Ed Thompson London Documentary Photographer | Lecturer | Artist

Living Historians


Living Historians
Text by Ed Thompson

Some people learn about history through books, others watch television; a few people live history. Living Historians aim to recreate famous eras and battles through the use of realistic props, costumes and character acting. This is a past-time that is rising in popularity both in the UK and in the USA. Every year in the UK there is a major living history event held in Kent; it's the largest gathering of military vehicles in the world and has been held for over 20 years. The most popular era in the UK is World War Two, with hundreds of people each weekend dressing up as their favourite Nazi Storm trooper or Tank Commander. Gordon is a member of Das Heer, a group that depicts standard German infantry during the early stages of the Second World War:

'I've been doing reenactments for about twelve years, I've always done WW2, no fake accents, I'm no good at accents and no good at languages, I tried to learn German, but I couldn't cope with it. The squad I'm in is based on a historic regiment, the 27th Infantry, we only portray 1939-1941 there's no other group who does this squad from that period of time. Many Living Historian groups pick the elite units, they look good, but everybody wants to be them, like in the Paratroopers or an elite Panzer man, we picked to do the bog standard infantryman. At most reenactments it's a reversal of real life, in real life the war was fought by 85% conscripts and 15% elite troops, at Living Historian events it's the opposite, everybody wants the fancy kit and the bling bling and the latest guns. We're just too boring for them, but this is real history, these are the people who dressed like this who did it all. The elite unit's historians know the history better than our group because there were so many books written on them. We want to show a typical German conscript, basic weapon, basic uniform. No one else does this; we look completely different from anyone else, so we've got no opposition.'

The UK Living Historians are lucky as they can get their hands on all kinds of original WW2 memorabilia as well as a vast array of vehicles, including tanks, jeeps and trucks. But for some this still isn't enough, the 29th Infantry Hell & Back are a group who have little regard for getting everything historically perfect; they just want to make a big impression. They are easy to spot at most living history events as they have the largest set with the most elaborately constructed props. Dan Butler head of the 29th Infantry:

'Last year three of us built the V2 which was 47ft long. We built it by going online getting sketching pads and looking at it and thinking how we can make that. It was built in my back garden in two sections. It took a lot of wood, in fact most of my garages doors went into the last final parts, as we'd run out of plywood, unfortunately on the back of one of the garage doors was the plans for the rocket. My neighbors are very good as the year before when we built the full size gothic church, they thought I was going to ask for planning permission, and didn't realize it was for the Living History events we do. After the event the V2 went to an airsoft site in Kent. This year I'm not sure where the Café and small cottage is going, maybe to the Movieum in London, as they might be planning to do a band of brothers set, that or a paintball site, airsoft site, or my usual thing is burn it, it's my creation I'll destroy it. Someone said last night that "It looks like it's always been here", it's a strange thing that when you dismantle it and take it away a part of your life is gone, you've been living next to it, walking through doors, and at the end it's just a façade, you go to universal studios, it looks great from the outside, if walk around and the illusion is gone. We have a halftrack, it was in "Foyle's War" last year, so my son was in it as well, the halftrack was in it for 30 seconds, most of the vehicles are used for film work, and we go to Germany a lot. Now today I'm clean shaven, normally nobody shaves for a week, we live rough, it's exactly like Hanks did in Saving Private Ryan, he wanted everybody to look haggard and battle worn. A lot of the other groups here call us Kelly's Heroes, because we are filthy, our clothes are ripped, we're non conformist, but then the Veterans see us, and they go, "you know you look just like I did".

The Second Battle Group is another WW2 based Living History group, they have large numbers and a diverse range of depictions, from German infantry, tank commanders, nurses and Hitler youth. Many of the SBG's entire families are Living Historians. With wives and girlfriends often taking part, one of the most prominent couples are Paul & Tania:

'I've been doing this for 7 years; I do Star Wars as well, storm troopers through the ages! No matter what the period and the uniform, we all tend to be similar people, a similar mindset that draws people to dressing up. Seven years ago I was standing here happy as Larry, I'd got the crudest uniform, helmet and rifle and I was having the time of my life, seven years later I'm surrounded by radios, set dressing, stuff that I lug from show to show, it gets bigger and more elaborate every year!, but that's the Second Battle Group for you. We've got a normal tent with a confederate flag and Lynyrd skynyrd playing so in a way we are really reenacting American rein actors, sociologists would have a field day.' - Paul, Second Battle Group

