A slice of Britain: The strange attraction of 'bang-bang, you're dead'

It was all moustaches and musket brandishing in Kent this weekend as tens of thousands gathered for Europe's largest battle re-enactment festival
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The Independent Online

Dawn breaks over the nearby hills and Craig Appleton's thoughts turn to the hours ahead. As Sergeant Major of the 10th Essex Regiment, he knows he will see fighting before the day is through. He is ready. His troops are in place, the trenches dug and there is nothing now to do except wait.

But for the fact that this is one army commander who can be confident his soldiers will not sustain any casualties during the battle to come, this could be a scene in Afghanistan's central Helmand province today. It is that confidence that gives Mr Appleton away. Well, that and the small matter of the spectators lined up along crash barriers who will be watching as the fighting unfolds.

Not to mention that his men, like the enemy they will encounter, will be firing blanks. Or that once the staged Great War battle is over, they might opt to wander across the vast Kent Showground to check out any one of a number of other conflicts raging at this year's Military Odyssey – a three-day event that promises to bring history to life and help all who have coughed up the £15 entrance fee to unravel the mysteries of modern warfare.

If it seems odd at a time when British lives are being lost almost daily on the battlefields of Afghanistan that an estimated 40,000 enthusiasts will pack the Detling Hill showground this bank holiday weekend to revel in centuries of conflict, then consider this: according to the event's director, Gary Howard, there's no escaping the fact that we wouldn't be here today were it not for all those centuries of warfare.

"We've been fighting since we've been on this planet, so all our history is basically military. That's why we called this event a 'Military Odyssey'."

And what an odyssey. The 90ish re-enactment societies – or "living history" groups as they have rebranded themselves – entertaining the public yesterday truly spanned the ages, from the Ancient Greeks through to modern-day Iraq, with plenty of Viking warriors, medieval knights, Napoleonic soldiers and even the odd Native American Indian thrown in for good measure. All spent at least part of the day brandishing their weaponry at the appropriate foe. (And please note the word "appropriate". While you might see warriors mingling across the centuries in the confines of their campsite, a prime hunting ground for new lifelong friendships apparently, you should never see it on the battlegrounds themselves, where anachronisms are deeply frowned upon.

"If you're going to put on a full-blown battle display it has to be authentic. The whole point is to get the nearest we possibly can to what people back then actually experienced," said Mr Howard. Which is why you shouldn't turn up expecting to see some corner of a replica foreign field where the Taliban, for example, gets its comeuppance, or the Sunni resistance gets blown away.

The problem, you see, is that whereas there is no shortage of volunteers to dress up as a member of, say, the Waffen SS (worrying as that might be), wannabe Taliban fighters are somewhat thinner on the ground. "We couldn't put on a skirmish from Iraq or Iran or Afghanistan, or even Vietnam, because there's no foe. Nobody wants to do that! Mind you, if there was, I'd probably take them on," added Mr Howard. That's why the most modern (replica) shells exploding under a surprisingly warm Kent sun yesterday dated all the way back to the Second World War, although there were displays of equipment from more recent battles, such as Operation Desert Storm.

Despite the cornucopia of clashes to choose from, it was Mr Appleton's "boys" – though most were considerably older than the fresh-faced cannon fodder of the actual First World War – that proved among the biggest draws. He put the popularity of "the biggest Great War experience ever mounted, anywhere" down to the recent death of the last British survivor from the trenches, the 111-year-old former plumber from Somerset, Harry Patch. "The Great War is on everybody's minds and we're able to bring it to everybody in colour. Our whole raison d'être is to remind people of the massive sacrifice this country paid to defeat the Germans," he said. As well as watching staged battles, visitors got the chance to explore a 60-metre replica trench dug into the Kent countryside and a typical wartime encampment.

As well as being Europe's biggest annual military re-enactment festival, Military Odyssey is nostalgia HQ for a nation that boasts more re-enactment societies than anywhere else in the world. More than 18,000 people belong to the National Association of Re-enactment Societies and, for most of those, this weekend's festival is the highlight of a summer studded with such events.

Jonathan Taylor, chairman of the English Civil War Society, estimated that his 1,500 or so members could spend "virtually every weekend" travelling the country playing Roundheads or Cavaliers if they liked. He thinks the attraction of joining a group such as his is stronger than ever now simply because Britain is at war, and has been for the past eight years.

"The fact that there is a real war happening tends to fix people's minds on the reality of military conflict. There's an underlying pride in the military in this country, which we try to explain by demonstrating the roots of all our military activity today," he added, pointing out that the New Model Army, formed in 1645, at the height of the English Civil War, was the forebear of today's British Army.

Which is all very impressive. And yet is not all this dressing up and musket brandishing, not to mention moustache growing and wig wearing, a little bit strange? Belonging to a society such as The Woodvilles, which resident fletcher Jim Wyatt pointed out brings the complicated history of the Wars of the Roses to life, may constitute the perfect family hobby, but isn't it just a trifle, well, disconcerting that so many people want to spend their weekends recreating battles past? For example, Mr Wyatt, a 65-year-old retired BT security officer who has been "shooting arrows since he was a paper boy", fought at Bosworth last weekend and had already relived Agincourt and Honfleur once this year before he arrived at Detling Hill.

I mean, I'm a history graduate, with a genuine passion for the past, and yet I've never had an iota of desire to tip up at one of these events. Spending my summer playing a 15th-century housewife, as Mrs Wyatt now does, sounds like my idea of hell. One reason I never managed to visit any American Civil War battlefields, despite recently living within spitting distance of most of them, was my genuine fear of encountering the likes of the Officers of the Confederate States or the 9th New York Volunteer Cavalry, two British-based American Civil War re-enactment groups. Just as I'd be seriously worried about bumping into any members of the Luftwaffe Society, Kompanie 1 or the 2nd Battle Group, which all represent various German soldiers, on Detling Hill – for all that Gary Howard promises me that Military Odyssey "just won't stand" for the veneration of Nazis or any type of neo-Nazi propaganda.

And yet, according to the enthusiasts flocking to the Kent Showground this weekend, I'm clearly the one missing out. For anyone who still needs convincing about the joys of watching men – and it is mostly men – play with what are essentially big boys' toys, there is always next year. In 2010, Military Odyssey will mark its 10th anniversary. And you'd better believe it will be a big deal. And, if the noise of yesterday's skirmishes was anything to go by, a similarly loud one.

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