Unusual Hobbies

by Belle Waring on April 15, 2004

Because my sister participates, I have been thinking a little lately about the peculiar practice of military reenactments. That people in America reenact the U.S. Civil War is, I think, pretty widely known, but readers from other countries may be interested to learn that WWII is also very popular. The climate and topography of the East Coast is such that passable locations can be found for many European theater battles, so long as they took place outside of cities or towns. People who live in Michigan could probably reenact evil Soviets vs. Finnish commandoes on cross-country skis, and for all I know, they do. I had thought that WWI was too depressing to attract much interest, but I see now that I was very wrong:

The accurate recreation of such an era of warfare has been no simple task, but on small battlefields around the United States (around the world, in fact) reenactors have created the closest thing possible. These battlefields have trenches, bunkers and yes, real barbed wire. There are grenades and working mortars, as well as machine guns and full-scale over-the-top assaults. Nighttime is punctuated by trench raids carried out under the eerie light of flares and star shells. In the adjacent trench bay, there is the sound of a hand-to-hand struggle, as each side battles for possession of the trench…If this kind of madness appeals to you, if it makes you curious, then you might want to consider reenacting the Great War.

But then again, perhaps not. Now, I am fairly sure that WWII reenactment would be illegal in Germany (and France?) where you are not allowed to trade Nazi memorabilia or make new, accurate SS uniforms and so on. Germans make up for this with their ridiculous Wild West fascination, based on the works of Karl May. But what about other countries? Do Belgian people like to do WWI reenactments? That would seem…morbid, but no more so than Americans doing the Civil War, I suppose. I am dead certain that Italian people are not off replaying the battle of Lake Trasimene in their free time. Italian people have better things to do, like see friends, ride Vespas around, and eat gelato. I could imagine British people going for this in a big way, however. Let’s see…oh, hell yes. English Civil War reenactments; I had forgotten. I’m sure that Japanese people are discouraged from doing WWII reenactments, just to spare feelings. Australian people, you will be happy to know, reenact the U.S. Civil War, so you can be sure they like to pretend they’re dying like flies in Turkey during WWI as well.

Why do people do this? I can see the appeal, to an extent. You get to play with guns and artillery, which is fun, and there is a hide-and-seek element to it, plus the obvious costume party aspect. According to my sister, people who dress as ordinary German soldiers in WWII reenactments are not necessarily crazy (just as there is no shame in choosing to be the Axis in a game of Axis and Allies, especially since you get more tanks). However, as you’d expect, among people who dress up as SS officers, there is a high proportion of unsavory characters. I am unable to parse the modern-day cultural significance of choosing to be a Roundhead vs. a Cavalier. Do you see yourself as more of a Guelph, or a Ghibelline? Punic invader, or Roman defender? Finally, Irish Timberites may be amused to know that this weekend my sister is reenacting the Easter Uprising of 1916. (I can only assume they have some town for this.) She gets to wear clothes of the period (the main appeal) and smuggle guns and bombs to partisans under loaves of bread and what not. People have their little ways.



Kieran Healy 04.15.04 at 10:42 am

It’s looking like Dubya is a big fan of re-enactments, too. Only he gets to use real guns.

As for WWI re-enactments… can they do typhoid, trench fever and gangrene as well? How about Weekend at the Gulag?


des 04.15.04 at 11:23 am

I once walked along a section of Uffa’s Dyke Path happily shouting abuse at imaginary Celts (and later, from the other side, at imaginary Saxons since I am impeccably even-handed). Does that count?


Ray 04.15.04 at 12:26 pm

Recreating Easter 1916? I’ll bet they don’t have enough volunteers – its amazing the GPO* ever fell given that pretty much the whole country turns out to have been in there.

Recreating WWI seems particularly tasteless. With other wars you can focus on the occasional glamourous battle, but WWI wasn’t about exciting night raids and hand-to-hand fighting, it was about disease and artillery. And when I say that, it just reminds me how small a part glamour and excitement played in other wars, and makes any re-enactment ickier by association.

* The General Post Office on O’Connell St, one of the places they seized and the last one to fall.


Barry 04.15.04 at 12:31 pm

Somebody once reflected on the Disney ride ‘Pirates of the Carribean’. He pointed out that pirate raids were sort of like large-scale terrorist attacks, and wondered if, in a few centuries, there’d be an amusement park ride ‘Fall of the Twin Towers’.

