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Theatre of war

I rang the bell at a pleasant house in Greensborough, in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, and a soldier from the Great War answered.

During our email exchanges I’d imagined Andrew Nolte as hefty, gruff and middle-aged, an impression that even survived a couple of phone calls. I didn’t anticipate that someone boasting the accoutrements of a trench fighter – from sharpened bayonet to hard-tack biscuits – would live happily in his parents’ home.

On the other hand, if I’d expected less youth, I’d also expected more … well, eccentricity. Throughout the train ride to Greensborough, I’d agonised about how exactly to interview the mumbling gun-nut or bug-eyed fantasist awaiting me. Yet Nolte presented as eminently normal, an amiable, polite young man, who ushered me into a comfortable lounge and offered tea and coffee. Tall and thin as a knife, he spoke with a slow, careful seriousness that, when he settled into an armchair to talk, recalled an earnest lieutenant delivering a complicated tactical briefing – though that might have been because of the authentic Great War uniform he wore and the battle kit he’d spread out across the carpet.

I’d wanted to speak to someone about military re-enactment ever since I’d learned that, in the United States today, so many people dressed in the colours of long-disbanded armies and skirmished with blank cartridges and blunted swords that re-enacting had become the fastest growing hobby in the country. A quick Google search summoned up an electronic army of these aficionados, posing uniformed on their websites with drooping moustaches and fierce stares and spindly antique firearms.

Before tracking down Nolte, I’d been exchanging emails with Jon Kulaga, a forty-seven-year-old spice buyer who, on weekends, donned the uniform of a Seaforth Highlander Lewis gunner in the trenches of Pennsylvania. The Great War Association (GWA), in which he was an official, owned a full-scale First World War battlefield, with shell-holes and barbed wire and the lunar landscape of No Man’s Land rendered exactly as in the old sepia photographs.

“We can,” he’d told me, “replicate a ‘quiet’ portion of the Western front in 1918, at an infantry sized company level on both sides: ‘quiet’ since we really can’t replicate heavy artillery.”

Shellfire or not, Kulaga and his friends made a pretty good fist of total war’s total devastation. At the GWA’s most recent event, two First World War era aircraft buzzed overhead as twenty-first century Americans fired combat rifles, threw grenades and launched trench mortars at each other.

That, however, was Pennsylvania. In outer suburban Melbourne, the full-scale battles Kulaga described seemed sufficiently distant to dismiss re-enacting with an ‘only in America’ shrug, had Nolte not so perfectly resembled a Great War soldier, even, I suddenly noticed, down to a distinctly Edwardian haircut.

How did a well-adjusted Melbourne boy end up in the khaki of a bygone century?

It began, he explained, with the army cadets: the normal, twenty-first century ones. At a cadet event at the Victoria Barracks, he came across some re-enactors at work.

“Here are all these guys dressed up in interesting, accurate uniforms, collecting stuff and showing it off, doing the drill, eating the food and it looked like they were having a great time,” he said. “They were all great guys and knew a lot of stuff and sharing lots of knowledge, and it just seemed like a great thing to be part of it.”

That enthusiasm was not, at first, mutual. The key re-enactors were in their mid-thirties and, at only fifteen, Nolte did not make a promising recruit for a hobby so prohibitively expensive. (Later, I priced a single authentic Mills bomb – “complete, nice clean condition, w/nice patina” – at nearly $500.) But he persisted, taking a job as shift manager at McDonald’s to fund a growing collection of Great War equipment.

Did local re-enactors manage anything as impressive as the mayhem Kulaga’s men inflicted upon Pennsylvania?

Nolte shook his head, a little enviously.

“Nothing like that. It’s mostly static displays and ceremonials. Like at Anzac Day or if, say, the Whittlesea show wants a heritage event. We bring along most of our interesting stuff, on some trestle tables, and do a bit of static drill, fire our rifles, raise the flag, play bugles – that sort of thing. That’s the only way you can get a gig.”

In part, his difficulties stemmed from the post-Port Arthur gun laws. For his Seaforth Highlander impression, Jon Kulaga wielded a fully-operational Lewis gun, capable of firing 550 rounds in a minute. In Victoria, Lewis guns were seriously illegal. You couldn’t even tote a pretend one – the legislation outlawed replica machine guns as ruthlessly as the real thing.

But that wasn’t the worst problem. Like the generals of the era they mimicked, Australian re-enactors suffered from a perpetual shortage of men. Nolte’s group comprised only five or six members with uniforms, occasionally bolstered by a few supporters in civvies.

“Going out in a trench with only two or three people because the others are unavailable that weekend defeats the purpose,” he said. “You’re staring at the same two or three faces and you can’t do anything. It just feels a bit silly after a while.”

Why was such a mainstream hobby in the US so marginal in this country?

