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.