I think that there will be, but in far less than a few centuries.


Sam Dodsworth 04.15.04 at 12:39 pm

A number of my friends here in Britain used to be into reenactment. Besides the Civil War types, there are Roman, Medieval, and Wars of the Roses outfits, as well as at least one non-military bunch who do Nineteenth Century houseparty reenactments in stately homes.

As an outsider, my impression was that they all shared the same basic features:

– Bitter infighting about the definition of “authentic” costumes and equipment.

– Even more bitter infighting about the “authenticity” of allowing women to fight.

– Complex webs of feuding with other outfits, who were all either “not serious” (less authentic) or “control freaks” (more authentic), complicated by intense competition for the right to do paid “living history” events at ancient monuments.

– A tendency for larger groups to split over the above issues, creating new groups (and further opportunities for feuding) by a kind of hostile binary fission.

Strangely, I never felt moved to join.


Patrick Belton 04.15.04 at 12:58 pm

Do congratulate your sister for me – I’m sure she’ll have great fun! Oddly, while I can’t say I’m familiar with any great contemporary exploitation of Roundheadism or Cavallierism from the English Civil War, the Levellers have enjoyed quite some success after – much more than they ever did in their own time! – as a symbol of an egalitarian socialist polity, picked up in these days by the more traditional faction in the Labour part. They’ve got an annual Levellers Day and a plaque in Oxford’s Gloucester Green.


Richard 04.15.04 at 1:26 pm

I can’t help but notice parallels between’s Sam’s description of the schisms of the Sealed Knot et al, and the micropolitics of the far left…


Magistra Yelton 04.15.04 at 1:56 pm

The Brits, and I am told the Russians as well, are incredibly fond of Roman reenactments.


chris 04.15.04 at 1:58 pm

Richard – In the case of some parliamentarist “regiments”, they’re same people.


Sam Dodsworth 04.15.04 at 2:36 pm


I made the connection with fringe politics at the time, but a quick scan of the web suggests that it’s universal across certain types of subculture.


As far as I know, the Sealed Knot (English Civil War) is the biggest reenactment outfit in the UK and the only one outsiders have ever heard of. The Roman reenactors struck me (as of ten years ago) as enthusiastic and well-equipped, but it was an article of faith among other groups that they stayed in youth hostels instead of camping out. Which naturally put them beyond the pale.


Danny 04.15.04 at 2:51 pm

Tony Horwitz devotes a good portion of Confederates in the Attic talking about (and with) Civil War reenactors.

The gist: some CSA reenactors (of which there are many more people fighting for the North) are interested in honoring and remembering the Lost Cause. But for most reenactors, it’s more about escaping the modern world and achieving “a period rush.”


david 04.15.04 at 2:53 pm

I had a regular customer at a bookstore where I worked who was a Rev. War reenactor. His motivating passion, in all things I think, was hatred for Civil War reenactors, who were reproducing a bad war, and who were fanatical about stupid details, and who took up all the good battlefield sites, and who created such a high demand for books on the Civil War that there was fuck all about the Rev. War in the bookstore. He also resented the space allotted to Kennedy conspiracies, but he just hated the Civil War geeks.


Die Laughing 04.15.04 at 3:06 pm

And the SCA!


Fighting can be fun if no one dies. But when people die, it is a nightmare.


drapeto 04.15.04 at 3:15 pm

It’s looking like Dubya is a big fan of re-enactments, too. Only he gets to use real guns.

As for WWI re-enactments… can they do typhoid, trench fever and gangrene as well? How about Weekend at the Gulag?

If there were a Prof. Healy Fan Club, I would write in for membership.


Chef Ragout 04.15.04 at 5:11 pm

Why the contrast between war reenactments and “seeing friends?” Surely a lot of the appeal of reenactment is camping out with your buddies from the regiment?


rvman 04.15.04 at 5:51 pm

In the ’30s sometime, the Grand Army of the Republic (US Civil War Veterans’ Association) staged their national convention at Gettysburg, PA. During the festivities, they reenacted Pickett’s Charge, using Confederate members as Pickett’s men, and Union members as the union army – including survivors of the original on both sides. Note that most of these folks were in their late 80s or 90s at the time.

