LONDON (Reuters) - For some people fascinated by World War One, the poppies and wreath-laying of Remembrance day services and the commemorative events of solemn anniversaries like this year’s centenary are not enough.
Lawrence Taylor, a 55-year old businessman, is one of them. He is part of a group of people across Britain who spend their weekends paying tribute to the Great War fallen.
Taylor acts as a senior non-commissioned officer in the Rifles Living History Society, a 35-strong group which stages displays and sometimes mock action at dozens of events in Britain and across the Channel in Belgium and France.
His interest in the “war to end all wars” began at school.
“I asked my headmaster, ‘why did we win World War One?’ And he said to me ‘Taylor, you stupid boy, because we had the better soldiers and the better generals,’ and that stuck with me,” he told Reuters.
Ten years ago he decided to join the Rifles society.
The group, whose day jobs range from lorry driver to construction manager and nurse, set up camp and get into character, ready to provide crowds with an idea of life on the Western front.
Attention to period detail extends right down to the way men talked to each other in the trenches.
“You have to watch (against) using modern terms like ‘guys’ - it’s blokes, chaps and chums,” says Taylor.
When not showing visitors around the traditional army bell tents that they erect at the camp, the group performs marching and gas-mask drills in front of visitors, as well as mounting displays of infantry tactics plus occasional demonstrations of skirmishes using blank ammunition.
Education is all part of the hobby, says technician Corin Watts, 43.
“A number of teachers have said to me they’re grateful to us for the way we put it across, because kids are able to see the stuff, talk to people who know something about it, and learn directly through access more perhaps than they could in a few lessons,” he said.
In a strange way too, the passing of the veterans has prompted more people to ask questions of what happened.
“When I was a kid in the 70s, it was very much mud, blood and horror. It was very much the dark side of history. There were still so many veterans around and they didn’t want to talk about it,” Watts said.
The silence of many of that generation means visitors at events often approach the group after displays and ask questions around what their relative’s experiences might have been, Watts said.
He reads diaries, memories, letters and poetry to help answer their questions.
“It was known as quite a literary war with people like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, famously, and at the other end of the spectrum you’ve got other ranks by which we mean non-officers, the serving soldiers,” said Watts.
Part of the appeal of World War One for him is the ability to read stories from different parts of society. Earlier conflicts, such as the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, produced some accounts from outside the officer class but these became more common in World War One.
One of his favourite accounts of the war, is Frank Richards’ ‘Old Soldiers Never Die’, a former coalminer’s tale of the four years he spent as a signalman in some of the most famous battles at Mons and Ypres.
For their displays, the Rifles are often able to use authentic equipment but modern practicalities sometimes force them to fall back on replicas.
Metal helmets for example, issued to soldiers from 1916 onwards, offered better protection than the cloth hats they formerly wore, or so thought the men braving the muddy trenches and artillery bombardments. But the helmets were lined with asbestos, a toxic material which has since been banned in Britain, so Taylor and his comrades opt for modified versions.
One hundred years ago, men were also about three inches shorter, meaning men of average build today require custom-made uniforms which cost upwards of eight hundred pounds.
These unofficial experts in the ways of the British Army - Taylor is familiar with 25 different War Office manuals from the time - can portray rifleman in any of the years between 1914 and 1918.
“We owe it to that generation to keep them in people’s memories,” said Taylor.
“You listen to those chaps who fought in World War One, they all said we don’t want medals, we don’t want to be called heroes, we just want to be remembered and it’s as simple as that.”
(This story accompanies a Wider Image photo feature here)
editing by Stephen Addison