A day in the life of a re-enactor – Fighting the Battle of Leipzig – 1813
I’m the Chirurgien aide-major on the left. On my right is a Grenadier a Pied of the Imperial Guard – Pavel. There’s been some discussion that perhaps I need a new nickname – instead of san-fatigue (tireless) – maybe La petite (The small) would be better.
But back to my day – which really started the day before – when our officers decided that we should get a look at the battle field – rather inconveniently located about 5 km from our bivouac site. So full dress on – and off we march.
The French army – at least the infantry portion – gathers in a large field about 1/3 of the way to the battle field itself to regroup. There are a lot of us – at least 2000 – representing several different nations – all fighting under the leadership of Napoleon. And boy – do we look good. Great uniforms, tight formations – we’re well-trained, well armed, and ready for battle.
We march to the battle field, drill in sections and then together, and finally march off again – clearing the way for others to get their chance at a look at the field.
On the march back, we finally get to see some of the enemy – it’s a group of Austrians on their way to the battle field – but that doesn’t stop us from mounting bayonets and charging. They mount bayonets and charge back! Such fun.
We disengage – and march on – back to our bivouac to be told – be ready to fight at 10:00 am tomorrow – but tonight you are free to drink and be merry. Right. For some it’s on to hours in the Rathskeller – for me it’s an early night. My stomach is seriously in knots.
10:00 AM (day of the battle) – We gather again at the bivouac site – we’ve eaten a good breakfast, and our support teams of vivandieres have prepared some slices of sausage for us to take with. As the Chirurgien Aide-Major (that’s Surgeon 2nd Class to you) – I prepare bandages in case the battle goes against us, and make sure I have plenty of water. Keeping the soldiers hydrated is one of my most important duties. And I practice amputations – besides putting on a bandage – as battle field doctors we’re more likely to have to cut off an arm or a leg then just about anything else.
10:45 AM – We march back to the ‘re-grouping’ area – and all the members of the troops fighting on the French side are assembled. Again – over 2000 strong – we’re looking good. No sign of any opponents yet – and that’s probably a good thing. I’m beginning to get nervous – and I’ve run out of water already. A fast trip to refill my bottles – then we’re off on our slow march to the battle field. Cheering crowds surround us en-route – and we feel like heroes. We’ve yet to lose a battle – are we perhaps feeling a bit too confident?
11:30 AM – We’re reached the battle field – and it is huge. There are people everywhere – all trying to get into position to watch the battle. I can’t imagine where you would have to sit to see everything – but then I spot a powered Paraglider – and I realize – that’s probably going to be the best view. Yup – he’s got a camera.
12:15 PM – We’re told to eat our lunch – and again – I’m out of water. 45 guys on a hot day – there’s a lot of water required. Another trip to re-fill my bottles – I end up at a local sports facility that’s been turned into a triage/hospital center by the local EMT guys. They have 6 beds ready, along with various other equipment. Issues may not be with the soldiers after all – there are 75,000 spectators expected – plus 6000 re-enactors – that’s a lot of potential for things to go wrong. And one of the beds is already occupied by a bystander – I’m hoping it’s just heat related.
12:35 PM – I’m back where my division of Marine de la Garde had been sitting – and they are gone. Along with my satchel filled with water bottles and bandages. And all the other 2000 members of the French Army. Now what? All that’s left where before there were dozens and dozens of troops is an empty field.
12:40 PM – I spot a troop heading for a break in the huge fences set up around the battle field proper. My troop has gone into position on the field. It’s like chess – everyone has a place to start – and I’m late! I run as best I can – the field is very rutted – and slip thru the opening onto the main battle field.
12:45 PM – How different it looks today – Everyone looks so similar and yet there are significant differences. Calvary rides here and there – I see Polish Lancers in formation to my left. But I need to find the Marine. Where did they go? There are at least a dozen cannons that I can see – and I’m just at the top quarter – the field seems to go on forever. On the far side there are smudges of silhouettes – is that enemy? If it is – there sure are a lot of them!