Texas is holding a reenactment of the Battle of San Jacinto, the battle which won Texas independence from Mexico, April 24th at the battlefield. (The actual anniversary(168) of the battle is the 21st.) (Just to add another name to the list of wars reenacted.)


dsquared 04.15.04 at 6:26 pm

Sam: I’d add a bullet for the other characteristic of reenactment groups; insanely complicated internal sexual politics, wifeswapping, etc.


rick 04.15.04 at 7:35 pm

In Texas, there seem to be three main groups of reenactors …

1. primitive or pre-colonial – these folks dress up in more or less authentic native American Indian dress and camping out in teepees.

2. Republic of Texas – yeah, you know … “Remember the Alamo.” Basically, grown men playing army.

3. American Civil War – more grown men playing army.

As a youth, I participated in all three. Oh the dangers of growing up in the house of a history professor.

I think Belle has already mentioned the reenactor’s “code of honor” where you are obliged to drop dead if you see a puff of smoke coming from your opponent’s rifle. I think the first thing most reenactors learn is to constantly keep an eye open for a good place to land. Once upon a time at a reenactment near Waco, one participant took a dramatic dive that wowed the crowd but he soon revived and was seen running across the field towards the encampment. Turns out he had landed in an ant hill.


sam 04.15.04 at 8:32 pm

I wonder if in a few decades we’ll see societies springing up to reenact battles in places like Iraq. Though given the distances involved it’d probably turn out more like a rally than a real reenactment.


yami 04.15.04 at 8:37 pm

The Civil War reenactments I got dragged to as a kid always had a period infirmary for the wounded, and they absolutely did gangrene, and bloody amputations too – it looked like lots of fun as they of course used whisky for anaesthetic.

As far as I’m concerned the real appeal of the Civil War is eating “authentic” kettle-style popcorn while watching the blacksmiths and patent medicine salesmen. Can’t imagine why some people feel they need an elaborate excuse for that, but apparently they do.


duaneg 04.15.04 at 8:56 pm

Much of the plot of Elmore Leonard’s Tishomingo Blues turns around the peculiarities of US Civil War re-enactment. Well, along with other odd splinters of subculture. I think he evokes the scene wonderfully (as usual), with the bone dry discussions on the practice of spooning.


Thlayli 04.15.04 at 8:58 pm

I didn’t like All Quiet on the Western Front that much. Sheesh….


Harry Tuttle 04.15.04 at 10:12 pm

Remeber that WWI was, indeed, a WORLD war. While I don’t know anyone who re-enacts WWI I do know a bunch of guys who are into insanely detailed figures and sandtable wargames based on colonial warfare (of the European variety) and they do a lot of stuff from WWI’s battles in Africa. They all do seem to have a pith helmet and a Lee-Enfield or Mauser bolt-action though so they’re one step away from re-enactment I suppose.


Sam Dodsworth 04.16.04 at 9:18 am


Yes. That’s how I came to learn so much about reenactment politics in the first place.


John 04.16.04 at 2:07 pm

Easter Rising re-enactment? Never heard of that before …where did it take place ? (there were plenty of commemoration ceremonies,but I’m surprised that a re-enactment didn’t get some press in Ireland)

Did they have a problem that everyone wanted to be a Volunteer and nobody wanted to be a British soldier ?

Of course, there are a bunch of people that are convinced that they have been re-enacting 1916 for,oh, about the last 30 years, but we won’t go there….


a lesser mongbat 04.16.04 at 4:14 pm

You can make some good money doing the American Revolution stuff for tourists.


Jonathan Dresner 04.16.04 at 9:10 pm

Actually, the Japanese do historical military reenactments (I didn’t think so, either, but I was wrong), but they are mostly of pre-modern vintage: the 1863-69 Meiji Restoration civil wars, the Battle of Sekigahara, even a little medieval samurai recreation, it seems. The 19th century stuff is most popular, as near as I can tell, because it does include guns…..

In their defense, by the way, I want to point out that historical drama is a staple of Japanese television even today, much the way that westerns and frontier drama used to be popular in the US. But that also includes what we’d call miniseries, but which are really full-season histories (Taiga), which are extremely popular.

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