Evaluation of Reproduction WWII German Wool Uniform Items- Cut and Tailoring

For some years, I evaluated reproduction WWII German wool uniform items, and reenactor claims and opinions about them. In the end, my conclusion was that at the time of writing (2019), the products of any of the major suppliers generally fall within the wide original range of size and manufacturer variation seen on surviving original uniforms. In this sense, it is my opinion that with regard to cut and tailoring, virtually any of these products (generally speaking) are usable for reenactment purposes that require uniforms that are extremely close to the originals. The only currently manufactured uniforms that I regard as completely unusable are those made out of incorrect materials- specifically, those made by a manufacturer or manufacturers in China from a thin, almost shirt weight wool/polyester blend fabric with a noticeable synthetic sheen. To explain how I came to this conclusion, I will elaborate on my methods of evaluation.

1. Challenges of Evaluating Reproduction Uniforms

Firstly, I should note that there exist many challenges to evaluating reproduction uniforms. Foremost among them, when it comes to field blouses, is the matter of sizing. Original field blouses were sized five different ways, so a field blouse with a given chest length could be long or short, with longer or shorter sleeves, a bigger or smaller collar, and the length from the collar to the belt hook holes could vary independently of the total length. Most manufacturers of reproduction field blouses size these based on chest size only. This fact makes it very hard to make exact 1:1 comparisons between any single original field blouse, and a reproduction counterpart. Even if the chest sizes are the same, the collar could be bigger or smaller, the sleeves longer or shorter, and that could still be perfectly OK as it is simply a sizing feature.

Another major challenge is the range of variation seen on original examples with regard not only to materials, but also cut and tailoring. There was a time when I strongly believed that all wartime uniforms were subject to very strict tailoring controls. This is in fact not the case, and I came to this completely wrong conclusion based on reviewing a sample size of originals that was too small, and also on original documentation that indicated how things should have been- though this was not as things actually were. I believe that the wide observable range of variation seen on original uniforms is largely a result of simple manufacturer variation although there may have been other variables as well.

A further challenge to evaluating reproduction uniforms is the fact that most of the larger manufacturers have produced various runs of garments over time and these runs are different from each other. As an example, the maker At the Front started off making their own uniforms, then sold Sturm uniforms with added insignia and size/maker markings, then offered in-house made “Texled” uniforms in both custom and off-the-rack versions, then finally had their own proprietary brand of imported uniforms. So when someone describes an At the Front field blouse, it could be any of a number of garments that differ from each other in very significant ways. Similarly, the manufacturer Sturm/Mil-Tec released many discrete runs of uniforms with different tailoring details, materials, hardware, etc. And smaller makers, who may have made items on a cottage industry or even totally bespoke custom basis, may have made one garment that is dimensionally perfect, and another that I would judge to be short of the mark, based on a number of factors including customer specifications.

2. The Original Range of Variation

It is immediately apparent to even a casual observer with access to even a very small sample of original uniform pieces of the same type, that there exists a tremendous range of variation among them. One can see major differences in the size and shape of pockets, the size and shape of collars and lapels, the waist taper and sleeve shapes. Even small details such as buttonhole size, the size and construction of belt hook holes, or the stitch count of seams, can vary dramatically from one example to the next. I have previously shared some information on these variations, some specific examples:

M43 Tunic Collar and Sleeve Shapes
Pocket Sizes and Stamped versus Actual Measurements

In truth I really can’t say with absolute certainty that these variations are not the result of different patterns being supplied to various manufacturers of the same item. But in any case there can be no doubt that these variations exist, and need to be accounted for when evaluating reproductions.

3. 1:1 Comparisons with Originals, and “What is Best”

As mentioned above, simple 1:1 comparisons between original and reproduction uniform components may be of far less value than one would assume, because a single original example cannot take into account the range of variation. If someone had access to, for example, 10 or 20 original M43 field blouses, he could buy two very different-looking reproductions from different manufacturers, and make the case that one or the other is correct, and the other not, or the other way around, by selecting the original that happened to most closely resemble one or the other- when in fact, both garments could be equally right! The wide range of original variation makes it nearly impossible to say that one maker or another is “the best.” If one maker is offering a near-perfect copy of one style, and another is offering a near-perfect copy of another style of the same garment, there is no way to say which is “best.” In fact, many original photos show men in the same unit wearing a range of subtly different versions of the same stuff. For a reenactment group, it may be regarded as important to reflect these subtle variations in order to appear more realistic. In such a scenario, using items from a range of suppliers will achieve the desired result far more than looking for a “best” which can never really be said to exist, as criteria for evaluation are largely subjective.

4. Objective Measures of Evaluation

There are, of course, ways to create objective criteria for evaluation as well. When measuring original uniforms and comparing them to originals, I have chosen to look at ratios and proportions, as these are what constitute the “cut” of the garment. For example, we can look at breast pocket size as a ratio of the chest size and this will enable us to determine if the proportions of the chest pockets are within the original range no matter what size reproduction tunic is being evaluated. Over time, I made dozens or hundreds of measurements of very many aspects of a range of original uniform items and looked at proportions and ratios of various measurements as compared with reproductions from a variety of suppliers. Even though I could never claim that the small sample of originals that I worked with, was in any way representative of the full and total original range of variation, I could not find any measurements on the reproductions that I studied, that fell outside of the measured original range by more than a tiny percentage that amounted to a small fraction of an inch.