12:46 PM – I spot what looks like a familiar uniform and head in that direction – when I get close – I realize it’s a completely different unit. But then I hear I high-pitched whistle. Following the sound – its my chief – the Chirurgien Major! He’s seen me and waves madly. I move quickly into position – no time to waste. The battle is set to begin at 1:00 PM – and this is Germany – it might even start on time.
12:50 PM – The emperor is on the field! We hasten into position – he walks by – twice – greeting those of us he recognizes, and generally being encouraging. His entourage is huge – more generals and aides then I imaged. And he’s afoot – I wonder if he’ll mount up later – or run the battle from the background. We shall see. But meanwhile – we give him 3 cheers – and I have to say – seeing him did make me feel better.
12:55 PM – Our troop is looking good. We’re right near the line of spectators – kept off the field by heavy fences set up all around. I spot non-combatants – those are the women and older soldiers who support the troops lined up on our side of the fence. We’re positioned right next to an artillery set-up – hope they don’t fire the cannon while we’re this close. It’s going to be seriously noisy.
1:00 PM – German timing – the Royal Horse artillery posed on the far side of the battle field – looking so small as to be more of a smudge than men – start firing off their rockets. Historically these didn’t work so well – mostly noise, little damage. And they haven’t improved the design. A lot of noise – but not much else.
1:15 PM – finally we’re called into battle. Our first and most important task – get about half way across the battle field and build a bridge over the ‘river’. It’s really more of a stream – but still – we need to get the bridge built so that our army can cross to capture the town on the opposite side. It’s about a km run – over rutted terrain – into the face of the enemy.
1:25 PM – we’re in position – 1/2 of the Marines guard the position from attack – we can see that there are significant troops lined up on the far side of the battle field – and 1/2 start to build the bridge. They get the logs into position, and then realize that during the night someone made off with the nails and hammers and more importantly – the planks – that had been placed near the location of the bridge. What to do – without the bridge – our troops can’t get across!
1:30 PM – Bridge building continues – and the search is on from nails, hammers, and planks. Meanwhile – one of our men has been hit by a stray bullet – probably from the snipers on the far side of the field – and we are called on to amputate his leg.
1:33 PM – we’re fast – Aprons on (don’t want to get our uniforms dirty), equipment ready – we bring the patient nearer to the spectators so that they can get a good view. 3 guys hold him down while he bites on a piece of wood (more to shut him up then to relieve the pain – if he gets much noisier the team holding him down have been told to hit him hard in the head. The noise is annoying the doctors). Personally I think the thrashing is most annoying. I guess a musket ball in the leg must really hurt.
1:35 PM – We’ve made the first cut – after putting on the tourniquets (couldn’t get it quite tight enough – but hey – it’s only the first patient – we’ll do better next time), the Chirurgien Major takes his scalpel and cuts away the flesh – leaving the bone exposed.
1:36 PM – I hand him the saw – and hold the leg steady against the thrashing of the patient. He saws thru the leg – then hands me the part of the leg with the foot attached to show the spectators! I hold it above my head – then toss it to the ground to help cap the wound.
1:37 PM – Perfect. Such a good job that the patient can get up and hobble away.
1:40 PM – Bridge is finally done – and we’re ordered into the village to protect the villagers. So we re-group – check on the patient (he’s fine – and back on the line) – and then march into the village. In the village are some members of a Russian Calvary unit whose horses were refused entry to the re-enactment – no papers. So they are afoot – and not that happy about it. But that’s not our problem – our problem is to protect the village. We form up along the village cemetery – to our left is another battalion of French troops – but ahead of us appears the enemy. And they are endless.
2:00 PM – After firing in volleys into the on-coming troops – our Calvary appears to help us. The troops of the enemy retreat – the Calvary rides away – and the troops re-appear. Fighting is hot and heavy! Suddenly their Calvary appears. The infantry men to our left form squares – which protects them. We’re standing in the cemetery – not good ground for Calvary – so they don’t bother us.
