Play It Again, Home Front Living History

Long ago, but not so far away at Littlecote House actually, I had my photograph taken with a Roman Legionnaire.  It was just a day out, with an interesting take on history. At the end of the day the Roman soldier and his pals marched off and we as a family piled into our car and made for home. A return visit to Littlecote House sometime later and Cowboys had taken over. A street complex including a Gaol and a Saloon had been created in an area to one side of the main House.  At intervals during the day, fierce gunfights were fought between goodies and baddies, each character fully immersed in his role, shouting out in a pseudo American accent, and dying spectacularly if the plot required it.

Then the Western set disappeared. I heard several stories as to why the Cowboys rode off into the sunset, but whatever the facts, it was the end of that series of re-enactments. Then came Geoff and Val Winship and their Medieval Jousting Tournaments on the front lawns of the House. The performances always drew large crowds I recall, and the pageantry and daring do served to enhance the spectacular. However, changing times and a change of ownership at Littlecote eventually caused a cessation of these living history performances in the annual calendar.

In conversation with friends as we enjoyed a pint one summer’s evening in the early 1990’s, one of our group mentioned that he had recently bought a WW2 Jeep that needed tidying up. His intention was to use it for living history presentations. Tim subsequently invited me to his house to view the Jeep and the kit he was going to wear as part of his display. It did not take me long to realise this could be an interesting pastime and apart from making new friends, there was the opportunity to learn more about the nation’s history.  By 1995 I was ready to attend my first event. I travelled to Gibraltar Barracks near Camberley to support their British Army Families Day. What an interesting day that was, with the bonus of an invitation to return to the Barracks for a tour and lunch, providing I bought my Jeep and kit for display in the Mess. I represented a member of the British 1st Airborne in 1944 and some of my kit was original, some of it borrowed and the rest reproduction.

Throughout the late 1990s I attended many events, large and small, public, and private, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends. When the Armed Services were being reduced in numbers from the year 2000 onwards, groups of re-enactors including the one that I had formed, were called upon to attend ceremonial events including Armistice Day. It seems we were stepping into the roles that would otherwise have been taken by Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen. Many of us had been taught correct drill and military protocols by a former officer in the Rifles Brigade so we were able to deliver a polished performance. My group Home Front History, working with several other trusted groups, quickly gained a reputation for our presentations across the southern Home Counties so much so that our events diary was never empty, that is until recently, but I will touch on that later. We assemble a mix of portrayals and displays to include Women’s Land Army, Home Guard, Police, Women’s Voluntary Service and WW2 British and American service personnel. Our displays include cooking on a ration, Make do and Mend and Rifle Drill.

We do not trivialise or glamorise the life and times of the wartime generation. Instead we welcome questions from visitors so that we can explain the role of every character and what a typical day might have been for them. For the Home Guard it was about training, preparedness, and the possibility of fighting to the last man if the enemy had invaded. For the housewife it was about queuing for food, recycling everything that could be recycled, perhaps serving in the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service) knitting for the Troops and a host of other tasks which, according to one lady I interviewed, ‘Seemed to increase by the week as our efforts were needed more and more’. Tangible legacies of the era include music, dance, and fashion and these continue to attract new audiences of all ages. Within the 1940s community there are many popular singers, dance groups and big bands, all helping to carry forward the spirit of those years.  For everyone on the Home Front there was a vital role to play and through our portrayals we do our best to present that.

We consider ourselves very honoured to have supported Royal British Legion events and fundraising functions specifically for Veterans and many of us have made friends with those who served during WW2 and during later conflicts.

We have a particularly high profile at Anniversary events including D-Day in June. For the 75th Anniversary in 2019 whilst many of our fellow re-enactors hoped over the water to Normandy, we pulled out all the stops at home by organising a convoy of 75 WW2 military vehicles. We journeyed from Eisenhower’s D-Day headquarters near Fareham, the 50 miles to Greenham Common, taking the same route that he took on 5th June 1944 when he visited men of the 101st Airborne who were to be among the first assault troops for Operation Overlord. It was not our first time at the former airfield because in 2017 we were invited to contribute to Greenham 100 Years of War and Peace a very poignant, exciting, and memorable spectacular staged over two evenings in September.

This, for our group, was a great opportunity to meet and talk with members of the public about why living history, has a place in today’s society. We Involve, we Inform, and we Educate, helping for example, schools, museum’s, and historic visitor destinations to present aspects of life on the nations Home Front as experienced by civilians, the emergency services, and the Armed Forces. Our credits are many and varied and include Heroes at Highclere, British Army Headquarters in Andover, The War and Peace Show in Kent, the Royal British Legion Annual Poppy Appeal, programmes for ITV and Channels 4 and 5 and Dame Vera Lynns 100th Birthday Celebration at the London Palladium. At the Palladium we were asked to form a Guard of Honour for Her Majesty the Queen in the absence of serving Military personnel.

In recent years, and drawing upon the WW2 history of Littlecote and the local area, re-enactors portraying the American 101st Airborne have staged several presentations to guests at the House and to a small number of visitors. 

This year we were booked to take part in many events to celebrate VE -DAY and VJ-DAY 75 Anniversaries including parading through the Royal Borough of Windsor however, from March we started to receive cancellation advisories affecting not just the celebrations in May, but also events through to October. Our diary is now empty so I know friends of mine are using the time to sort out, replace and clean kit, discuss opportunities and plan for events in 2021, polish up on presentation skills and service and maintain vehicles. For my part I am doing more research relevant to my main portrayal of a civilian policeman. I am also sourcing extra kit in readiness for next season. For many of us the hobby is addictive, and it can often be expensive, to the extent that our cupboards are full of uniforms and accessories enabling us to present different portrayals. Our younger members portray Evacuees and can do so at nominal cost for a period outfit, and our Home Guard units attract support from a mixed age range, including people of retirement age. Throughout the country, groups like ours continue to welcome new members and there are no barriers to joining up.

A living history re-enactor will be knowledgeable about the portrayal he or she is presenting and will be pleased to give details about their kit, their uniform, and their reasons for being part of the 1940s Community. Conversely what are known as Promenaders are folks who dress the part, but rarely have the knowledge or the commitment to be living historians. They like to remain hands off. In 2021 we can expect to have a full diary during the core event season between April and October however, we cannot predict how next year will unravel so until then we are busy talking about living history on social networks, through articles in the media and via You Tube and Zoom

If you are interested in finding out more do please get in touch,

Greenham 100 Years of War and Peace

Friends of the Forties

John Leete


22 June 2020


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