'Glastonbury with guns': What’s the appeal of a weekend spent re-enacting the Second World War?

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Just outside the pleasant spa town of Tunbridge Wells, a war is being fought – several, actually. In one field, it's Soviet-era Afghanistan, in another, the trenches of the Somme. Tanks roll past, followed by mothers with pushchairs and explosions drown out pop songs blaring from the bumper cars.

The War and Peace Show is the largest "military vehicle spectacular" in the world and to the uninitiated, a disorientating experience. Spread across the 400-acre Hop Farm in Tonbridge, Kent, it took place over five days at the end of July and attracts upwards of 100,000 people from all over the world. They come for various reasons; aside from the 3,500 vehicles on display, there are around 1,000 stalls and some 40 acres dedicated to living history. The biggest draw tends to be the camaraderie.

It's been dubbed 'Glastonbury with guns' for its scale and atmosphere, but organiser Rex Cadman is proud to have created a family-friendly event that caters for every aspect of what would seem, were it not for the numbers, a rather niche interest. This is a place where punters can buy everything from vintage foot-powder tins, to the Russian tank currently ferrying 'Stalin' around the site; meet the ageing stars of TV's 'Allo 'Allo or Falklands veteran Simon Weston; even spend the entire weekend eating bully beef in a Second World War officers' mess should they so wish. There are scores of military shows in the UK but War and Peace, boasts Cadman, is "the daddy of them all."

Now in its 30th year, the event's biggest development has been on the lifestyle side, he says: "We tapped into the vintage craze about 15 years before everyone else." Daily Ministry of Food demonstrations show Forties obsessives how to make Spam and oatmeal cutlets and in the sprawling shopping village, stands sell war paint (more than 20 standard colours, from RAF Grey to German Sand), riot helmets and coffee tables made from bomb tails. One man is patiently detailing the sort of enamel tureen he's after for his wife – "You know what she's like. I can't go back to the tent without one" – while someone who looks uncannily like Blur guitarist Graham Coxon is perusing vintage jumble. It is – and he doesn't mind being rumbled; Coxon comes to the show every year to buy "mouldy clothes and tank tops. We usually bring the Land Rover and fill it up. I've always been obsessed with 1940s stuff and this is the best place to pick it up."

The show is a compelling, confusing blend of the serious and the surreal, a place where the barbed wire is plastic but the weapons are real, where the English play Germans, middle-aged white women dress as members of the Viet Cong and thousands of pounds are spent on blank ammo.

Perhaps most surprising is how ordinary everyone seems. There might be the odd over-enthusiastic TA member – there are more than a few men locked in debates about the authenticity of buttons and suchlike – but the atmosphere is friendly and light-hearted.

It's escapism," shrugs Andy Dicketts, a 50-year-old carpenter from Chatham who becomes a Second World War paratrooper at weekends. He is spending the show in a muddy foxhole in the woods, eating rations and shunning his mobile phone. "You come out here and you forget the real world. Perhaps this is my mid-life crisis, but I enjoy it."

Gerry Jerram is part of Rolling Thunder, the Vietnam War living-history group founded by her husband, Roger. They have been coming to War and Peace since 1988. "My husband bought a Vietnam-era Jeep and it all went from there…" she giggles. She is here with her daughter Kelly Hall who, after being dragged along throughout her childhood, now brings her own family. "It's just fun," she says, adjusting the Viet Cong hat she bought on eBay. "My husband was never allowed to play with guns as a child and he loves it. Plus, we all like Vietnamese food."

For John Moore, who is here with his nine-year-old son Toby, military re-enactment has become his life. The pair travel down from Newtown, Wales every year and are wearing matching German paratrooper uniforms. "The first time I came here, I loved it. It was what I'd always wanted to do and there was no question I'd get involved. Now it's become an obsession." "And mum wasn't very happy!" his son interjects. What happened, I ask? "Divorce," says his father.

It's hard to understand the motives of the people who have chosen to dress as Nazis. Those I speak to say it is not reflective of personal views, but they struggle to articulate the appeal. "It's a brilliant uniform," offers Stan Flitton, a 17-year-old from Pimlico who is dressed as an SS officer. John Louie, a British serviceman stationed in Germany, plays one of the Feldgendarmerie – the feared military police of Hitler's Germany. While recognising he is on "the dark side" he emphasises that he is not condoning the atrocities that happened under Hitler. "For me, it's about bringing back the memories of those who died for something, whether it was right or wrong." There is no opportunity to indulge his hobby in Germany. "There is shame there and I think it's rather sad. They don't take care of their war memorials or honour their war dead. Yes, a lot of it was wrong but still, men died."

The politics is muddling. While none of those dressed as Nazis are assumed to hold extremist views, Londoner Peter Frost, who attends military shows as a Vietnam War protestor, was forced to adapt his 'act' after other exhibitors took against the arrival of a hippy in a yellow split-screen VW. "The organisers thought I was peddling drugs," he says, shaking his head. Now he takes a broader view, portraying the development of the Sixties protest movement over the five days of the show. "On the first day I'm a suited-and-booted, middle-class American of 1965-66; today I'm in student mode. Tomorrow I'll be a hippy, then one of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War who were at the forefront of the peace protest movement towards the end."

For Frost, as for most here today, this is a hobby, no more trival or serious than any other, and the War and Peace Show an opportunity to spend time with friends and family enjoying a shared interest – even if that happens to be covering oneself in mud and disappearing into a trench for five days. The slogan on one man's T-shirt perhaps sums it up best: "My mother warned me there were people like this. I just wasn't looking in the right place."

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