2:10 PM – Our Calvary comes back – a Calvary fight ensues – with quite a lot of close combat – and on the part of the Polish Lancers – some stabbing. No one falls off a horse though – they are all excellent riders. There are moments of quiet – followed by periods of so much noise it’s hard to think – let alone hear the commands of our leader.
2:30 PM – Fighting continues hot and heavy. We march out to attempt to take more of the field – and are forced back by heavy artillery fire. But first we take our first real injury. When you fire the musket, you must keep your mouth open to equalize the pressure – one of our soldiers forgets to do that – and is complaining that he can’t hear. We help him equalize the pressure – he eventually returns to the line.
2:45 PM – We retreat back into the village – and re-group. Our orders have changed – we’re to abandon the village – and move to protect another bridge to our far left. At that moment, the enemy mounts a bayonet charge against the remaining forces protecting the village. There’s nothing we can do – so we march out in orderly fashion, abandoning the village and the villagers. They are forced to flee – waving white flags and heading for the bridges.
2:50 PM – Looking back I realize that the village buildings are now ablaze. The fresh thatch must have been easy to light. I feel a bit bad for the villagers – but they are no longer our problem.
3:15 PM – we’ve maneuvered out way to our new position – and are defending the bridge at our back. We make a charge – take some causalities – as we pull back – our officer tells myself and the Chef doctor to go see to the wounded. We patch as best we can – and fall back. Another rally – another group of casualties. We’re in trouble.
3:30 PM – Our backs are to the bridge – but we can’t continue to hold that ground. Under orders, we re-group again and cross the bridge – determined to hold that side.
3:31 PM – I realize that we’ve left a soldier behind – and the officer gestures to me to take care of him. I run to his side, figure out where he’s been injured – and put on a bandage – accompanied by significant yelling and screaming by the wounded solider – all to the delight of the onlookers.
3:40 PM – We join up with a large group of Imperial Guard forces, and there’s a change in leadership. Our new leader is the head of the Guard – he’s on horseback – and he’s riding back and forth behind our lines getting us into position to defend the ground we gained earlier in the day. It’s not looking good, though.
3:45 PM – The King’s Foreign Legion is attempting to take our bridge – but we’re ready for them. 1/2 of our company is hidden from their view to our left – when they cross the bridge they are caught in a wicked cross-fire.
3:50 PM – Despite our excellent tactics, the enemy has crossed the bridge – and we’re forced further back. Now the commander of the entire French troop is trying to rally us and get us to stand firm.
3:55 PM – We’re being forced further and further back onto our original part of the field – between the soldiers coming in endless waves and the Calvary forays – we are unable to stand firm.
4:00 PM – The officers call for a cease-fire. There is still random shots being fired as soldiers discharge their weapons. As doctors, we tend to any wounded, adjusting bandages as needed. We also give all the soldiers a drink. Dehydration is a potentially huge problems as the day has gotten warmer and warmer. I’m officially out of water.
4:05 PM – The wounded requiring professional treatment are identified – there’s one soldier with 4 broken ribs – apparently another soldier got carried away and struck him on the side with the butt end of a musket, and there’s a face wound. A re-enactor with no experience held his musket too close to his face (its supposed to be on your shoulder), and the recoil struck his eye glasses, causing a superficial face wound.
4:25 PM – We get back into line, march up to the rows of spectators and are applauded and cheered. Now we must march all the way back to the bivouac. That’s almost 8 km from our present location – and we are extremely tired.
5:00 PM – We are about 2/3rd of the way home when one of our soldiers drops from dehydration and heat prostration. As the Doctors, we remove his backpack, gibarne (for carrying black-powder cartridges), and take his musket. We find him water from another group of soldiers, and eventually get his body temperature back to normal.
5:30 PM – Back at camp – everyone removes uniform pieces, gets a beer, and in the case of our commanding officer – and his sergeant – takes off their shoes to soak their sore feet. We trade battle stories – and agree that it was probably the best battle ever.
Man – did we have fun!