WAR AND PEACE SHOW
I went to this year’s War & Peace Show at Beltring in Kent with a friend of mine, Peter Caddick-Adams, an academic from the Defence Academy at Shrivenham and also, incidentally, one of the best battlefield tour guides in the business. He had been some years before, but not since, but for me, it was the first time to experience this fascinating but bizarre event.
For those not in the know, it is like a militaria Glastonbury Festival, with huge fields covered with stalls and stands selling every conceivable item of Second World War equipment, and then, away in a further field, a large camp for re-enactors. The name is, of course, a misnomer – it’s war, not peace, that brings hundreds of thousands through the gates. It’s military porn at its most unsubtle.
We went on the first day, and already it was heaving with people. Traders had come from all parts of Europe to sell their wares. Peter had warned me that it was very easy to end up spending a small fortune on various war-time nick-knacks and I soon understood why. I saw one man haggling over the price of a near-mint condition US coal-scuttle helmet – which the trader was trying to sell for £140. Not long after, at a different stall, we saw a like-for-like helmet priced at £15. On my shopping list was an Aldis telescopic sight used by British snipers in both world wars. The main character in my new series of novels is not a sniper but a fine shot, and carries with him such a sight given to him by his father – a veteran of the First World War – some years before. My hero – Jack Tanner – has had his Enfield Rifle specially adapted to carry the sight. It’s rarely used by him, but does also double up as a telescope; a useful bit of kit to have around. I admit I had absolutely no idea how much such a thing would cost but had in mind around £30-£40. Well, needless to say, I found one, and then another, both with their original wooden cases; indeed, there was even an Enfield No.4 with a scope already mounted – but at £1,200 for the cheapest, I kept my wallet firmly in my pocket.
At one point I was browsing a book stall and turned only to find myself face to face with an Allgemeine-SS officer carefully peeling off one of his gloves so that he could better look at a book. If it was a slightly unnerving experience to see men in Nazi – and other – uniforms walking around the stalls, it was even stranger to see quite so many in the re-enactors section. I’m not sure I really understand why someone would want to spend their weekend playing at soldiers, but I suppose it’s an extension of childhood games with toy rifles. But I certainly don’t see why anyone would want to dress up and pretend to be a member of the Waffen-SS. Yet, it seems there are many. Strolling through the re-enactors encampment were manned Tiger tanks, half-track, machine gun posts and trucks and other vehicles. At each site could be found a number of men fully kitted out – to the tiniest detail – in full German kit.
I learnt a lot. For example, for a while I had been trying to find out – for my novel – how many troops could fit in a standard German Opel Blitz truck. One brief question to the re-enactors gave me my answer – sixteen, as a rule. That was good enough for me. And will I go back again? Yes, of course. It’s a strange day out, but a guiltily pleasurable one too.
WAR AND PEACE SHOW