5. Evaluating Reenactor Consensus Opinions, Myth and Lore

I will give an example of an oft-repeated piece of reenactor lore that could not be proven by comparison with originals, and that is the assertion that Sturm/Miltec field blouses have “suit coat shoulders.” I measured very many aspects of the shoulders and arm holes including the shoulder size compared to the chest size, the diameter of the arm holes, the distance across the upper back at the narrowest point, etc., then compared all of these numbers to the other measurements, then compared the resulting ratios to the measurements of a number of Sturm/Miltec reproduction field blouses- and found no measurable difference. There is a lot of reenactor myth and lore about collars and sleeves and other aspects of cut and tailoring and I was not able to verify ANY of these claims. I believe that some of them were rooted in dealer sales pitches and some of them were just things people made up, that sounded believable.

6. Conclusion – A Correct Uniform

So what then is the reenactor to do, if consensus opinions are worthless and no “best reproduction” can be said to exist? The reality is that the fit of a reproduction garment, and the type of insignia and quality and manner of insignia application, in almost all cases will have greater bearing on the realism of a uniform part, than who made the garment. Different makers of off-the-rack uniforms offer different interpretations of the original cut- some are longer, some have more waist taper, etc. Reenactors should either seek out well-fitting uniforms,* or get uniforms that they can have tailored to fit properly. Ordering a custom garment made to your own size specifications is also possible. Insignia application is a large subject of its own but all reproduction insignia are absolutely not created equal, and clumsy or improper application can spoil the look of even perfect reproduction insignia. In the end, it’s my opinion that a hyper-focus on tiny facets of material culture tends to detract from what I feel are more important understandings of the human beings who wore these things, their culture, language, and the history of what they were a part of.

* For information on how these things were supposed to fit the wearer, please refer to Wehrmacht Regulations on the Fit of Uniform and Equipment Items

Strategies for promoting WWII reenacting using social media

WWII German reenacting needs a certain number of people worldwide for vendors to be willing to supply products that are mass-produced and economical, and for there to be enough people for there to be large events, and events at certain places. The more participants at an event, the more money an organizer (generally) has to make things happen. Those of us who are reenactors should all want to see the numbers in this hobby grow. Even if you view yourself as a super hardcore guy who scorns more laid-back units, the reality is that most reenactors start in mainstream type groups, and these guys are your pool of potential future recruits for the most part (not to say you should ever actively recruit from other units as this is “poaching” and very bad form). The bottom line is that there is no credible argument that less reenactors is better. The more people there are, the more people will be running events and finding event sites and doing the stuff people need to do for the infrastructure of this hobby to exist. A RISING TIDE FLOATS ALL BOATS.

The number of people involved in reenacting is always changing, it goes up and down. Some people are always going to leave due to moves and career changes, divorces or because they simply lose interest. That’s unavoidable. Recently the reenacting hobby has also had to deal with some additional external political pressure, that has certainly caused some people to leave reenacting. Reenactors should be proactive and do what we can to counteract this.

The best way to increase numbers is probably to beat the bushes and find new members for your unit in your local area. But that’s not the only way. It is my belief that it is possible to broadly promote WWII German reenacting as a hobby, via social media. In today’s world, this does entail some risk. Here are the strategies I have been using to do this. Have they worked? I can’t prove it, but I think so. I certainly don’t think it has hurt. I think if other reenactors would get on board and use the same or similar tactics it would be much more effective.

My strategy has two basic components:

1. Get great photos at events and share them as widely as possible.

 2. Be an ambassador for the hobby and a public face and point of contact on social media even if your real name and identity are concealed.

1. Photos
 

Part of the reason why I got into this hobby in 2000 was from one single photo that looked so good. This guy looks super real, and looks like he is having fun.

Look at reenactment photos you think are great. Figure out what you love about them and either take photos like that, or identify a guy in your group who can take the photos. When you are out on the battlefield, or inundated with spectators, you are not going to want to pull out a modern camera or phone. Maybe set aside some time before the event, after you are set up. Or after the public goes home. Or at the end of the event. It doesn’t have to take much time to make some great images. Ideally you want to get pictures that showcase not only your group, but the good things about the event site that make it unique and special. If you have a period camera, or if you are in a situation where it won’t destroy the setting if you pull out a digital camera, you can take some in-the-moment candid shots. Most wartime photos, though, were staged or at least posed in some way. A thought out photo is always going to be more impactful than unflattering candid shots of people eating (for example).

Once you’ve got the photos, comb through and select only the best ones. Never post a photo with some modern thing in it and caption it “Apologies for the modern vehicles” or whatever, this is embarrassing and may well end up being shared elsewhere without your explanatory caption. If you can’t crop the farb out, share it with your unit, but not with the world; images should stand on their own merits. Only post around 5 photos maximum on social media at a time. Social media is designed for instant gratification and short attention spans. Most people don’t want to scroll through two dozen pictures of your guys pointing rifles; if you post big sets of photos many people will be overwhelmed or lose interest and the impact is diminished. Sometimes you will only get 3 good pictures from an event. Other times you might get 30. In that case, you need to space out posting these. Post a small batch of around 5 photos each day. Separate them into unique batches that highlight a specific aspect you can talk about. Post the pictures on your reenacting-specific Facebook account if you have one (and you should). There are lots and lots of WWII reenacting and historical discussion groups on Facebook where you can post the photos. Don’t spam these groups, do one post only with a few of the very best photos and a description of the event. Maybe post in one group one day, and make a different post with other photos in a different group a day or two later. You never know where your photos are going to find the one guy on the other side of the world who is going to be so blown away he immediately jumps in with both feet. Your unit should also have a public Facebook page and also maybe a web site. You could also look around and find Internet forums with active memberships where you could post this stuff. Make sure your members are OK with having their photos shared. Some may not be, and that’s understandable. There are ways to show people where they are not going to be recognized. Use some creativity. It is always best if you can share any photos without revealing your actual name/identity.

