Samantha David is a freelance journalist and writes for various publications including BBC Online, the Sunday Times, the FT, Living France, everything France, and France Magazine

Samantha David, writer

BBC - articles by Samantha David



         Around three thousand re-enactors from all over the world gathered in Belgium on Sunday June 19 to celebrate the 190th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo.  The re-enactment started at 9am in the main square of Plançenoit, a village near the original site of the battle.

     Napoleon's army was first into the field; marching in neat rows, the French line troops occupied the sloping ground in front of the church, and the artillery heaved their guns into position.  Their blue uniforms stained with sweat, the re-enactors chatted in French, Polish, Spanish, English and a myriad of other languages as they waited for the action to begin.

     A company of horsemen appeared over the ridge, amongst them a white charger carrying the hunched and hatted figure of Napoleon, played by American historian Mark Schneider, fresh in from Virginia on his first visit to Belgium.  In the early morning sunlight, the troops raised a ragged cry of “Vive l’Empereur!” and Mark managed a stately trot along the serried ranks.

     Within seconds muskets began to crack and pop.  Clouds of smoke drifted across the square choking throats and making eyes run, drums rattled, bagpipes wailed, officers yelled themselves hoarse, the guns pounded and horseshoes clattered on the cobblestones.  An hour later the fight shifted into a meadow where the cavalry and the heavy artillery were brought into action.

     The fierce overhead sun scorched necks and faces.  The Hussars, broiling in heavy woollen pelisses embroidered with silver and gold braid, cantered up the field carrying orders from the Brigadier General, Wagg Ellis-Jones, the Allied Commanding Officer.

     At which point the re-enactment became more realistic than anticipated.  A bright yellow field ambulance appeared, grinding and bumping across the battlefield. 

     Questions buzzed: Who was it?  Were they badly hurt?  How did it happen?  Someone from the 42nd?  Or a gunner?

     Rumours began: I saw his hat blown off, they was ordered into the line of fire, it’s his face, his ear, he’s deaf, he’s blind, he fell over, there was two casualties, they never took no-one off the ground, I haven’t seen an accident since 2002, Boulogne I think it was, a broken leg...

     Why do re-enactors do it?

     “It’s the most phenomenal hobby in the world," says Wagg Ellis-Jones, arguably the grand-daddy of British re-enactors.  "I’ve been doing it for 32 years.  It’s like heroin: it costs you everything - all your money and all your friends, but you can’t give it up.”

     “I’m addicted to the smell of cordite,” says a camp follower with the 9th East Norfolk.  “Er, no, no sirname.  Just call me Ruth.”

     “It’s my childhood dream,” says Mark.  “I always wanted to be Napoleon.”

     “Mind you, I’m not as bad as some of them,” says Ruth.  “I tell you, there are people here who don’t wear undies.”

     “We’re all bonkers,” says a girl in plaits.

     “No,” says Wagg.  "We’ve got all sorts.  Solicitors, accountants, doctors, historians, ex-military, even some full-time British Army serving soldiers.  Listen, it’s a very expensive, very complicated game of cowboys and injuns.  We’re all just kids.  It’s an armed crêche.”

     “But it’s not cheap,” says Sean Bissett-Powell, a trainee accountant from Farnborough.  “It costs around £300 just for a musket.” He is a sergeant with the 30ème de ligne (a foot regiment in Napoleon’s army).  “I’d say it costs a minimum of £1,000 to get someone on the field.”

     “An average of £2,000,” says Wagg.  “£3,000 for a Hussar."

     “Then you need a shotgun certificate, an explosives licence for black powder, and a European firearms pass,” says Sean.

     And what about insurance?

     “Well, it’s classed as a dangerous sport," says Wagg, "but the worst injuries are usually flint burns, grazes, twisted ankles, blisters, that kind of thing.”

     Except today.  The latest rumour is that today's casualty was a soldier from the 23rd, who had the skin blown off the side of his face when his musket exploded as he was re-loading it - but the battle still rages and no-one knows the truth because under the scorching midday sun soldiers and officers alike are being carried off the field with heat exhaustion.

     "It won't put them off, though," says Ruth.  "They'll be back." 

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