Nolte blamed geography. American re-enacting centred around the Civil War, the popularity of which legitimised the recreation of other conflicts. Enthusiasts for the War Between the States could visit in season the actual battlefields where their ancestors contended, rather than worrying about recreating Somme winters in an antipodean climate.

But was there more to it than that?

Trawling through ‘living history’ websites, I came across an advertisement for a re-enactment of the Civil War’s Battle of Resaca, originally an inconclusive but bloody engagement fought by the Confederate Army of Tennessee against General Sherman during the Atlanta campaign. The 2007 organisers had dedicated their event to “fellow re-enactor LCPL Cody Warren who was killed in Iraq on November 10, 2006 while serving with the US Marines, and to all of the men and women of our US Armed Forces” – which seemed reasonable enough, until you considered that many of those attending would be modelling themselves on soldiers who, in 1864, had been assiduously shooting the US armed forces.

The Civil War remained, as a psychoanalyst might say, over-determined, simultaneously sustaining any number of contradictory meanings. Marching with a Confederate musket could symbolise, at one and the same time, secessionist rebellion and patriotic enthusiasm, just as the rebel emblem expressed a particular (and not very pleasant) attitude to race while representing a class identification with Southern poverty against Northern prosperity.

Yet what of the Great War? Wasn’t it, in some respects at least, an Australian equivalent? The acres of newsprint produced each Anzac Day display a remarkable hermeneutic pliability, with Gallipoli affirming both militarism and pacifism, duty and larrikinism, loyalty to empire and national independence, often within the confines of a single article. Yet, despite the huge ideological investment in the First World War within Australia, there were, astonishingly, more people recreating AIF units in America than here.

The Civil War, in particular, seemed to provide a blank canvas onto which any proclivity or talent might be projected. At the larger events, not only did the battles themselves offer scope for musicians in the bugle corps, nurses in the medical units and horsemen in the cavalry, but the organisers often also staged exhibitions of period crafts, so that those less given to marching and shooting and other martial skills could bake some Civil War bread, stitch a Civil War quilt or dance a Civil War jig.

At such events the barriers between fantasy and reality seemed disconcertingly permeable.

Take, for instance, ‘Christian Re-enacting’, a niche within the living history community filled by organisations such as the Re-enactors Mission for Jesus Christ (RMJC), where believers participated in Civil War events authentically costumed as chaplains and itinerant tract distributors rather than artillerymen or musketeers. The RMJC director, one Reverend Alan Farley, took great pains to assert (on ) that his members were not, as he put it, “sham play-actors bent on pretentious historical interpretation”. No, they were “men and women of God, solidly committed to preaching and teaching the gospel and winning souls among the ranks of Civil War re-enactors across the United States”. So when Farley put on his frock-coat to harangue attendees at historical commemorations, he simultaneously performed as an evangelist from the 1860s and actually preached the revivalist gospel, with sufficient fervour that 900 re-enactors had, he claimed, accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and saviour.

In his extraordinary book Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz writes of men so devoted to the Civil War that they starve themselves to achieve the emaciation of the malnourished rebels. They wax their beards with bacon fat; they practise ‘the bloat’, lying on the ground with stomachs protruding so as to resemble Confederate corpses decomposing in the southern sun; they welcome the hacking cough obtained by sleeping rough on a freezing battle site as an accurate representation of the phlegm rolling around the permanently infected throats of the 1860s.

The importance of the Civil War to the United States – and the importance of the United States to the world – meant that Confederate and Unionist re-enactors could be found scattered across the globe, including in Australia. Yet Nolte looked on such local Yanks and Rebs with a distinct disdain.

“I’ve done Civil War,” he told me. “But it has absolutely nothing to do with the history of this country.”

Likewise, Nolte didn’t care overly for the fanaticism Horwitz documented. He gestured at his supplies of Great War era Ideal condensed milk and Fray Bentos corned beef.

“I’ll eat this kind of stuff”, he said, “if I’m going on an encampment but some blokes you’ll go over to their place and they’ve got all this food in their pantry and that’s all they’ll eat. Then it gets weird …”

Yet, even as he distanced himself from those sacrificing their health to their hobby, Nolte still campaigned for better standards within the Australian Great War Association.

“I’ve been pushing people to get a more realistic uniform,” he said, “so nothing with any polyester, trying to get accurate webbing, correct accoutrements for your weapon, eating utensils – trying to shy away from the Aussie Disposals, Camping City stuff.”

Which raised the obvious question. What did realism actually mean when the defining element of the event you sought to recreate – the deadly violence that soldiers inflicted upon each other – was necessarily always absent?