I will often post event photos on social media in a very specific manner that I believe drives interest. As soon as I am set up at a reenactment event I will post one photo that shows some aspect of how we are set up, or where we are. This makes some people wish that they had attended that event or that they were going to some other reenactment at that time. Right after the event, on Sunday, I will post what I feel is the best digital picture that came out of that event. Then, over the next week, I will post the rest of the digital photos, and eventually the film photos, in small batches.

Instagram: You might want to have a personal reenacting Instagram account and one for your unit. I have come to regard Instagram as evil and insidious. Your phone has some way of figuring out what Google/Facebook/Instagram accounts you have and showing your various Instagram accounts to people you interact with elsewhere. A private Instagram account has no promotional value but a public one entails some risk if there is a chance there could be someone who will use this against you. On our unit Instagram we never show any close-up portraits or any photos in which anyone is easily identifiable at a glance. Lots of group shots, photos of the camp, photos taken from behind a marching column, etc.

Facebook or Instagram could delete any profile or group at any time, just for posting historical content related to WWII Germany. Back up stuff you want to keep.

2. Being a hobby ambassador on social media
 

You want to act as a cheerleader for the hobby, how ever and where ever you can. If you love an event, post on social media about how great it was. Go in the event group page and say what a good time you had. If it’s an annual event, when it is coming around again next year, post a highlight photo from the year before and talk about how great it was. You will be helping to promote the event. Event organizers appreciate this.

If an event sucks, don’t go back. Maybe some other people or groups like it, let them like it. Don’t disparage those events in an attempt to promote the events you do like. It’s a bad look.

Try to find spaces online that are open to reenactment discussion and post about your group. This is not just self-promotion. It promotes the hobby as a whole, everywhere.

Try to keep it professional and positive at all times. Don’t throw shit at other reenactors in public. Potential recruits could see this and get the wrong idea, it could turn them away. Nobody wants to wade into a morass of name-calling. Keep reenactment drama off the Internet at all times. Keep it private and go through the chain of command. Airing dirty laundry in public on social media is NEVER productive.

Find social media accounts for reenactment groups and follow them. Like their posts and comment on them. This makes them visible to a wider audience, it’s how the algorithms work. If you can’t say anything nice, just hold your tongue. But really, even with a total clown group, you should be able to find some little thing to appreciate.

Saying bad things about the hobby as a whole is not being a good ambassador. You want to talk it up and promote it. That’s not to say that you can’t go to a reenactor discussion group on Facebook and comment on stuff that is too heavily represented, or dispel myth and lore. That’s fine and good. But nobody wants to read about how reenactors are too old/fat/drunk/farby/real Nazis. If you feel like you need to vent, call a buddy from your group, or just back away from the computer for a bit and clean your rifle or something, until the urge passes.

Don’t post modern political stuff on reenactor accounts and ESPECIALLY don’t ever post anything that could be construed as “racist” by people trying to make you look bad. Even if it is an obvious joke (to you). They will hang you with this stuff. This makes us all look bad when they inevitably find you and make a stink about it.

At all times: share good information, lead by example, be the change you want to see in the hobby.
If you are not already a WWII German reenactor and you have read all this way, you should get started. It’s a ton of fun and you will make new friends and you won’t regret it.

Talking to the Media: Suggestions for WWII German Reenactors

You need to proceed from the assumption that they are going to call you a Nazi.

Over the years, I have done very many interviews for television news broadcasts and other TV programs, newspapers and other print publications, and radio broadcasts. With regard to reenacting specifically, I have been quoted in a number of newspaper and magazine articles. In 2011, I participated in a WWII reenactment at which another reenactor was badly injured, after which I was interviewed for the local CBS television news broadcast- an interview later quoted in national and international news coverage of the accident. The purpose of this post is to share my perspective and to make suggestions based on my experience. I am not a professional in public relations and do not claim to be an expert, but I have noticed, over time, some clear patterns with regard to media coverage, favorable or unfavorable.

Why talk to the media at all? It’s a valid question. Especially in our current political climate in the USA, news reports about WWII reenacting have a better-than-even chance of being negatively slanted. A case can certainly be made that at this point, the less the average man on the street knows about reenacting, the better. My personal opinion is that there are several potential benefits to carefully considered interactions with journalists. Even decidedly negative news coverage may kindle an interest in someone who might otherwise never have considered reenacting. But either way, in the final analysis, refusing to speak to reporters won’t stop them from writing and broadcasting about reenacting. The following tips have served me very well in interactions with reporters.

-Reporters are looking for sound bites. Before the reporter talks to you, they probably already know what their piece is going to look or sound like. They probably already have a fairly solid idea of the exact sound bite or brief quote they want you to provide. Try to speak in short sentences and answer their questions in as concise a way as possible, they will appreciate this and there is also less of a chance for them to get you to say something they can take out of context. Don’t be afraid to repeat your talking points using different wording. You want to give them sound bites that put a positive spin on living history but more importantly, you want to deny them any negative or damaging quotes they may be looking for.

-Reporters will lie. Don’t believe that they are writing a positive piece that will make you look cool, even if they give you every assurance. Definitely do not ever make candid, “off the record” remarks. In every interaction with them, keep your guard up.

-Do your homework. If you are contacted by a journalist, look at their other work, look at the publications or broadcasts they work for. If they work for a news source that leans toward clickbait articles or lurid headlines, there is every reason to assume they will negatively sensationalize you however they can. You are probably better off not working with such an outlet. And regardless of your personal political leanings, news organizations that have a “progressive” slant should be regarded with a maximum of caution. Any news coverage by such a source is likely to be negative.

