Fully immersive living history events, run to give the participants a true experience of life in a military setting in the past, are few and far between in the UK- events where the public are invited in are clearly aimed at putting on a show for them whilst private battles invariably develop into a ‘blatt’ festival where the aim seems to be to fire off as many blank rounds as possible in a short time. There is one notable exception however which are the semi regular events organised by Monty’s Men where a group of reenactors portraying British infantry come together under one regimental cap badge to live in the field for a few days as soldiers actually did- living off period rations, sleeping and living in a slit trench, patrolling and keeping watch throughout day and night and operating under a military command structure.
This year I was privileged to join the group for its 2019 trip which had the distinction of fielding a full company of men, all badged up to the King’s Own Scottish Borderer’s, something that has never been done in the history of British Reenactment before.
The rendezvous was in Oxfordshire and with a number of friends and a lot of kit and equipment we arrived just after ten on the Thursday morning. There then followed the usual organised scrabble as people got their equipment together, filled magazines with blank ammunition and ensured all the supplies to sustain a body of a hundred men in the field were ready to go. After a few hours and by now assembled into our sections and platoons, we boarded original military trucks to be driven to the start point of our trip into the past. A bumpy half an hour’s drive later we arrived at the starting point and drew our weapons and blank ammunition from the armourers who had brought enough rifles, sten guns and Bren LMGs to equip the whole company: one can imagine this was hardly an easy task!
Once all had received their weapons and we had put on our webbing and helmets, we set off into the countryside to start our march to where we to dig in. An hour or so later we reached our destination, having used authentic tactics to cross fields- sticking to the hedge line until absolutely necessary when arrowhead formations were used to cross open ground. Before we could dig in for the night however, we came under fire from a small number of German troops and the platoon and section commanders moved their men forward to clear the area, Bren and rifle teams within each section covering each other as they advanced. Eventually the Germans were pushed back and we had a short time to dig in before darkness fell. For this first evening little more than shell scrapes could be fashioned in the soil and without food (which had not yet caught up with us) we wrapped ourselves up in any warm clothing we had in our small packs- I had a jumper, gloves, cap comforter and waterproof groundsheet that had to do.
If we had expected to sleep, we were of course wrong. Not only need to keep half the men on watch but patrols were also sent out to try and get a picture of where the enemy might be and listening posts were set up to give the company early notice of any potential movement. The night was surprisingly cold and I doubt I got more than an hour or two’s sleep. First light was around 4am so we stood to half an hour either side of this in case the enemy made an appearance. When he did not we had chance to wash and shave, brew a cup of instant tea on a portable cooker and eventually prepare some breakfast, the rations having arrived we were treated to a couple of tinned sausages each and some biscuits.
After breakfast, I was detailed to join a reconnaissance patrol to see where the enemy might be and the number of men he had. The previous night’s patrol had suggested he might be at a farm at the top of a hill, but we needed to observe and try and determine if this was the case. Our patrol made off up a very steep hill and two men crept forward to try and observe what was happening. They were able to confirm there was definitely the enemy there, but unfortunately we were spotted and after shouts from the Germans we retreated back down the hill in tactical bounds before returning to our lines to report in.
The rest of the day was spent manning the lines and improving our shell scrapes into proper slit trenches, with enough depth and length to allow two men to live in them and sleep in their base if needed. By tea time our command element had decided we needed to take the woods at the top of the hill and force the enemy from it. We loaded ourselves up and set off to attack the enemy position, with the three platoons working together to move up the hillside and push the enemy back. The plan had called for my platoon, 9 Platoon, to act as the the reserve and only push up the hill to secure the position when the other two platoons had defeated the Germans. Unfortunately, this plan seemed to go out the window very quickly and it was decided we would advance up the very steep hill under the cover of some woodland- this was heavy going as the woodland was a tangle of nettles and brambles and after an exhausting climb we reached the top to find 8 platoon engaging the enemy in a small copse. It was decided to deploy us down the side of the woods in a flanking manoeuvre to prevent the enemy escaping out this way. We advanced down this track in bounds, but were surprised to come under fire from a small group of Germans ahead of us. We pushed on, but the Bren guns ran through the ammunition at a surprising rate and even with a resupply it was to prove difficult to press home the assault. The Germans were cleared from the copse, but the attack could not be advanced any further and the two forces were left at either end of the copse with a hundred yards between them. A section from each platoon was left to hold these positions whilst the rest of us withdrew back to company lines for a second night sleeping in the open…
I was already realising that I had let myself in for the challenge of a lifetime, but more was to come! To be continued…