will Normandy, and elsewhere, continue this slide into commercialised tomfoolery - or will something rise from the ashes and help bring order to this trainwreck?