-Use a fake name. You can’t know how the reporter might twist your words. You might even find that the article uses your photo, but the only reenactor quoted in the text is some ignoramus making statements you want nothing to do with. A lot of news content goes online and could be there forever. You don’t want potential employers or others finding your name in a hit piece about Nazis, if they do a Google search. Don’t give your impression name, it’s too obvious. Just pick a regular, typical, common and believable name. They won’t ask for your ID. They just need someone to provide the sound bites they need.

-Keep it mundane. You don’t want to get caught up in flowery language about higher purposes of reenacting. They can make you look stupid by juxtaposing your words with professional educators and historians, or members of other groups who will contradict you. Try to keep it fact-based and basic. Don’t claim to be an educator if that’s not your profession. You can talk about how reenacting is educational for participants, you can point out that reenactors work with accredited and legitimate historical sites and provide visual props for historic sites. Try to speak in broad terms.

-Don’t get involved in moral judgments or posturing. Wehrmacht soldiers were men of their time. Do not praise them, do not condemn them. Avoid using words like “bad guys” or “evil.” You want to stay morally neutral. Definitely do not ever bring up Allied war crimes or make any kind of better/worse comparison, you cannot win with this. If the journalist specifically asks about Allied war crimes, try to find a way out of giving any usable answer. You need to be acutely aware of possible attempts to make you look like a revisionist or denier. If the reporter brings up the Holocaust you have to give some kind of very basic response. “The crimes and wartime atrocities of the Nazi regime are well-documented. The enormity of the human tragedy is one of the reasons why it is so important to commemorate and to remember this period of history.”

-Don’t do politics at all. None. You are an amateur historian and not a politician. You cannot overstate this. Simply refuse to answer any questions about modern politics. Keep the names of modern politicians out of your mouth completely.

-Don’t tokenize people. Do not point out that people in your group, or in your life, are ethnic minorities, or Jewish, or gay, to demonstrate that you are not a racist or bigot. It has the opposite effect. Don’t ever do this. But ESPECIALLY don’t do this talking to a reporter.

-Don’t conflate reenacting with actual WWII service. Never say “we” or “us” when talking about WWII soldiers.

-If you are out in public as a reenactor, you are a public figure. It’s OK to politely decline to speak to a reporter. But if you are going to freak out and hide your face if a reporter is shooting photos or video, you really should not be going to public events. If you are doing something where spectators are there to see you, the potential of being on the news exists. Participating in a public event is a choice that you make. Acting rude or indignant towards reporters makes us look bad.

-Look at the big picture. You are making statements not only for yourself, or as a representative of your unit, but on behalf of all of reenacting. Keep it professional, but try to talk up our hobby and be a cheerleader for it in whatever small way you can. Definitely don’t disparage reenacting in any way. And don’t be afraid to say it is fun.

-Trust your gut. If you don’t feel confident, walk away. Leave it for someone else.

 

Perspectives on reproduction uniforms

The first WWII reenactors used original and converted postwar items. As originals became more expensive and more scarce, converted postwar uniform items came to dominate the hobby. The first reproductions, made in Germany and the USA, were a huge improvement over converted Swedish wool. The most authentic units soon began to stipulate that their members must wear reproduction uniforms (as opposed to Swedish). It was generally not necessary to stipulate what manufacturer the uniform had to be obtained from, because choices were extremely limited and the available choices were mostly roughly equivalent in quality. Because many sellers had long lead times, a reenactor’s choice usually was determined by availability.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, reenacting was in a period of rapid growth and demand for uniforms was extremely high. The pice for a new field blouse at that time was around $350. Starting around 2004 (give or take a few years) a number of suppliers began to have uniform items made in China, in an attempt to meet the burgeoning demand with a lower price option. Most of the Chinese made stuff was absolutely terrible, Halloween quality. The field blouses appeared to have been made from photos of originals, the details simply were not there, shirt weight wool/poly blend fabric with plastic buttons. For the first time, reenactment units had to specify which reproduction uniforms were and were not acceptable. More and more manufacturers were coming on line and the reenactor for the fist time was faced with a wide array of choices. A new hobby paradigm developed that heavily focused on what gear was acceptable and what was the best.

Even a child could have seen that the first wave of China-made reproductions were not correct for WWII. But the product quickly improved. Sturm and other vendors began to offer cheap imported products that appeared very similar to those made in the USA. The existing sellers suddenly had to make the case that their field blouses were still worth $350 when you could buy a China made copy for $150 or less. In the rush to disparage the cheaper copies, much reenactor myth and lore was born- much of which echoes down to the present day.

Let’s look now at 2017. The Chinese made cheap uniforms have killed off some businesses, and the sellers that remain have had to turn to having their products largely made overseas. Constant improvements to the cheap uniforms over many manufacturing runs are yielding products that are in most cases superior to the high-end products of 2004 and earlier. The quality difference between the uniform items offered by most manufacturers is extremely small. None are exactly identical to originals but most are extremely close. And yet, the paradigm of obsession over “the best” and which manufacturer offers the most prestigious product still stands. It’s an old model of thinking, it’s outdated, and we need to get past it, because it is a pitfall for people.

It was also a pitfall for me. Some USA vendors disparaged Sturm products by saying that they were based on a modern suit jacket and that the shoulders were wrong and the arm holes too big. I repeated this line, I took it as gospel. Only years later did I actually compare Sturm arm holes to originals and discover that they are the same size. It was wrong of me to parrot this bad information. It is still possible to find old posts of mine on the Axis History Forum in which I make statements that are uninformed. My erroneous conclusions were based on study of a tiny number of originals, and dealer propagated myth and lore that I was foolish enough to take as gospel.