When I put this to Jon Kulaga, he made a point of distinguishing between the real suffering of real soldiers and the relatively minor discomforts experienced by hobbyists, but he also suggested that the battles in the faux trenches could become so intense that participants forgot that the bullets weren’t live. As a younger man, he’d served in the real army; he found his first mock Great War battle disconcertingly real.

“German stick grenades were being thrown at us (me!) and they and the Germans that were throwing them seemed very real. My real military training kicked in and I knew when to fire, take cover and so on … We have had accidents where re-enactors have shot each other at close range [a practice that's dangerous, even with blanks] or re-enactors getting hit on the head with mortar bombs flying through the air – all results of identifying too far with the combat situation and reacting on the personal preservation side.”

Accordingly, Kulaga’s squad prepared for a big re-enactment with the authentic exercises used by real trench fighters, and Kulaga could speak with some authority about the relative virtues of various Great War weapons.

“I tend to favour my Webley pistol in the trenches,” he explained, “since it’s a quicker response than a bolt action rifle and is much better in tight confines.”

When I asked Nolte about combat, he answered quite differently. His hobby simulated the more mundane aspects of Great War soldiering. He was adept, for instance, at the AIF’s 1915 parade ground drills, subtly different, he assured me, from the equivalent today. In his lounge, he demonstrated the techniques necessary to achieve the maximum rate of fire – a series of motions sufficiently complex that, when he handed the gun to me, I became confused almost immediately after pulling the trigger.

Yet the real pleasures of the hobby were not, for Nolte, performative at all.

Two of his great-uncles were repatriated home in 1917 with lungs damaged by gas. With their experiences part of family lore, he’d done what he could to research their wartime service. In the process, he stumbled across some wartime ephemera.

“That’s the start of any collection for anyone,” he said. “You see something, you buy it, even just out of impulse, and then you have to add to that collection.”

Collecting spurred his re-enacting, rather than vice versa.

“When you collect, you acquire a whole lot of expensive gear but no way of showing it off, no way to use it. Re-enacting means you can actually wear your gear. You do some work out in a trench, and eat the bully beef and biscuit and smoke the tobacco and drink the water and the rum from the same containers and it gives you a feeling of what it was like.” He smiled, almost embarrassed. “In a vague way, at least.”

When we switched off the tape recorder and turned to the objects on his floor, I understood something of what he meant. His collection replicated the basic kit of an average soldier – a drinking flask, a packet of thin cigarettes, an ammunition belt and so on. They were objects for use, rather than pieces of craftsmanship, and they demanded to be handled. The belt wanted to be buckled; the pack worn; the combat rifle hoisted to the shoulder. Yet you could not touch any part of the collection without registering its authenticity, its historical weight, as if the past still clung to it like loam to a tree root.

Nolte showed me a Light Horseman’s shoulder bag and explained how to carry it. Then he pointed out the bloodstain.

“They used to salvage whatever usable equipment they could find after a battle,” he said. We both looked at the mark and fell silent, calculating where the wound must have been and the likelihood of its owner’s survival.

I thought, then, about the German culture critic Walter Benjamin and his famous essay on book collecting. Benjamin made the same distinction as Nolte did between the genuine collector and the dealer only concerned with monetary value.

“One only has to watch a collector handle the objects in his glass case,” wrote Benjamin. “As he holds them in his hands, he seems to be seeing through them into their distant past as though inspired.”

In another context you wouldn’t glance twice at that chipped enamel mug but, when you know its wartime history, you experience an entire sensory world. You can’t help but imagine a small tot of spirits in the early dawn, and feel a sympathetic stab of the pre-battle terror that the rum helped to suppress.

Kneeling amidst Nolte’s collection, I understood, for the first time, the appeal of re-enactment. He’d acquired a metal trunk used to store medical equipment and he’d tracked down, item by item, its original contents, from the bulky pads used to staunch bleeding to the forceps with which bullets were removed. I looked down at the assembled display of Great War medical technology and, for an instant, historical distance evaporated. The war became, not an ancient abstraction, but an event palpable and solid, where real people writhed with agony at a makeshift dressing station and the staff treated the damage from machine guns with this primitive array of bone saws and placebos.

“For a collector,” wrote Benjamin, “and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be – ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.”

If simply handling such objects brought these feelings of historical presence, was it really so hard to understand the sensations that might be stirred amongst even a small group of people authentically kitted out?

But why war, and only war? History happened during peace time, too, and the Great Depression changed the world as much as the Great War. Why didn’t thousands of Americans dress up as hoboes, jumping mock freight trains and lining up at fake soup kitchens? What made an industrial dispute or a flood or the discovery of penicillin innately less suitable for re-enactment than war?

Nolte told me that, to authentically recreate the soldiers’ tinned supplies, he’d searched through the National Archives copyright section to find original labels. Okay, I understood the pleasures of historical detective work. Yet why did archival exploration need legitimisation from war? There were canned foods in the 1920s, too: what made them so much less fascinating than the tins served to soldiers a few years earlier?

