Reliving the past

August 22, 2014

Colchester, Britain

By Luke MacGregor

How does one illustrate the centenary of a war that changed global history?

There is no way to truly relive or re-experience what people went through a whole century ago. The only thing I could think of was to try and draw a revealing comparison between people’s lives then and now.

Custom silicone technician Corin Watts  as Lance Corporal Corin Watts of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps with the Rifles Living History Society participates in a rifle drill whilst recreating life as a First World War soldier at the Colchester Military Tournament in Colchester, eastern England  July 6, 2014. Corin became interested in World War One when as a child on the bus he would pass the statue of 'the driver' on the Royal Artillery Monument by Charles Sergeant Jagger, because of its size and its imposing nature it used to scare him, but provoked him to ask questions about the Great War and to learn more. He started re-enacting for that reason too. Of his fellow re-enactors he says "I like the people, its an odd community re-enactment, they are the most bizarre but at the same time most grounded and down to earth people you'd ever meet".   REUTERS/Luke MacGregor  (BRITAIN)

Custom silicone technician Corin Watts works on a prosthetic partial hand he is making at the London Prosthetic Centre in Kingston -Upon-Thames southwest London August 12, 2014. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

I contacted a group of historical re-enactors who recreate the lives of soldiers in the Great War and attended some museum open days with them, watching as they publicly demonstrated various drills and period artifacts. But I wanted to go further than just seeing their uniforms. I wanted to show an interesting similarity between these men and the soldiers from 100 years before.

The men who served in World War One came from a vast variety of backgrounds; from bakers to bankers, salesmen to solicitors. Many of those who joined up were just school leavers. If they were fit enough and not too old, then they were sent to the front line.

Carpenter Richard Helad of the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment Living History Group participates in a mock battle illustrating the First World War at the Colchester Military Tournament in Colchester, eastern England July 5, 2014.  REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

Carpenter Richard Helad adjusts a door in a new apartment constructed by Berkeley Homes construction firm in Hackney northeast London July 22, 2014.  Richard's love of history developed whilst growing up with an archeologist father who ran an archeological dig at Winchester in southern England.  His interest in re-enacting was sparked when visiting a "War and Peace" show with his son, while there he bought a cap and pair of trousers, he continued buying the uniform and equipment and became more and more involved in the group.  He feels it is important to keep the memory alive of those who died and to educate people about how the war changed the social history of the country including securing the vote for women and opening up opportunities for them in the workplace.

I wanted to try to convey the huge range of men who served by photographing the historical re-enactors not only in uniform but also as they did their day jobs, which were also very varied.

As I went about my task, I was welcomed into the ranks of the historical, and now non-existent, regiments of “The King’s Royal Rifle Corps” and “The Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment)” as well as the lives of their officers and men.

Historical accuracy was paramount to the re-enactors, and they showed fastidious attention to detail.

Theatre Nurse Ciaran Dukes (C) as Captain Ciaran Dukes a re-enactor of the Royal Army Medical Corps marches with other re-enactors depicting World War One drills at the Eden Valley Museum at Edenbridge in south east England May 10, 2014.  REUTERS/Luke MacGregor  (BRITAIN)

Theatre Nurse Ciaran Dukes poses in his scrubs in Bromley, southeast London  June 23, 2014.  REUTERS/Luke MacGregor  (BRITAIN)

Everything, including uniforms and weapons, had to be true to life 100 years ago. Cigarettes came hand-rolled from tins and tobacco was smoked in pipes. Packets, jars and boxes of period-appropriate manufacture were relabeled with slogans and branding of the time, from tins of “bully” beef (corned beef) to jars of Bovril. Plastic, polystyrene, nylon, polyester and other modern materials were banned.

Any soldier breaching this historical code of conduct was criticized and frowned upon. Some took this need for accuracy beyond the realms of comfort and elected to wear the woolen underwear of the period.

I learned a lot over the course of this assignment. I now know the difference between a 1914 and a 1918 uniform, how to clean the barrel of a WWI rifle without damaging the muzzle, and that a “smelly” rifle is in fact a Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (S.M.L.E) rifle.

With all my new-found knowledge, I followed re-enactors onto the “battlefield”. Admittedly this was no Western Front. On three different sides were the brightly-clad, ice cream-eating, cola-drinking twenty-first century public and then there was me, with my two digital cameras, kneeling by an advert for crane hire.

Freight train driver Chris Bingham (R) as Private Chris Bingham of the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Living History Group and Carpenter Richard Helad (L) as Lance Corporal Richard Helad of the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Living History Group participate in a mock battle illustrating the First World War at the Colchester Military Tournament in Colchester, eastern England July 6, 2014. Chris has had a lifelong interest in all things military, but his interest in WWI came as he researched his family history and discovered his great-grandfather Charles Bingham and a great-uncle Moses had served in the war.  Moses was killed but Charles survived although he suffered severe shell-shock. He became a re-enactor in 2010 after visiting a "War and Peace" show.  He felt that WWI was not as well remembered as the Second World War and seemed to be fading from living memory, he wanted to keep the memory alive so that people didn't forget. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor  (BRITAIN)

Freight train driver Chris Bingham poses in an engine at the Hoo Junction Marshalling Yard at Shorne near Gravesend in southern England July 16, 2014. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

Nonetheless, the 10-minute war was ferocious. The “smelly” rifles made loud cracking fire, and even louder bangs emitted from replica Lewis guns, vickers guns and mortar fire, all aided by smoking pyrotechnics.

The re-enactors fought their way down the field against enemy fire, supported by a replica tank. The battle climaxed in the defeat and capture of a German army (all four of them).

Like the men of the First World War, the re-enactors come from a variety of backgrounds and professions.

There was Richard, a carpenter, Peter, a police community support officer, Corin, a custom silicone technician and maker of prosthetic limbs, Connor and Adam, A-level students, and Lawrence, a factory landlord.

Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) Peter Austridge (L) as Corporal Peter Austridge a re-enactor of the 4th Battalion Royal Fusilier Territorial Army recreates camp life of the First World War soldier behind a replica Vickers gun with other re-enactors

Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) Peter Austridge of the Enfield Borough Police poses whilst on patrol at the Shires Estate in Edmonton, north London July 16, 2014. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

As well as a fondness for dressing-up, what unites these men is their fascination with the Great War, the weapons, the uniforms and the change that it brought to Europe and the world.

I have learned a lot through meeting them, and would like to thank the Rifles Living History Society and the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment Living History Group for allowing me to spend time with them and for educating me.

I hope that these photos have drawn a historical comparison between the ordinary men of a century ago, who were forced together to fight for their country’s freedom, and ordinary men who come together (as a somewhat smaller army) to educate others about the horrors of the war our forefathers faced.

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