The best uniform is the decent copy that you buy and then tweak and break in and wear and make your own. The decent copy is a blank canvas for your effort to make something that looks realistic. Decent copies are available from almost any manufacturer nowadays. There are some specific exceptions to this, of course. But the old style hype about certain sellers and manufacturers is hype that is not based on fact, and I think it is well past time that we as a community acknowledge that. When we look at (for example) a Heer field blouse, the reality is that insignia choice and application method is almost certainly going to have a greater impact on overall realism, than who made the blouse!

Original uniform items are in most cases not rare. Original M43 tunics are widely available and accessible. Lots of collectors are happy to share photos and information about the items they own. Unfortunately we are still stuck in a mindset of disparaging copies based on suppositions and lore. If the arm holes on a tunic are too big this is something that we can actually objectively measure and quantify. We can look at original tunics and determine if arm hole size is scaled and graded based on chest size or tunic length, and we can collect data on arm hole sizes and determine what size the arm hole should be on any given tunic size. Unfortunately nobody has ever collected data like this or really done anything like this at all and most of the assessments posted here or anywhere are based on comparing reproductions to other reproductions, or on repeated myth and lore.

Fact: nobody has ever been able to list an objective reason why ATF tunics or caps are inferior to any other copy. The same can be said for many products made by many other manufacturers. If anyone has given one objective reason backed by data why Hessen field caps are wrong, or Gavin caps, or Sturm caps, or caps from 3_reich on eBay- I haven’t seen it.

I would put my field blouse against any other anywhere in terms of realism. It is made by Sturm. Is it better than an ATF blouse? It is, but only because of the work I have put in. I could have started with an ATF or custom Gavin and the end result would have been the same. In the absence of actual objective quantifiable data points to the contrary, they are all equally good.

“Just wear it” versus reenactment realities

In a previous article we discussed artificial “aging” of reproduction items used for reenactment as a way to make them look more like originals. The term “aging” as used here means applying artificial means to create the appearance of something that was extensively worn and used over a period of time. It does not mean trying to replicate the appearance of something that is simply old- in fact, there is no way to achieve that, because the passage of time, alone, does not necessarily leave any trace on an object. Here is a case in point:

Both of these packs were made within a year or two of each other, circa 1943-44. The green one is in brand new factory mint condition. The leather is smooth, straight, unblemished. The stitching and drawstring are bright white. The fabric is pristine. The metal hardware retains all of the original paint. This rucksack was never issued or used. The passage of more than 70 years has not altered the appearance of this object in any way whatsoever. Compare that to the blue pack. The leather is stretched out, the straps have curled up. The paint is worn away from the hardware and the metal has rusted. There are large and small holes and quite a few careful hand-sewn repairs. The fabric is frayed and torn, the bottom is stained. This is a pack that someone used a lot, and it shows. It is not time that makes an item look like this. It is wear and use.

For field soldiers, war was a harsh reality. The rigors of their existence took a toll not only on the fighting men, but on their uniforms and equipment. Items worn and used in these demanding conditions very quickly took on a very obviously used look. This look became a recognizable characteristic of soldiers in the field. It’s why costume designers creating wardrobes for war movies artificially distress items used as props. It’s a visual thing.

There are reenactors who believe that the best way to create an impression of a veteran field soldier is simply to wear the uniform and equipment until it appears visibly worn. Their mantra is, “Just wear it.” Is that reasonable? Reenactments are usually only a weekend long and few hobbyists attend more than one event a month. Some events may include long marching, digging field positions, or other arduous activity, but others may recreate garrison tasks that incur no serious wear on gear. Soldiers in WWII were wearing their uniforms every day, sleeping in them, marching for miles, living in holes in the earth. They were fighting for their lives. Does reenactment put an equivalent amount of wear on gear? Not a chance. But even if it did, a reenactor would have to go to events each month for several years to achieve the look of something continuously worn in the field for just a few weeks. A soldier wanting to present a realistic visual impression of a soldier who has been living in the field for some time may not want to wait years to look believable. That is the purpose of aging. It’s not about making something look old, but it is necessary if new items are to be used as stand-ins for objects that, in reality, were very visibly used.

It is true that some soldiers were fortunate enough to be issued new items. Others had to make do with reissued uniforms and equipment. But even the new stuff, in those conditions, did not look new for very long at all. The visual aspect of reenacting is crucial, hobbyists strive to prevent a convincing appearance. The “just wear it” approach is great if one is portraying a recruit being trained in a garrison. But to take an impression consisting of all brand-new items, subjected to a year of reenactments, and state that the impression being portrayed is of a guy who has been living in the field for weeks or months? Frankly- I’m not convinced.

How many years of “just wearing it” would it take before a reproduction Rucksack looks like the blue one in the photo above? How many decades?

Public “battles” in living history

Sicherungs-Regiment 195 focuses mostly on immersion events, where we try to recreate the daily mundane life of WWII German security troops. We also attend living history events where we interact with the public. Although we are not educators, we try to share what we have learned with people interested in the time period. Participating in living history events allows other history enthusiasts to see and handle the equipment we use, and we try to craft interactions that have some educational value. For instance, a recreated field office can lead to a discussion about the importance of bureaucracy in a totalitarian regime. Further, as Sicherung troops, our under-equipped, stripped-down approach often serves as a stark counterpoint to other more sprawling displays which may offer plenty of “eye candy,” but little sense of how field soldiers of the era actually lived.
 
