Just how do you get involved in Napoleonic-era historical re-enactment?

Four years ago I watched a display from His Majesty’s 33rd Regiment of Foot at the Britain’s Soldiers conference held at the University of Leeds.

Having only recently started to read about the Napoleonic wars, it was fascinating to see this period of history brought to life. And in such dazzling scarlet uniforms too!

That was the day I decided I wanted to join the 33rd Foot. After another three years (and a lot of history festivals) I finally got in touch. I joined the 33rd at the History Live! Festival at Kelmarsh Hall, with my new skirt in hand. I’ve never been able to thread a needle, let alone sew, but after a few get-togethers with the ladies of the 33rd (Havercake ladies) I’d discovered a new talent. I can sew in a straight line AND I can knit!

Kelmarsh was the most amazing experience – I took part in the storming of Fort McFarlane, wandered around the market in full kit and, best of all, I was able to bring to life all the experiences and events that I had read about. Most of all, it was great to be able to engage with the public about this period of history, answer their questions and hear about their interests and experiences.

The 33rd Foot is one of the best re-enactment groups around! Their historical accuracy and authenticity enables a re-enactor to experience life as it would have been for those living on campaign – and not just the soldiers, but the women, camp followers and sutlers who marched alongside the army. The experience of women in war is not a topic which receives much attention and to be able to demonstrate the life of a camp follower, and show just how significant women were to the army, is yet another thrill.

A camping weekend at Trout’s Farm, complete with proper musket drill and live firing, revealed to me just how seriously re-enactment is taken. I was thrown into 18th century camp life, cooking authentic recipes, learning how to mend-and-make, pitching a tent (what an experience that was!) and supporting the men throughout the day. The men are drilled, taught to fire, march, stand and move in the exact manner that 18th century troops were – with Dundas’ drill forming the basis for the men’s manoeuvres. And everything we did was authentic. It was a fascinating experiencing, and a real eye-opener. The books just don’t give you a real sense of how hard (and fun!) life on campaign was.

2013 ended with Canon Hall Ball, at which the 33rd provided the guard. And stunning they were too. For us ladies, it was a chance to get dressed up in our finery and enjoy an evening of food and dance. A grand evening was had by all! This is the other side of life that you don’t normally get to see when on campaign…the social dances and balls, gorgeous gowns and refinery. A whole new side to 18th century life opened up, another amazing experience.

The new season has now begun, and I’ve been on a number of re-enactments already. My first lot of kit is nearly complete (having just bought some lining for a stunning red coat which I now need to sew). I’ve bought my tent, my poles and am ready for a weekend campaign.

Joining the 33rd has, without doubt, been the best experience! The skills you learn are vital ones, lost in the modern day world, but soon rediscovered. Being able to pitch a tent, light a fire and cook in camp is essential. I’ve learnt how to sew, knit, mend and make do – and am bringing these skills into modern living. I’ve also seen the history I’ve read about brought to life – the Napoleonic Wars take on a whole new meaning when you learn how to load a musket, what firing looks and smells like (and tastes like) and seen just how difficult life could really be for the army on campaign. My favourite part has to be learning about the role of women in war and understanding how essential their role was. Women and camp followers formed a significant part of the army and they cannot be forgotten! The women on campaign must have had terribly hard lives and I’m just beginning to see this.

These experiences can only help you to understand the history of the period and see it brought to life. You don’t get that from books! And it’s very useful for university too! But, best of all, I have made the most amazing friends along the way. The 33rd Foot is an extremely friendly, helpful and welcoming society, who will go out of their way to help you – more of a family than a re-enactment group. Everyone I’ve met, from a number of different regiments, has been so friendly and encouraging. What more could you ask for!

If you’re interested in Napoleonic re-enactment, take a look at this online list of Napoleonic re-enactment groups.