If you were biking through Fort George last weekend, you may have found yourself questioning what century you were in.
And a fair question it would be, as a re-enactment of the Napoleonic wars took over the fort on July 9 and 10.
Hundreds of re-enactors dressed in historic regalia fought multiple mock pitched battles between British and French forces on the grounds.
They even called the site their home for the weekend, sleeping in tents pitched across the fort.
“I love all aspects of history but the daily life of a soldier is the thing that I find most interesting,” said Chicago resident and re-enactor Stan Archacki.
He has been participating in re-enactments since 2007. He was on the French side of the combat over the weekend.
For Archacki and other re-enactors, these events provide a unique form of personal education.
“The material culture, the clothing, the equipment, the cooking, the day to day activities — I really like the day to day experience of what people went through,” Archacki said before taking his brandy ration.
Beyond his own interest in history, he finds the authentic experience of living a soldier’s life from centuries gone by invigorating.
The re-enactment was organized by Parks Canada but relies heavily on the enthusiasm and financial investment of its volunteer soldiers.
Re-enactment enthusiasts bring along all their own equipment and outfits. From authentic soldiers’ uniforms to 17th-century style military camping tents, event organizer Peter Martin said each participant could have easily invested $3,000 of their own money in bringing history to life.
But living history isn’t just a fun indulgence of interest for the volunteers. It presents the opportunity for history buffs to learn through experience and to share that hands-on learning with the public.
“I found that historical re-enactments, historic sites like Fort George and like many others here, are what I find to be a more effective way to teach history,” said battle participant Sage Hallberg, who studied history at the University of Michigan.
“How to kind of get the actual message across as to what it was like — to physically kind of learn from it and the way you learn is through touching, interacting. (It’s) physical, more physical than just only through a textbook.”
Fort George supervisor Dan LaRoche was excited to have the re-enactment taking place in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It is the fort’s second time hosting such a gathering and organizers hope to make it a biennial tradition.
LaRoche said it bolsters the public’s enthusiasm about history.
“It’s shows like this that are, in many ways, the hook to get people here to learn about the stories. To learn about the stories and to learn about the history that shaped, not only the world, but the stories that helped shape our country that we know today,” said LaRoche.
“And, if we’re going to get on the sort of selfish end of it,” LaRoche said with a laugh, “it increases awareness of Fort George.”
There were three pitched battles pitting the British military against Napoleon’s French army. The battles began with a long procession of British musicians and troops marching from inside the walls of Fort George out to a neighbouring field.
The audience lined up along a bordering trail to watch the two sides engage in line battles representative of the period.
At the first battle of the weekend, 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Napoleon’s army was holding the fort against a British advance. From inside the fort, the French were firing off blank cannon shots that echoed up and down the field and reverberated off the banks of the Niagara River.
“I’ve been around this stuff long enough that the artillery doesn’t even shake me any more. I’ll try to warn you next time,” battle announcer Daryl Learn said after one of the first blasts of cannon fire startled the crowd.
British and French troops lined up in the field several hundred yards apart and began shooting on their commanders’ orders. The fog of war filled the air as the smoke from dozens of muskets firing at once began to build up.
Learn sought to explain the tactics behind line battles, saying one of the most common questions he receives is why the troops stand in a field and fight face to face instead of employing any sort of guerrilla tactics.
“The idea was that mass firepower would easily take care of the issues. If you had a hundred muskets and they all opened fire, you’re expecting about 80 to go off, and at that point aiming doesn’t matter,” he said.
“The wall of lead will do the aiming for you.”
As the battle raged on, troops began to fall on both sides. Bodies were strewn across the plain of Fort George as the French pushed back the British assault.
One soldier took a musket ball to the stomach and screamed in agonizing pain as he gasped his last breath before dramatically collapsing, a lifeless pile of cloth and flesh.
As men died and the battle lines faltered, the group of British musicians stood still and strong at the rear of the British line.
“The musicians are an integral part of a full-scale battle. The high pitch of the fife carries very well over the low din of musketry and cannon fire,” Learn said.
“This allowed an officer to use the fife to send orders up and down the line to other officers so they could communicate effectively across large swaths of battlefield.”
After the battle, the musicians played a funeral dirge and both sides retreated to their respective encampments.
THE CAMP FOLLOWERS
No good re-enactment would be complete without its camp followers.
And followers there were. From old-time shops to starry-eyed youth enamoured with the glory of battle, the range was on display at Fort George.
“I’m a camp follower as a male. I’m going to be on the battlefield one day,” said 16-year-old Terry Holly from Cobourg.
She said she was first introduced to the art of the re-enactment by her stepfather when she was seven.
“Ever since, I have been obsessed with this stuff,” she said with a laugh.
“I’ve been learning some of the drills and stuff since I was young and I’ve been doing militia and helping out with that.”
Terry was happy to have two friends from Cobourg with her. All three were dressed in a homespun cloth outfit which denoted them as camp followers.
Vendors set up their tents at the entryway to Fort George to make the most of the influx of visitors.
“I like helping out, I like selling the toys and I just like walking around the fort,” said Harrison Gilbert, an 11-year-old employee at Faire Tyme Toys.
Harrison was operating the stand with his grandfather, Jim Gilbert.
Gilbert has been running Faire Tyme Toys since he retired about 20 years ago. He said he makes many of the toys himself but some are custom-ordered.
He was selling wooden swords, functional toy crossbows, painted wooden shields and other timely items.
And it was not lost on Gilbert that his young grandson has developed a liking and a love for what his grandfather does.
“I like (Harrison’s interest) a lot. He is my only grandson. So, the fact that he likes it, he really likes it, I am very pleased with.”