Public battles, though, are a different story. Simply put, our unit does not participate in them. Ever. We will not perform mock battles as part of any “edutainment” scheme. It is our view that public battles can never be realistic, and that they do history a disservice by presenting a sanitized and glorified caricature of combat. Promoters who claim that the public can see what WWII looked like, by watching a public battle, are simply being dishonest. Spectators, who walk away from these spectacles believing that they have seen something realistic, have unfortunately been misled. WWII combat was not something that was suited for spectators, and can not be adapted for “edutainment” without an overwhelming vast compromise that destroys any attempt at historical integrity. The result is, at best, a clumsy cartoon; at worst, public battles put a glorious shine on mass violence and loss of life of an enormous scale. If a realistic depiction of a WWII battle could be created, any spectators would probably run away screaming, and certainly would not be offering up applause at the battle’s end. Individual members of our unit may have different personal views, and may choose to participate in public battles, with other units for their own reasons. But Sicherungs-Regiment 195 has chosen not to support public battles as a unit. Our policy is to focus on more productive, positive, realistic and educational efforts when interacting with spectators.

Look it, live it, love it

     Sicherungs-Regiment 195 has authenticity requirements that are very simple. The items we use must be correct to the time before 1945, period. Our members must obtain a basic soldier’s kit, and we maintain a list of the uniform and equipment items that every member needs to have and also lists of items that are not permitted. Nowhere in this material do we stipulate that items must be from specific vendors only. We accept and use items from any and all sources as long as they are correct for the time. Despite the fact that our members are entirely free to choose items from whatever supplier they prefer, we would gladly put our impressions up against any group in the country when it comes to authenticity and realism. Why is that?
     There is, in this hobby, a school of thought that the one and only way to a realistic impression is through spending a fortune at glamour vendors. Although we are happy to support vendors who offer top quality products, we reject the view that only the “very best” (that is, most expensive) items should be used by anyone. Instead, we simply judge each item on its own merits. There are items from every supplier that we regard as usable. There are also items from many suppliers, including some with the most devoted fans, which we would prefer not to use.
     Making a silk purse from a sow’s ear is an important skill for a reenactor. A brand-new reproduction item fresh out of the box is like a blank canvas. It has no soul. Use, wear, passion, and attitude go a long way to making almost anything look convincing. Minute details of stitching, hardware or color shade lose importance on an item that is grimy, faded, threadbare, reworked and repaired. An item that has been worked on and used hard will have a uniqueness and character that an off-the-shelf piece lacks.
     Give us an array of cheap imported gear and we will pick and choose and hit it out of the park. Offer us a choice between a “low-end” and a “high-end” item, we aren’t going to be asking where each was made- we are simply going to go with what looks real. To us, $100 for a 90+ percent accurate item is (generally speaking) a far better deal for most than paying many hundreds more for something so marginally better that the quality difference can only be discerned through hands-on inspection by dedicated enthusiasts. For most reenactors, who are faced with financial contraints when assembling an impression, it is better to save the money and put it towards a German language course, or gas and event fees so that a reenactor can put his face in the place and hone his craft.
     There are people out there who regard themselves as “elite” reenactors simply because they spent the most money while building an impression. We see it differently. For us, being an elite reenactor means being extremely advanced in specialized knowledge gained through study and experience. It also means one has perfected his craft and raised it to an art form. Elite reenactors are almost always in elite reenacting groups (not to be confused with those portraying real-world elite units). Becoming an elite reenactor takes time. It’s not something that can be obtained instantly by someone with the funds to purchase the costliest kit. It can’t be bought. It comes down to skill, knowledge, style and guts. Hard work. Attention to detail. How you wear it is as important as what you are wearing.
     Ultimate authenticity is a phantom but that won’t stop us from striving in that direction. Looking beyond the material is an important step on that road. See you out there.
 
 
 

If It Could Talk…

Our last blog post was about expanding the hobby beyond blank fire battles and the inherent problems with only focusing on “trigger time.” Now, we will go much deeper.

Years ago some friends and I came up with a way to make immersion events more realistic. We devised an idea to create a defined area, a “zone”, in which nothing after 1945 was permitted, including conversation. Discussion topics were limited to things soldiers might have discussed in WWII. If you were “in the zone,” ONLY period-based things were allowed. People who wanted to talk about the hobby, or TV shows, or who wanted to pull out something anachronistic, had to step away. At first, it was challenging. But with time, we were able to hone this skill. It became possible to exist in a simulated wartime atmosphere for hours at a time, within our “zone.”

One thing we quickly learned was that some settings or events were more conducive to our zone than others. It was the same with people. Some were more adept at getting into the necessary mindset, sticking with it, and helping others get there, too. We called these places and people “zoney.”

Over time, we have come to a different understanding of “zone.” We no longer narrowly define it as just a physical area where modern talk and items are barred. We have come to realize that zone happens in the mind. It requires not only a solid foundation in period historical knowledge, but also imagination, including the ability to look at something absurd, or anachronistic, and be able to work it in to a period mindset. Zone, for us, is both the non-tangible, theoretical metaphysics of reenacting, and the hard, existential aspect of things that exist in the world. It is both mental and physical. If he chooses to do so, one person, alone, in nearly any setting, can put himself in the zone. Zoniness is a word we use that describes those intangible aspects of a person, place or thing that make it suitable for creating a feeling of, “this is what it may have been like.” Often zoniness is a subjective evaluation, a quality impossible to measure or quantify. It is entirely separate from the concept of authenticity. A brand-new reproduction bread bag, for example, can be a totally authentic thing from a material culture standpoint. However, a well-used post-war bread bag, showing age and use, with repairs and obvious traces of wear, may be a more zoney thing, even if it is objectively less authentic than a reproduction, due to some minor and easily overlooked construction feature. Zoney items evoke an emotion, a feel. A zoney item, if it could talk, would tell a story about the war. Further, such items allow us to become part of that story. 

