History of Re-enactment
The first military re-enactments probably took place in excess of 2000 years ago; re-enactments were a common entertainment staple found in Roman coliseums. They differ from current re-enactments in that they were purely for spectacle; little attention was likely paid to details of uniform, and given the small and enclosed nature of their venues, these recreations probably did not boast realistic tactics. Most significantly, however, the participants fought these recreated battles to the death.
Military displays continued to be a form of entertainment throughout history, the most famous example perhaps being medieval jousting. Education through battle recreation seems to be a fairly new innovation, however. The first "modern" battle re-enactment may have occurred in the years following the Civil War, when former combatants came together to recreate their acts on the battlefield.
It is not known exactly when battle recreations came to have an outward, educational, focus. It is probable that Living History came to being first. Living History is the use of costumed or uniformed persons in a realistic setting to convey to viewers an impression of life in a particular time. The Halifax Citadel, for example, is an example of Living History. Young men dressed in the 18th Century uniform of the 78th Highlanders occupy the Citadel (a fully restored fort) and perform 18th Century drills for spectators, giving a sense of what life would have been like at that time. There are examples of Living History sites across Canada, both military and civilian themed, such as Fort Rodd-Hill in BC or Heritage Park in Calgary.
The most famous re-enactors have been American Civil War enthusiasts. Civil War re-enactment began to take off in the1960's, as the Civil War reached its centennial. By 1998, a re-enactment honouring the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg could boast 34,000 uniformed participants. More than just camp displays or living history, Civil War events came to include battle re-enactments - two opposing sides simulating combat. Even in Australia, American Civil War re-enactment groups have existed since the mid 1960's.
In recent years, other time periods have gained popularity in North America and Europe, including the American Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic Wars.
Second World War Re-enactment
Second World War re-enactment in the United States came to being between 1975 and 1978, in the wake of the growing popularity of Civil War re-enactment. Several key organizations were formed in this period from smaller groups of military vehicle and uniform collectors coming together in the hopes of putting their collections to practical use. The American WWII Living History Association and the WW II Historical Re-enactment Society (HRS) were two of these. The staging of the first large scale battle display in the United Kingdom brought forwards a large number of similarly minded enthusiasts and thus WWII re-enactment soon became firmly established alongside other military re-enactments in the United States. These groups have proliferated over the years, and there are now several different organizations across the United States that specialize in World War Two re-enactment.
The Origins of Second World War Re-enactment in Canada
In 1965, an organization called Service Rifle was created by five men; Gavin K. Watt, Don Burke, Don G. Smith, John Robertson and Alex Smith.1 Photo at right comes from Gavin Watt's website.2 This group's activities expanded to putting on active and static displays at Canadian Forces Bases, and the group eventually created two Second War elements representing both Canadian and German Infantry. Their repertoire of "impressions" came to include the War of 1812, the Fenian Raids, the North-West Rebellion, the Great War, Korea and US troops in Indochina/Viet Nam. These elements were raised ad hoc from within the membership when the specific need arose.
The group enjoyed much success and concluded that they should recreate a specific regiment with a solid identity and history. Having experienced difficulty obtaining uniforms, accoutrements and firearms from hardcore collectors, it was decided that members of the new group would own all of their own kit. If a member damaged or lost anything, it would be his own responsibility.
After a great deal of debate, the first recreated regiment came into existence in 1975. In anticipation of the upcoming American Bicentennial, a United Empire Loyalist unit - the King's Royal Yorkers - was selected. The choice seemed to be a natural; British Regulars were already frequently represented at the various historic forts, and the Loyalists had been the group that founded Ontario. This unit still exists, today represented by a three-pounder brass battalion gun and Cohorn mortar; a set of Colours; Fifes & Drums and three infantry companies. In original terms, the unit has a platoon of Grenadiers, a platoon of Light Infantry, a Company of Hat or standard troops and a camp full of Refugees and followers, and boasts a paper strength of one hundred equipped and trained men, though the unit rarely fields more than 60 troops at any given time. Record attendance was 93 in 1992 and 92 in 1993.
