If you love history then one of the best ways to indulge your passion is to go to history shows. For several years I attended English Heritage’s Festival of History, held at Kelmarsh Hall, just a little down the road from where I live. For two days the fields before this old country house would be filled with re-enactors covering different periods from English history. Visitors could tour Roman encampments, speak to medieval knights and Victorian redcoats, or watch reconstructions of battles from Hastings to the Crusades and World War Two. This was one of the highlights of my calendar, until English Heritage decided to pull the event three years ago. This was mostly due to successive events when torrential rains turned everything to mud, which also turned the crowds away. I suppose the Festival of History has embraced the best and worst of England: great history, terrible weather.
Fortunately, there are other events on the calendar, and with the demise of the Festival of History these have grown in size and popularity. The Military Odyssey – great name! – in Kent claims to be the biggest of them all, and looking at the list of periods on display and the re-enactment groups in attendance, they’re probably right. They also don’t have the restriction of needing an English connection, so also include periods such as the Greek Classical period and the American Civil War. But it’s a three hour drive from where I live, so I haven’t yet visited the Military Odyssey. Instead, since the end of the Festival of History I’ve been attending the annual Victory Show at Cosby in Leicestershire, which took place last weekend.
An American halftrack
Although it’s restricted purely to the Second World War, the Victory Show is big, noisy and impressive. I enjoy nothing more than being able to stroll around several big fields looking at halftracks, tanks and planes and talking to the people who live the period. Every re-enactor I’ve ever spoken to has always been happy to chat about their (expensive) passion. As they wear the uniforms, use the kit and carry the weapons, they have a unique perspective on what life was like for soldiers of the period, and I always learn something new from them. This year I was told it costs £1,000 to transport a tank to a show using a low-loader; I also received a demonstration on how grenades work, and was shown how the safety catch on a British Sten gun is so crap it goes off when dropped. Last year I had the added bonus of being shown around a few German vehicles by a former boss who I hadn’t seen for ten years (I didn’t recognise him at first as he was dressed in an SS uniform and calling to me from the back of a halftrack).
A Bristol Blenheim from last year’s show
I usually take my daughters along to every history event I go to (my wife got bored with them a long time ago). I don’t know how much they get from these days out, but they never seem to get bored or ask to go home; though it helps that I bribe them with hot dogs and sweets from the numerous food stalls. Their favourite part, though, is exploring the woods, where many re-enactors have pitched tents and dug trenches. It’s a great excuse for them to put on helmets, jump into trenches and get filthy.
My highlight is the battle that takes place in the afternoon. Complete with tanks, ground attacks by aircraft and lots of pyrotechnics, it’s a great spectacle. There’s a running commentary via loudspeaker explaining the battle to close the Falaise Gap in Normandy (a good excuse to have British, American and German re-enactors on the same battlefield). The body count is usually quite high and, naturally, the Germans are required to lose. It makes me wonder whether they do this sort of thing back in Germany, and whether their side occasionally gets to win.