 In Sicherungs Regiment 195 we believe that reenacting is mostly a mental and cerebral experience. The uniforms, field gear, food, camp setting, etc. are all simply “props” to aid entering a conceptual realm conducive to a period-based mindset and/or historical-based experience. Zoniness is what we strive for at events. A grassy meadow, a stream at the base of a hill, a dilapidated old barn, an abandoned stretch of railroad track- these are zoney places. Pocket trash, wartime-type rations and carefully-chosen personal items are zoney things. Someone could be wearing all original gear, but if he cannot get in the mindset, and speak and act like the historical character he is portraying- he is zoneless. That is not a zoney dude. His uniform and field gear might be really zoney, but not him. In contrast, 3 people in modern clothes, sitting in a Taco Bell, could have a really zoney period discussion. Rain on the evening before a D-Day event is zoney. Modern conversation topics, period objects used in a non-period manner, and general farb, are not.

Zoniness is the exact reason why all modern items are banned from our unit. It is the reason chairs and camp furniture are banned. It is the reason why every member of the unit is required to have a fully fleshed-out first-person persona. It is the reason we don’t like “trigger time.” It is the reason we are very different type of unit than most living history organizations.

There is more to reenacting than putting on a uniform and shooting blanks at people. This is reenacting 101. It’s how you get introduced to the hobby. It’s the lowest common denominator. Many never grow out of this stage. Others go far beyond it…

See you in the Zone.

Beyond the Blank Fire: A realistic approach to recreating life in WWII

     WWII reenacting has traditionally centered on public displays, which are ostensibly for educational purposes, and private combat simulations that are usually referred to as “tacticals.” In tacticals, reenactors take to a make-believe battlefield, and blast away at each other with real or simulated weapons until the end of the event. Participants usually state that they take part in tacticals to get a feeling of, “this is what it may have been like.” Unfortunately, as most any long-time reenactor will readily admit, there is simply no way to realisticallyrecreate field combat in WWII. There are few, if any, tanks or aircraft, few heavy weapons, no artillery. Reenactment combat generally happens at, or near, hand-to-hand distances- not the ranges at which Wehrmacht strategists anticipated- which makes reenactment use of correct tactics difficult or impossible. Further, the realities of reenactment sites often necessitate attacking positions from directions that would not be feasible, or defending positions unsuitable for defense. Virtually no reenactment unit actually takes the field in Bataillon or even Kompanie strength — independent units of 10-15 guys are typical at a reenactment battle. In the reality of war, it is possible to aim, and fire, at a target nearby and miss. Additionally, many soldiers likely were hit by unaimed shots fired from great distances. Blank-fire simulated combat is, on the whole, a very poor way to create a realistic representation of something that really happened.  Worse, “public tacticals,” for educational purposes, are entirely unsuitable.
     In Sicherungs-Regiment 195 we strive to precisely recreate a historical place and time. This mandates an approach starkly different from reenacting as it has traditionally been understood. Firing a blank at a reenactor and feeling indignant when he does not “take a hit” is boring and puerile, and typically leads to disappointment, animosity, and hobby burnout. We seek a more realistic and immersive experience. Those of us who founded this unit are all “veterans” of the blank-fire “combat” scene. Whatever thrill or rush might once have been obtained from the bangs and flashes of a sham battle are long-gone. What remains, though, is a passion for historical recreation. Bringing the past to life through painstaking recreation of all details of an earlier era is truly central to reenacting; it is the crux of our hobby. That is what is important. The means of this recreation, or the choice of activity being recreated, are secondary things.

Spending a night in a foxhole, without firing a shot, is a very realistic experience. (505th RCT D CO) 
     
     Are there activities that can be recreated in a more authentic way, that can better give a true feeling of “this is what it may have been like?” Absolutely. There is no doubt that the lure of the tactical draws many people to our hobby. But, truth be told, paintball or airsoft, where real projectiles are flying through the air, may be a more realistic option for those who want the feel of hunting and being hunted — to say nothing of the real military, which undoubtedly attracts many young people yearning for a taste of battle. It is our belief that focusing the WWII reenactment hobby on hoak battles does our hobby a disservice. Demographics are changing, most reenactors are no longer the sons of the WWII veterans. A more diverse hobby with a wider range of options for participants could be larger, and more inclusive, without any compromise on authenticity. It is no secret that many, or most, reenactors would not be considered fit for real front-line combat duty. Yet,  paradoxically, virtually all reenactment groups exclusively portray line infantry units. It is our hope that this will change, and we see ourselves as part of this change. 

 Partisan (Grenadier-Regiment 914)

     Even units portraying combat infantry formations need not be centered exclusively on blank-fire combat. Soldiers in every kind of unit deployed to an area of operations. There, they set up quarters, prepared and issued rations, performed drill, marched, had inspections… As the old saying goes, “War is hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” A focus on battle reenactments means endlessly attempting to repeat those moments of terror, while avoiding all those hours of more typical, and often mundane experiences. Field soldiers constructed positions, manned observation posts and foxholes, performed scout/reconnaissance and security patrols, stood sentry duty, and ran messages to rear areas. All of these are things that can be realistically portrayed, with the men and means available to a reenactment group.

