War history comes to life

By: Roger Bjoroy-Karlsen
Edited by: Lauran Timlin

Every year about a hundred thousand people come together in the south of England to experience war history by living it or by watching it play out. Then it’s time for shows in both war and peace!

-Hold it right there!

The words blared from the entrance to what looks like a military supply area. There stands an older fellow in an American field uniform, with a shotgun at the ready. On his hip he has a brown leather pistol holster and a set of shiny handcuffs. The eyes above the gray mustache behind a pair of glasses look serious. The armband says MP. I notice the department badge he wears on his cap. The bald eagle.

’Are you a veteran from the 101 Airborne Division from the last world war?’, I ask him.

John Flatley from Sandhurst in Berkshire breaks into a smile.

‘No, I was born in 1943 and as British, as anyone can be’, he chuckles.

John Flatley by doing reenactment form World War II (Photo: Roger Bjoroy-Karlsen)

The year is 2013.

I am at Folkestone Racecourse in Westenhanger in the southeast of England. On the vast plains around the racetrack, thousands have established themselves as far as the eye can see. Entire camps, command posts, and aid stations for the sick and wounded have been recreated to the smallest detail. The flags of several nations flutter lightly from the aerials above tents and vehicles are everywhere. At least 4,500 tanks, jeeps, armored personnel carriers and ambulances, just to mention a few, are lined up. Soldiers in period uniforms with weapons make up the bulk of the clientele within the barbed wire fences. Whether they sit and cool off in the shade of the tents, or guard the barricades. People of all ages help by playing a role, whether as soldiers, nurses, clerks, cafe guests, musicians, or housewives. Trenches have been dug in several places where they have established themselves with weapons, ammunition, rest areas, and kitchens. Even luxury Rolls Royce vehicles and period fighter jets. Because out on a lawn stands the arch-enemy’s feared machine, the German Messerschmitt together with the British Spitfire, which often played the leading roles in aerial duels over European soil during the Second World War.

The gigantic “War And Peace Show” has been organized at various locations in southern England. The show celebrates its 41st anniversary in 2023 and has now moved to Hop Farm in Tonbridge. With around 100,000 visitors during a few summer days each year, it is considered to be the largest reenactment of its kind in the world. This year the event is located in Kent, a place which has to a very high degree been an important military strategic area in past conflicts. Throughout the ages it has formed the front against intruders coming across the English Channel from France, and has been a battlefield more than once.

Military “reenactment” is a role-play-like activity that reproduces famous battles, events or environments from various wars and conflicts throughout the ages. In ancient times, the Romans staged performances of their famous battles in their amphitheaters. In the Middle Ages there would be knight jousting tournaments. The Americans have for the most part brought this to modern times. Events from the War of Independence and the American Civil War are naturally consistent themes when they want to pay tribute to their history. The most famous in Norway is probably “Olavsspelet” (Olav’s play) at Stiklestad, which reproduces the famous battle where Olav II Haraldsson (later Olav the Holy) fell in 1030 in an unsuccessful attempt to take back power in Norway.

Across Europe, reenactment is very widespread and is carried out by women and men who are interested in particular eras of military history while preserving this unique community. They are usually organized in associations and acquire vehicles and equipment, sew or buy uniforms and clothing that reflect a specific period in time. This is how they live out their interests in role-playing games and actively participate in the story by dressing up as their heroes or enemies and driving around in their vehicles and shooting with the weapons of that era. Many of the association’s tours and set up exhibits in several places around the country and across Europe as a whole.

Many different reasons are given for doing this.

Most of the participants have a strong interest in war history. Some have ancestors who fought in these wars and want to honor them by reenacting the events they witnessed. Others see the importance of making history come alive because many of those who, for example, took part in the last world war, disappear as the years go by. History fades.

“My father was a German soldier during World War II and I am doing this to honor him”, says British Steve Friedrichs, who comes from London. 

I find him at a tent meant to represent a field passport office, with a huge rickety desk full of papers, stamps, and stamp pads, placed around an old typewriter. He is wearing the field uniform of the German Army from the last world war.

He continues:

– “I honor not only my father but soldiers from both sides who fought bravely for their country”.

He states that he has never been a soldier.

Steve Friedricks honors his father and soldiers from both sides who fought bravely for their country. (Photo: Roger Bjoroy-Karlsen)

Britain has always taken great care to preserve and celebrate its history and is apparently the strongest center of these activities on that side of the Atlantic. They were central in the last world wars and therefore it is natural enough to emphasize the British. But the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan, among others, have also entered this story and are shown at shows around the country.

The command post of part of the German “Skijägerbrigade 1” stands out. White cotton is laid around the tent, skis, and improvised shelter to give it a wintry feel.

Skijägerbrigade 1 command post (Photo: Roger Bjoroy-Karlsen)

Even the Taliban have got their place in this historical show. A red Toyota Hilux pickup covered in mud, with machine guns and anti-aircraft guns mounted on the cargo bed, is parked next to a small motorcycle with hand-held petrol bombs of the Molotov cocktail type on the boot. This is a memory of an enemy from an ongoing guerilla war, who has often shown that with simple means you can achieve military success over a technologically superior opponent.