Museum of Applied Military History
By 1977, the group obtained an Ontario charter as the Museum of Applied Military History. The word 'living' in relation to re-enacting wasn't in use at that time, hence the appellation 'applied.' The intent of this organization was to be a confederation of re-enactment units of different eras rather than being a traditional museum. A government consultant advised the group that 'museum' was the closest classification to what the group intended to do, and so the term stuck. The MAMH now includes 32 different units from five eras of Canada's military history, with an overall membership of 550 persons from both genders and of all ages.
Maple Leaf Up
While formal energies were directed to the Royal Yorkers, attention was still paid by the MAMH to the World Wars. Representations of those eras were still in demand at Armed Forces Days at Borden and Trenton and at Parks Canada sites and in New York State at old Fort Niagara. The structure of the two Second War units was formalized in 1985 for a mock battle at CFB Trenton's Armed Forces Day (later known as the Quinte International Airshow). The group was christened Maple Leaf Up, named after the ubiquitous road signs seen in Northwest Europe during the Second World War. The Canadian contingent wore CANADA flashes and General List Cap Badges in order to represent generic infantry, while the Germans wore a variety of uniforms from several different branches and took the name Kampfgruppe Norden, indicating a "battle group" combining elements from several different formations. Maple Leaf Up continued for five years with a membership on the order of 25-plus men. Kampfgruppe Norden thus has claim to the oldest Second World War re-enactment group in Canada, with the oldest Canadian group being the Perths. KG Norden was founded by Sylvester Haase and Gary Dare, and when Syl Haase passed away the unit was re-named Kampgruppe Haase in his honour. Steve Lehman, Pat McKeeman and Guy Despatie subsequently led the group.3
The Athene Section
At the same time, female participation grew in response to the need to mount meaningful static exhibits. Clad in uniforms and clothing representing all aspects of female involvement during the Second World War - the three services and home front workers and volunteers - the unit became known as the Athene Section.
The Perth Regiment
Having enjoyed the experience of representing an actual regiment of the American Revolutionary War period, the membership of Maple Leaf Up decided that it should seek permission to represent a Second World War battalion. After much research and effort, permission was granted by the Perth Regiment Veterans' Association and NDHQ to recreate elements of the Perths. A committee sat to decide how to approach the new challenge, consisting of. Ed Anderson, Rob Grieve, Brian Cox, Doug Lawrence and Gavin Watt. The project was launched at the Canadian War Museum in 1990 with 27 members appearing. The group currently fields a Headquarters and two rifle platoons of three Rifle Sections each, plus small Scout and Sniper sections. Total active membership is just in excess of 80, supported by a Provost Section; a Signals Section and an RCAMC aidman.
20th (Central Ontario) Battalion, CEF
In about 1986, members of the MAMH including Bob Anglin, Dan Moreau and Len Skinner, all from the Ottawa area and all Royal Yorkers and Perths, went to work on a Great War representation. Their spirit animated a number of other members such as Brian Cox and Ed Anderson and by 1988, a solid section of infantry was able to march in Toronto at the Queen's Birthday Parade on the May long weekend. By 1990, the interest had grown to where it was decided to obtain permission to perpetuate a C.E.F. battalion. The 20th Central Ontario was chosen and permission was obtained from the Queen's York Rangers regimental council and NDHQ. For the 75th anniversary of the end of the Great War, twelve uniformed men took part in ceremonies at Vimy Ridge, The Menin Gate and at Mons as the clock struck 11 am on the 11th of November. Currently the 20th fields about 30 men.
A variety of other re-enactment groups have existed in Canada since the advent of the hobby here, mostly small in nature and very localized, but social media and the greater availability of replica uniforms, equipment and weapons is having an impact. A number of Facebook groups that facilitate discussion and information sharing:
Those in Alberta may be interested in the First Special Service Force Living History Association, their public page is:
In addition to portraying the Canadian-American FSSF, the unit also portrays Canadian, German, Italian and Japanese soldiers, with the main Axis portrayal being 65. Infanterie Division.