'I've been a Living historian for three years, I do WW2 or Star Wars, the WW2 guys are alright, but the Star Wars enactors are when the anoraks come out, I have to get a new outfit before the next one as my Princess Leia one died'. - Tania, Second Battle Group

The Vietnam living history groups dig in their fox holes and settle down for the night, the camp fire warms their rations whilst they knock back Sailor Jerry rum and reminisce about the war whilst listening to The Doors. In the morning they'll be going on patrol. A scene that would make perfect sense in 1973 in Vietnam with American troops, and yet not so rational when it takes place in England re-enacted by Englishmen over 25 years later. One of the most televised and in the eyes of many Living Historians, "coolest war", was Vietnam. Many children who grew up in the 1970's first experience of war would have been seeing images of the conflict on the news, with numerous Hollywood films depicting it post-war, without realising it every movie with classic rock music, cannabis smoking through gun barrels whilst people are shouting 'Charlie's in the tree lines' or 'I was in Nam dude' have done more to promote and glamorise conflict han any army recruiting officer ever could. There are a number of active Vietnam War era living history groups in the UK, most of which have direct contact with Veterans in the USA who tell them stories and scenarios that they then re-enact back home.

'We grew up during the 1980's, the Vietnam War was in pop culture, and there were movies, magazines and TV shows on. And that's what got me interested in it. We go to reunions in the States where we talk to the Veterans and get information and stories on the War, I was really worried on the plane over as I didn't know how we we're going to be received. All previous wars were censored; Vietnam was uncensored, so you got a sense of what war was really like.' - UK Air Cavalry

'I've always been interested in the Vietnam War, we have the link with the Charlie 27 group in the states; we're representing some people who are still alive. A link to the past, they scrutinize our photographs, and then we try and get it more right. It all comes back to being a kid, running around with a stick pretending to be at war. It's just really cool, like a bonding experience as well. Allowing yourself to behave like a kid, but also about having a beer with your mates and hearing war stories. We look forward to it all year, we started off meeting in a pub where we all went, there's no politics, no ranks, no ones the boss, no criticism for wearing different gear, but there still is the drive to get authentic looking kit, I can tell the year of a military issue boot by looking at the tread on the sole. It's just really geeky, and that comes back to being a kid as well.' - Dave, Charlie 27

The Vietnam War was also one of the most protested Wars, with the US Government using unpopularity and protest as a scapegoat for their inadequate military tactics. The Rolling Thunder Living History group found itself being bombarded by anti-war slogans one year when a lone protestor broke the ranks of the general public.

'I started protesting these events on my own, went along as a lone hippy, but it got such a good reaction that I've now joined the Rolling Thunder group. It's one thing to portray the Vietnam War with the Living Historians, but it was another to show the Veterans against the war movement as well.' - Peter, now a member of Rolling Thunder.

There is always a dark side; the majority of the Living Historian groups out there are in it as history lovers or for the driving around with guns on tanks. There are small percentages who are avid collectors of WW2 artefacts, ranging from vintage uniforms to dress knives belonging to senior members of the SS. Many of the groups, particularly the WW2 German historians, do not stand for any politics in their depictions, as I was told by numerous Living Historians, politics stays at the gate. But that philosophy is only within the community acting the part, not for the general public. As I knelt down and reached into my camera bag a man started shouting a string of anti-Semitic remarks at the people I was photographing. In front of my camera was a depiction of the Israeli Defence force circa 1973. There is an Israeli Soldier and next to him is his best friend dressed as a Palestinian. Neither of them are Jewish, neither of them are Palestinian, and although they have the vehicles and uniforms they are clearly not ethnically who they pertain to be. This doesn't stop the member of the public from shouting 'Why does Israel exist? What right do the Jews have to be there?' That is the main defence logically for the Living Historian past-time, racists aren't likely to dress up in Nazi uniforms and stand around saluting each other in a field over the weekend, real racists wear more mundane uniforms.

Project Details

Publication: L'Espresso (Italy)

Exhibition: Backlight Photo Festival (Finland), Turner Contemporary Open (U.K)

Date : 2006-2007