An American Officer at Fortress Wales Reenactments
On May 2, 2011, the ground opened up in southern Wales, and from this fissure issued forth a multitude of fierce warriors from the last two millennia of world history. Or, so it seemed to me, as I wandered Margam Park near Port Talbot for “Fortress Wales,” the largest annual gathering of military reenactors in Wales. Beneath a misty morning sky, I witnessed Roman legionnaires, Celtic warriors, Vikings, Welsh longbowmen, medieval knights, hardened veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, British and German infantrymen from both world wars, soldiers of the Falkland War, and many others, showing off their gear and martial skills to more than 5,000 delighted visitors.
Alison Lloyd, who is one of the event’s coordinators on the Margam Park staff, shared my sense of time-displacement. “I was really pleased with how this year’s event went,” she said. “We were lucky enough to have several new groups who came along. These included the ‘Wessex Historical Household,’ who concentrated on the Tudor period. The event, being multi-period, has always proven popular with our visitors. It really is like stepping back through time!”
As the lone, lucky American military servicemember stationed in Wales, I am sometimes called upon to represent the U.S. government at special events. This duty is rarely an unhappy one and never has this proven more true than when I attended Fortress Wales.
After I delivered the event’s opening remarks, a young “American GI” from World War II chauffeured me through the park in a jeep. The GI’s name is Adam Cope, and he has been attending reenactment events since he was a kid. Adam gave me a tour of the castle and abbey ruins at Margam Park, and we watched a mock World War II battle between attacking German infantry and defending British troops. (Predictably perhaps, the German attack was defeated in short order.)
Late in the morning, I struck out on my own, walking through various camps and talking to reenactors. It soon became clear to me that these Brits are more than actors; they are “living historians.” They know a great deal about the warriors as whom they are attired, as well as about the wars in which such warriors had fought. And all had stories to tell.
Barry Ward, who belongs to the “Glamorgan Home Guard,” told me one story that I found especially fascinating, perhaps because my own country has never been seriously threatened with invasion. Barry showed me enlarged photos of a secret operations base once utilized by an auxiliary unit of the UK’s Home Guard during World War II. This “base” had been really just a small, concealed underground bunker, and Barry told me that it had only recently been re-discovered by a local farmer. When operational, it had included an escape tunnel, food and water stores, communications equipment, and a cache of weapons, ammo, and explosives. Barry also said that the small “patrol” of locals assigned to it had been specially trained as spies, saboteurs, and assassins. In the event of a German invasion, such covert cells would have activated and formed the basis of resistance across all of Britain.
Most surprising to me were the number of American soldiers who had seemingly travelled across an ocean and time to be there. Not only was there a large encampment of Union and Confederate soldiers, but I saw several units of “American GIs” from the Second World War. The British clearly care about the conflicts of their former colonists across the sea.
For me, the most vivid mock battle was conducted by an ”American” group, the Confederate and Union Reenactment Society. Union troops held the high ground, and as the Confederates charged up the wooded, rocky terrain, it seemed to me as if I were watching the Battle of Little Big Top at Gettysburg. For a moment, I could actually picture Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the famed 20th Maine in their dirty and bloody Union uniforms, nearly out of ammunition, surrounded by smoke and fire and the screams of wounded men. At any time, it seemed, the Union troops were going to fix bayonets and charge and drive off the attacking Confederates, thus saving the Union left, Union victory at Gettysburg, and perhaps even, Union victory in the war. Instead, this image quickly dissipated when the defending Union troops were overrun by the sharpshooting Confederates.
Wrong battle, I thought.
In the afternoon, the clouds scattered, and the sun shone. I spent much of this time in the Confederate and Union camps talking to the “living historians” there. Two of these historians were Phil “Buck” Day, who is chairman of the Wales chapter of the Confederate and Union Reenactment Society, and his lovely wife, Von. Buck is also one of the organizers of the event, which he proudly called “the best event in Wales.”
The day concluded with the event’s greatest spectacle, a “Fantasy Battle.” This mock battle involved living historians from every group fighting it out in the main arena. Albeit anachronistic to the point of absurdity, it was sheer fun to watch—certainly the highlight of my day. During this wild melee, modern British soldiers fought Roman legionnaires, Cromwell’s Puritans fought medieval knights, American GIs fought Welsh bowman, and so on. Fittingly for such close-quarters combat, a ferocious Viking was the last man standing—though his victory probably owed less to his skills as a warrior than to his stubborn refusal to die when dealt seemingly fatal blows. On the other hand, perhaps this amateur historian was just being true to his character’s berserker rage.
I missed the second day of the event, but it is easy for me to imagine how it must have ended, after the last visitor had gone home. The earth must have once again opened up, and the hundreds of warriors from ages past, now battle-weary, must have disappeared at twilight like fairy magic into the lush Welsh hills, not to gather again into one great host—at least not until next year’s Fortress Wales!
About the Author
Major Douglas A. Pryer is the senior intelligence officer for the 14th Signal Regiment (UK) in Wales, where he lives with his wife, Bhabinder, and two children, Leo and Brooke. His writings have been honored with the Command and General Staff College (CGSC) 2009 Birrer-Brookes Award and 2009 Arter-Darby Award; first place in CGSC’s Douglas MacArthur leadership essay competition; the 2010 Combined Arms Center General William E. DePuy Writing Competition; and the 2010 Army Profession Military Ethic Writing Competition (Top Essay/Monograph). His book, The Fight for the High Ground: The U.S. Army and Interrrogation during Operation Iraqi Freedom, May 2003 – April 2004, is the first to be published by the CGSC Foundation Press.
About the Photographers
ArmchairGeneral.com gratefully acknowledges the three photographers who provided images for this article: Barry Ward of the Glamorgan Home Guard, Royston Leonard, and Ade Pitman.