Right next to the trotting track itself, the scenery has been erected to reproduce the ruins of a French city. This is the arena for a reenactment of the battles between American and German soldiers during the Second World War. Around the buildings are tank barriers made of steel and concrete blocks, which are positioned to prevent vehicles from entering the area. The audience has crowded behind a white fence at a safe distance. The loudspeaker provides expert guidance from a commentator who gives the historical introduction and describes the details of equipment and vehicles. Then the battle can begin. The Germans have hidden in the ruins and are apparently waiting for an attack. The Americans enter the area in their heavily loaded Willys jeeps equipped with machine guns and are immediately under fire from the Germans. Pyrotechnic charges go off around the area and simulate grenade explosions. Fierce battles develop inside the smoke cloud until a threatening Tiger tank enters and pushes the battle over in the Germans’ favor for a period of time. 

But, as you know, history has already been written. Despite fierce resistance, the Germans must once again see themselves defeated by the American forces. This time it is in safe and secure surroundings and to the audience’s great excitement and applause.

All this is carried out by a well-known reenactment association called “Kelly’s Heroes”. They tour with their shows, and often team up with other associations, often with the German group “Kampfgruppe Stahlkrieger” and reproduce battles in the purest Hollywood style.

The feared German anti-tank weapon called “Panzerschrek” in action during the furious battle (Photo: Roger Bjoroy-Karlsen

Inside an area called “Vintage Village,” it is a much more peaceful environment. Ladies in shawls and floral dresses stand behind benches filled with kitchen utensils and demonstrate cooking in the forties. At the time, jam production and canning were largely done at home in the kitchen, most often by the housewife, and was very important in a time of rationing due to the food shortage caused by the war.

Students are paying attention when cooking was done with utensils from the 1940’s (Photo: Roger Bjoroy-Karlsen

At the back of a large white tent is a booth with a newsagent showing the latest news from the front. Next to it stands a post office with posters urging people to save money in times of crisis and think twice before traveling by train, to free up space for more important military transports. Calls to be on guard for what one sees and what one says are also naturally included.

A significant part of the area is set aside for sales stalls. Everything between heaven and earth of military equipment and models is sold here. Mobile parts warehouses for military vehicles are rigged on large car trailers.

Here you can buy a tank if you want. Or medieval armor. There are also all kinds of possible replicas of weapons and ammunition besides clothing and other equipment. Several of the stalls exclusively sell effects from Nazi Germany. Here hang several original uniforms and old rusty helmets from all parts of the “Third Reich”.

Some of the stalls are covered with boxes of plastic models and model-building tables. Here you can see professional model builders in action or sit down and build models that you can buy on the spot. Trains, planes, pictures, tanks, or entire landscapes from the wars are built here.

Model building has quite a space in the show. A broad selection of model kits can be bought and built on-site while you are having conversations and exchanges with like-minded people. (Photo: Roger Bjoroy-Karlsen)

From what appears to be a dance tent, one hears the sounds that motivated British soldiers at their worst. Dame Vera Lynn’s immortal hit “We’ll meet again” went straight into the hearts of many and it still fascinates. Inside the tent, women and men in period costumes dance near the bar. Enjoying a moment of ancient melancholy.

Jazz tones are heard from another tent. A swing jive course is held there. Both young and old throw themselves into it, guided by two instructors. A great way to experience the social history of this period too.

In the middle of the grassy area outside the dance hall are the remains of the French cafe “Tabac”. The cafe owner and a female guest enjoy their red wine. Seemingly a peaceful place until one discovers the military equipment in the form of a radio transmitter and some weapons, hidden among bottles, glasses, and a piano. The resistance movement in France often used such places to secretly meet and to report back to the allies using coded messages, something that was immortalized in the British television series “‘Allo allo”.

The display “Cafe Tabac” shows how the resistance in France used facilities like this to coordinate and execute their secret operations

War veterans from all wars have free entry and are honored in a special event during the 5 days of the show. 

They also contribute diligently with input on how things happened at the time and thus provide important knowledge to the participants in the reenactment associations, who are often very concerned with correct reproduction.

War veterans give guidance to the participants in the reenactments. They are detail-oriented and want to reproduce it as ut were back then. (Photo: Roger Bjoroy-Karlsen)

As you know, war has its price. So this is also the place for the veterans’ organizations to  raise funds for the rehabilitation of injured veterans, many of them are unfortunately homeless. They need all possible help they can get and this effort is one of many to recognize those who took part in war and conflict.

School classes from all over the region visit the show. It creates a lot of interest among young people, and the participants willingly tell about how things work for students who are keen to learn more. Storytelling is still a priority in schools in the UK – on one of the days during the show there is free entry for them.

This article was released first time in the Nordic magazine “All Verdens Historie” in 2013.

If you want to check out the War And Peace show

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