When I put this to Nolte, his normal confidence faltered momentarily. “I don’t really know,” he said. “I suppose you could re-enact something else. I’d never thought of it before.”

I wondered, then, if the fascination wars exerted over re-enactors related to the emotions their outbreak usually generated. Think about the First World War – the real one, not the one in Pennsylvania. The population of the belligerent nations came to the most ghastly conflict in human history, not with a reluctant acquiescence to awful necessity, but with a hooting euphoria, a sentiment that looked very much like joy.

“All differences of class, rank and language were flooded over at that moment by the rushing feeling of fraternity,” Stefan Zweig famously wrote of that initial exultation. “Strangers spoke to each other in the streets, people who had avoided each other for years shook hands … Each individual experienced an exaltation of his ego; he was no longer the isolated person of former times, he had been incorporated into the mass, he was part of the people, and his person, his hitherto unnoticed person had been given meaning.”

Was this why the military experience seemed so much more attractive to re-enactors than any other – because war itself offered a unique alternative to, in Rupert Brooke’s phrase, a modern world “grown old and cold and weary”? If in peacetime men found themselves atomised and alone, was there an inherent attraction to events that bring them together, even if the encounters happened at bayonet point?

A few weeks after meeting Nolte, I read Jenny Thompson’s book War Games, a major study of twentieth-century war re-enactors in the United States. She had absorbed herself in the hobby for years, attending, in uniform, scores of re-enactments.

Thompson described how, when she began her long association with re-enacting, she initially found herself perplexed by the hobby’s many contradictions. Everything suddenly made sense when she realised that its enthusiasts were doing something more complex than recreating war.

“Re-enactors try neither”, she wrote, “to relive history nor to transport themselves in time. Instead, they produce and simultaneously consume their own illusions – ‘watching it while acting in it’. No longer are they passive viewers in a movie theatre or comfortable readers lounging on a sofa. Rather, they have assumed the powerful, dual roles of creator of and participant in a war experience … In order to fully experience the phenomenon of an illusion, they must remain themselves. Like actors, they must have an ever-present consciousness that what they are experiencing is not historically real, but only looks as if it were.”

Re-enacting was not, then, about believing yourself to be in the past so much as creating the conditions in which your current identity could be inserted into an authentic-seeming representation of historical events. For Thompson, this understanding of re-enacting explained how the hobby opened up a special world for its participants, in which they could be and do quite different things than in reality.

Her first big event was a major Second World War re-enactment, a recreation of the Battle of the Bulge complete with genuine Sherman tanks. Waiting to move into position, alongside men kitted out in SS uniforms and carrying deadly automatic weapons, she was struck by an unexpected gender dynamic:

As they talked about their clothing and accessories, the re-enactors almost exemplified, I hate to say it, the stereotype of women.

“Are those originals?” one asked another, pointing to his gloves. “Yeah, cammo reversible to white. Minty, huh?” He extended his hand, and the other made clucking noises in admiration.

I’d noticed this, too, when I’d asked Nolte what his school friends had thought of his hobby.

He laughed. “They were like, cool: guns, bayonets! A real boys’ thing.”

Of course, that was how it seemed: war, the quintessential masculine pursuit. Yet re-enacting actually involved pursuits that, in any other context, would seem classically feminine. Yes, Nolte, possessed guns and a bayonet – but he knew as much about tailoring and groceries as any Edwardian housewife.

“The First World War was a useless war,” Nolte said, just before I left him, “a lot of useless deaths. Most re-enactors would agree with that: it was senseless killing.”

He was not, in other words, a militarist: violence, per se, didn’t interest him. Yet a war that ended ninety years ago gave him something, allowed him to be someone, in a way that the everyday world simply didn’t.

In Germany, in 1914, the young Franz Schauwecker enthused about what was to come.

“The petty, aimless, lounging life of peacetime is done with,” he wrote. “Life has suddenly been brought back to its simplest terms. Every movement is scrupulously precise, every touch is determined, every action is consciously directed towards its goal … everything has its clear, palpable meaning …”

The trenches actually delivered random and pointless deaths in place of clear and palpable meanings, but that doesn’t diminish Schauwecker’s critique of the everyday life around. One can imagine his reaction to the even less heroic world today.

For that reason, military re-enactment will, I think, grow in this country, as neoliberal Australia becomes as atomised and fractured as contemporary America. One of Thompson’s interviewees explained, in a moment of agonised self-consciousness: “The true secret of re-enacting is not that it offers a hobby for history buffs but that it addresses the failure of modern society to provide social interaction on a human scale.”

Jeff Sparrow is writing a book about war.
© Jeff Sparrow
Overland 189 – summer 2007, pp. 62-67

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Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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