Re-enacting is Authentic!

By Mark Tully

We all spend a great deal of time, energy and money to make our portrayal as realistic as possible, yet the central focus of most NWTA events are the fake battles. Well, believe it or not, the battle demonstrations themselves are authentic!

When not on campaign, all British regiments underwent an annual review. The primary purpose of these were to see that the various regiments were in compliance with the Royal warrants, but annual reviews also gave them an opportunity to strut their stuff for high-ranking officers and government officials. These reviews typically involved performing the Manual of Arms, plus a variety of marching maneuvers and evolutions. The regiment(s) being reviewed would often undergo intensive pre-show practice - sometimes months in advance.1

The annual review would sometimes also include a tactical demonstration. The 55th Regiment's return for 1775 indicates that during their review they fired by companies, grand divisions, changed fronts, fired some more, performed a bayonet charge, then Obligingly retired in confusion, rallied and formed as if being pressed by an imaginary enemy. They then fired a final volley as a grand salute to end the demonstration. The reviewing officer approved of the display, and said the regiment was ... not very steady, but they leveled well - perhaps they didn't get in enough practice time? 2

The 55th's 1774 return is even more interesting as it indicates that they actually staged a mock battle in cooperation with several other corps (the 22nd, 42nd, 54th, 55th, 62nd, and 63rd regiments). The battalions formed up in two lines with two pieces of artillery on each flank and the 18th regiment of Dragoons were posted to act as the enemy in a small woods to their front. The return then describes in great detail a very heated action that ensued. After some very complicated firings and maneuvers, the imaginary enemy and the 18th Dragoons were finally routed by a brilliant maneuver in which the Grenadiers and Light Infantry imperceptibly formed two columns by which means there were four columns in the Line, whose heads dressing with the line were hardly to be discovered. These columns then crashed through at the center of the line to break the "enemy" and carry the day at the point of the bayonet.3

Besides these valuable written accounts, there is pictorial evidence of sham battles being staged as well. A Mock Attack at Warley Camp by Philip de Loutherbourg shows one such "battle" being staged for King George III. The painting is usually cropped down when reproduced (the actual painting is mostly sky), but if you look at the far right-hand side of the painting, there is a soldier with his back to you standing at the shoulder. To his right (the area usually cropped out) there is a small cluster of people in civilian attire and two other soldiers standing guard - the soldiers are there to keep the public off the field (probably for insurance purposes)!4

A Francis Wheatley painting called Lord Aldbourough on Pomposo [his horse], a Review in Belan Park, County Kildare (ca. 1780) depicts what also appears to be a mock battle involving infantry and cavalry skirmishing (probably the Aldbourough Volunteers, raised in 1777). The infantry is shown firing a volley into a squad of uniformed horsemen - the latter either rushing in to break an imaginary enemy or acting as a fleeing attacking force like in the 55th's 1774 return. In the foreground is Lord Aldbourough surrounded by his family and friends watching the action. Another Wheatley painting, ca. 1780, shows a group of unopposed Irish volunteers firing and maneuvering in a town square - the windows of the nearby buildings are crowded with onlookers. 5

Reviews and demonstrations of field exercises were not just confined to England. Timothy Pickering was the author of one of the more in-depth 18th- century military manuals. He gathered much of the information for his book from the accounts of his friends who had watched the British troops in America exercise.6 Dr. Robert Honyman, in March of 1775, also witnessed the British going through their paces on Boston Common and describes a variety on maneuvers - including the British light infantry loading and firing from a prone position. Honyman also talks of the British soldiers firing at marks.7 General Sir William Howe's Orderly Book and many other order books, diaries, and journals of both British and colonists mention the troops exercising and performing maneuvers on a regular basis. In a modern tense exercising commonly refers to calisthenics, but in this case it probably means the Manual Exercise.

So how does this affect us?

The NWTA holds perhaps 12 events per year. That means the organization gets in about 30 hours of field work annually. If there were 100% attendance at every event, perhaps that would be enough, but consider that even in a lifetime of re-enacting, we can hardly come close to the degree of training our forebears went through for even a single review! It's no wonder that sometimes our battle demonstrations - for all their good intentions - fail to satisfy both the public and participants.

Perhaps we could practice what we preach and take a lesson directly from the pages of history?

If we were to stage more single-sided tactical demonstrations rather than two-sided battles, we would all gain some valuable practice time while still entertaining the public - PLUS we'd be maintaining our high standards of authenticity! I'm not suggesting one-sided tacticals become the norm, but on occasion it might be interesting - and authentic - to practice massed field maneuvers for the public.

By concentrating on our field formations instead of worrying about inflicting massive (and historically inaccurate) casualties, we as re-enactors would become more familiar with the sometimes complicated field maneuvers. We would also become more acclimated to performing together as brigades, get to know and learn from each other, and perhaps even have some fun!

1) Houlding, J.A., Fit for Service: The Training of the British Army 1715-1795, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1981.

2) General Returns - 55th Regiment of Foot Commanded by Richard Earl of Cavan, Colonel, Reviewed at Charles Fort, [Ireland] May 1775, by Lieutenant General Lord Blayney; War Office Papers, WO 27/35.

3) Review of the Several Regiments at Dublin, Ireland, on May 14, 1774 ; War Office Papers, WO 27/32.

4) ASI the National Park Service Poster, The British Redcoat, 1775-1783, US Government stock number 024-005-00636-2. For a smaller but almost complete view of this painting, see Schick, I. T., editor, Battledress, The Uniforms of the World's Great Armies 1700 to the Present, Little, Brown and Co., 1978, pp 50-51. More on these soldiers in a future issue.

5) Webster, Mary, Francis Wheatley, Paul Mellon Foundation of British Art, 1970, frontspiece.

6) Pickering, Timothy, An Easy Plan of Discipline for a Militia, Salem, New England, 1775 (reprint - Kings Arms Press) preface, pages 21 and 24.

7) Dr. Honyman's Journal for March and April, Philip Radford, ed., Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, 1939, entries for March 22-25. "Firing at Marks" will be a topic to itself in a future issue.


If anyone is interested in obtaining transcribed copies of the War Office returns noted here, send $2.00 (to cover the costs of copying and postage) to the editor. These describe the actual marching maneuvers performed at annual reviews of the 55th regiment for the years 1774 and 1775.

Please note that these documents carry a crown copyright and should not be published without permission from the Queen. I have misplaced her number, so obtaining permission for you may be difficult. These would be for your personal reference and perusal only.