While most students lie abed, Jack West-Sherring grabs his musket, powder and shot and fights for King and Country.
Mid-afternoon on 18 June, 1815. The crisp, expectant call of a cavalry trumpet resounds across the fields as two serried ranks of French horsemen, armoured cuirassiers, begin their advance at the trot. The ground to their front is still sodden from the previous night’s deluge and littered with the casualties of both armies, causing the horses to stumble and collide. The cuirassiers know that their enemy is beaten and already retreating towards Brussels – didn’t the Emperor tell them so himself? At the gallop they ascend the ridge before them.
On the other side of that ridge, however, the Allied infantry are not in retreat. They are drawn up in a vast chequerboard of defensive squares – inside one of which is their commander, the Duke of Wellington himself – ready to receive the oncoming charge. As the French appear on the horizon, they meet with a hail of disciplined musket fire at point-blank range, yet still the horsemen advance valiantly through the smoke. They are soon engaged in mêlée with their foe, hacking away at the murderous hedge of bayonets. One gold-encrusted British officer, separated from his square and locked in mortal combat with a cuirassier, thrusts at his opponent, then exclaims jovially in a haughty English accent: “sorry!”
Yes, this is not a real battle but merely a re-enactment of one: an inaugural re-enactment in 2010 that involved more than 3,000 participants from 15 countries and drew unprecedented international tourism to the sleepy Belgian village of Waterloo. It’s a re-enactment that has helped bring the Belgian government the funds it needed for a full restoration of the farm buildings at Hougoumont – a vital strongpoint in Wellington’s line held by the British 2nd Guards Brigade – in time for the Bicentenary in 2015. The farm is to be made a permanent memorial to the British regiments that fought in its defence. It has been paid for by this generation and is to be preserved for future ones. This is my hobby.
I became a re-enactor purely by accident. It was a rough October weekend, during a half term in year seven, and my dad had taken me to Dover Castle for the day. High waves were battering the famous white cliffs, and we contemplated going home (a short drive away). Then a chance encounter with an English Heritage ticket officer changed everything. The friendly and unassuming man who greeted us was an officer not just of tickets but, as it turns out, also of men. He was, and is, the commander of 3rd Battalion, 1st Foot Guards as they would have appeared in 1815. My boyish enthusiasm for Waterloo was obvious, and he invited both me and my dad to come and meet the Guards at their next drill session, held at Dover Castle on the first Sunday of every month. So we did, and we haven’t looked back.
My whole family now indulge in re-enacting. My dad, an art historian, is also very knowledgeable about battlefield surgery during the Napoleonic Wars. He has assembled a plethora of ghastly instruments, from curved needles to petit-tourniquets and dubious tooth-edged saws, and he stages amputations and bullet extractions to ‘educate’ the public at numerous Guards’ events. All are historically accurate to the last detail. My mother, a passionate Jane Austen devotee who prefers the more refined aspects of Regency life, goes to the occasional candlelit ball or dinner in period dress. Having appeared in the BBC’s Sharpe series (Sharpe’s Regiment), the 1st Foot Guards also go to Bath many times for parades, balls and Austen festivals. Who could resist the temptation to be Elizabeth Bennett for a night?
The role I play in the 1st Foot Guards has always been that of a musician. I had joined my school’s Combined Cadet Force Band shortly before that fateful day in Dover, and there I learnt how to play the Bb Fife (a military flute), Side Drum and Bugle. I had already learnt lots of modern tunes on the fife and was a seasoned Last Post bugler of many Remembrance Sundays at my local church. Musicians were essential in any Napoleonic army: patriotic tunes played on a fife could inspire wavering men in the heat of battle and entertain them in camp, while specific calls made by drums, and later bugles, were the only means by which orders could be relayed in the noise and confusion of battle. It isn’t surprising then that drummers were paid more than the private soldiers themselves, and continue to be so today.
As a bandsman, I wear the characteristic British ‘redcoat’ but with elaborate chevrons down the sleeves, known as ‘tapes’. These tapes make me instantly recognisable in battle and are decorated, oddly, with the ostensibly French fleur-de-lis; a curious tradition that has existed ever since the Guards assisted King Louis XIV in his wars against the Dutch in the 1660s. Watch the Trooping the Colour and you will notice the remarkable similarity between the coat of a Guards musician and the version worn on parade by modern drummers: the design has barely changed over two centuries. Wearing the ‘redcoat’, first issued to musketeers in Cromwell’s New Model Army, cannot help but instil me with a great sense of pride in the long military tradition it represents. It might not be the most practical uniform in heavy rain (which causes the wool to contract and the dye to run over the pipe-clayed cross belts and brass work that I’ve just polished) but us re-enactors can simply laugh about that afterwards.
I love re-enacting for many reasons, but the songs and camaraderie around the camp fire is something not to be missed. The Allied camp at Waterloo is always just outside the farm of Hougoumont, so it’s incredibly atmospheric to wake up to the sound of a bugle (my bugle!) at 6am and stare across the misty battlefield. It’s very eerie to be in the exact spot where some 4,000 soldiers lost their lives. We always sleep on straw in authentic bell-tents with as few modern comforts as possible, so we really do experience what life was like for those men. Being the early-morning bugler who wakes the camp with Reveille doesn’t always make me popular with fellow campmates, but my Fife-playing on an evening more than makes up for it. I’ve learnt a broad range of period tunes, from folk music such as The Minstrel Boy, The Lincolnshire Poacher and Shropshire Lass to more stirring ones like St Patrick’s Day, Hearts of Oak and Drink Old England Dry. It’s great music, and it forms part of our national character, even if we’re not aware of its presence. People flock to sing along to my Fife-playing in beer tents and around camp fires, and busking always rewards handsomely. I also play Prussian, Dutch, Austrian and French tunes of the period for re-enactors of those nationalities who come round, and I find re-enacting a unique way to learn a myriad of European languages. Perhaps, I wonder, remembrance of Waterloo could do more for closer co-operation between the British and the French than one might expect.
Waterloo was a very real battle indeed. It was the most decisive in European history, ensuring a century of peace across the continent. It ended the 11-year reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, a man hailed by contemporary military theorist Clausewitz as a ‘God of War’, yet condemned by many of his enemies as the ‘ogre of Europe’. As we near the centenary of World War I, we would do well to remember the bicentenary of Waterloo next year. It is an event so important to the past that it simply must be adequately commemorated and, thanks to the re-enacting community, it will continue to be an important part of our present.
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