Patrols do not always have to end in engagement. Sometimes nothing is found. (Unknown unit)  
     We are a rear-area unit and we have no shortage of events that we can participate in while being true to our rear-area impression. Last week, a WWII German reenactor in Texas was shot at a battle when a GI reenactor began firing live rounds. That is a commitment to realism that we will not make. In other scenarios, we readily find the authenticity we seek, without any compromise. 

Roadside sentries (Sicherungs-Regiment 195) 
     We reject the notion that tactical battle reenactments are necessary for our hobby. Use of real weapons in an increasingly complex world of state firearm regulations and noise ordinances actually make reenactments more difficult. We embrace the idea of a hobby in which battle scenarios are just one type of private event, no more important than other events, which do not offer a “trigger time” option. We call for all reenactors to keep an open mind, and consider non-combat immersion events with varied scenarios. Our hobby can thrive even without blank-fire tactical if we choose to focus on the historical recreation, which is at the very heart of what we do. Last month, some of our members helped with a Wehrmacht headquarters clerk office vignette at the annual Battle of the Bulge event at Fort Indiantown Gap PA, the largest WWII event on the East Coast. We issued identification documents and passes to hundreds of event participants. The positive feedback on this functional recreation of a Wehrmacht office was overwhelming. While typewriters and fountain pens have a limited appeal, such a vignette could be incorporated as one part of any field immersion event, together with countless other realistic impressions that would not necessitate any opponent at all.
     We understand that tacticals will always be a part of the WWII reenactment hobby. However, we desire to serve as a constant reminder that, just as line infantry is only one of a myriad of possible portrayals, combat is just one of countless activities in wartime soldier’s life. These other countless activities can serve as the focus of an immersive and zoney event. 
Soldiers construct a network of noise makers/listening posts. (3.Panzergrenadier-Division) 

Reproduction uniforms and artificial aging

Several years ago at the annual Battle of the Bulge reenactment at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, I was perusing the wares in the SM Wholesale vendor building. They had a pile of Luftwaffe Fliegerblusen, well-made with quality materials, but obviously new-made reproduction items for reenacting. Next to this pile was a single very different-looking jacket, made of a different-looking wool, showing wear and use. I collect original uniforms and immediately recognized the typical appearance of a worn original garment, I surmised that this was the original that the vendor had used to pattern his copies and that he was showing it off for comparative purposes. I approached the vendor and asked him if he would be willing to sell that jacket and was shocked when he told me that it was one of his copies, no different from any of the others on the table, only cleverly aged. I was stunned, the wool fabric looked totally different, it really looked original. He was happy to talk about his tricks, he had burned all the nap off with a torch, scraped off the singed fibers, soaked it in water and then froze it solid, thawed it and repeated, and sprayed it with a fine spray of tea, among other similar tricks. It had shifted the color to a muted tone, the wool weave had a coarse appearance, and the fabric had lost all structure, it was as supple as a dishrag. As soon as I got home I started working on my own reproduction uniform and I was amazed at the transformation. Immediately I had people approaching me asking if my jacket was original. The best accolade came a year later, back in the SM Wholesale vendor building again. That same guy didn’t recognize me when I stepped through the door but he immediately approached and asked, “Hey, is that an original tunic?” I was pleased to be able to tell him that it was his formula that I had used to make my copy jacket look like the real deal.

 Most reenactors have only limited experience with original garments. It is possible for a reenactor to become very skilled; to amass a vast amount of knowledge about his impression, unit history and the course of the war; to interview numerous veterans; and to learn a great deal of period terminology and tactics; and yet never see the lining of an original jacket in person. To put it another way, most reenactors really cannot discern a perfect copy from something with poor details. 15 years ago, the reenacting unit I was a member of would allow reproduction uniforms from any vendor, and this was never a problem. We only had to enact strict standards about approved vendors years later when the first Chinese-made stuff first appeared- it was abysmal. Many reenactors today may never have seen what this stuff looked like when the first runs appeared being sold by Hong Kong Keith and others. Flimsy bright green shirt-weight wool/poly blends, square patch pockets, huge shapeless sleeves, plastic buttons, no details. This stuff I would judge to be barely even useable for a Halloween costume or film prop. Unfortunately there were many people buying this rubbish, probably they simply did not know better. At that time we mandated that recruits could only buy uniforms from one approved vendor. This policy was the only way we could steer people away from the ever-changing cast of characters peddling these wares on eBay and elsewhere, and it worked good, up until the approved vendor closed his doors taking many customers’ money with him. At that time we were forced to take a hard second look at the cheaper imported products sold by many vendors. What we saw was a huge improvement from the first runs of these garments. It was no longer possible for me personally to justify telling a high school student to pay more than $300 for a tunic when one for $95 was more than percent there.
If it is in your budget to pay more than $500 for a custom-made jacket, go for it. They are the best out there and there is a perceptible difference. But is it worth the extra cost? It depends on your budget and the value of a dollar to you. To me… I’m not sure it is worth it. If you can’t afford $500, don’t sweat it. Get a basic jacket that fits you and treat it rough so it gets some honest wear and use. Get it wet, get it dusty, let it bake in the sun. Take the $400 you saved and put part of it towards some German language CDs or take a course. Seeing a guy in an imported reproduction jacket does not ruin my event. I would rather be in a unit of fat old guys wearing Chinese-made stuff who understand period culture, have an appreciation for the history, speak some German, can explain the entries in their Soldbuch, and are willing to sleep on the ground, than a unit of skinny younger guys in head-to-toe high-end reproduction kit but whose only exposure to WWII is video games and who talk like modern Army dudes in the field. Get the best you can afford, but at the same time, understand that there is so much more to an impression than a uniform. And no reproduction is perfect.