Blast from the Past
History Comes to Life on Czech Battlefields
“How many things apparently impossible have nevertheless been performed by resolute men who had no alternative but death.”
Words spoken by one of the great conquerors in human history, Napoleon Bonaparte. The Battle of Austerlitz, otherwise known as the Battle of the Three Emperors, was arguably his crowning achievement. Despite being outmanned and outgunned, Napoleon was able to defeat the Russian and Austrian armies, led by Emperor Alexander I and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II respectively.
Imagine the sight of a man leading an army of men, tens of thousands strong, into the heat of battle against the might of the Austrians and Russians. Fortunately for us, we don’t have to imagine anything, as history is brought to life throughout the year by a community of people that take part in battle reenactments across the country.
The battles of Austerlitz, White Mountain, and many others are recreated every year, with those attending getting a unique chance to enter a fully immersive bygone world. The re-enactments of the battles themselves can involve thousands of participants– with soldiers, officers on horseback, and weaponry that can include everything from muskets and .69 pistols to heavy artillery capable of firing 12lb cannons. Don’t worry, though, live ammunition isn’t used at all, but it still makes a rather large bang!
Away from the frontlines, those in attendance will also get to explore the encampments of each army. The actors never rest; even away from the battle itself, the re-enactments continue, and you can see how the soldiers spent their downtime, preparing for the battles to come. We got a chance to sit down with veteran performer Gary Stone, who has over thirty years’ experience in battle re-enactments across Europe.
According to Gary, while taking part in battle re-enactments is a lot of fun and very rewarding, it requires a big commitment. It can prove to be a costly hobby, with even basic attire and weaponry costing in excess of 10,000 Kc, depending on the period you are re-enacting.
Participants are also required to commit to several gatherings in the year leading up to selected events, with hours of practice going into training combat manoeuvres, positioning, and recognising commands.
Several “units” that can vary from 20 to 100 combatants participate in the re-enactments. These units are led by “officers” who are responsible for coordinating with event organisers, relaying information throughout the unit, organising unit gatherings, and dealing with logistics like travel and unit equipment.
These units are not just limited to your typical soldier with armour, a sword, and a shield. They can also include full cavalry units with a stable of horses to ride into the heart of the conflict, as well as fully functional artillery, capable of tearing down structures, being fired in the fields for all to witness.
The re-enactors themselves spend hours learning foreign-language military commands and how to respond on the battlefield, just to add that extra touch of authenticity. Soldiers march to the beat of a drum, with the sound of retreat blasted out from the brass in tow.
Not only do their movements have to be authentic, along with their battle attire and equipment, but even the encampments have to be historically accurate, with painstaking attention paid to their tents, bedding, and even the bags used to carry clothing. “I would never wash my battle gear,” Gary said. “Back then, battlewear was banged up and dirty with holes and scratches all over the place. Of course, all my underclothing would be clean, but everything else had to look worn to keep it authentic.”
Despite the huge commitment to the craft and the seriousness that comes from such a big undertaking, there is still room for plenty of fun. We asked Gary to recall some of the more light-hearted moments from his time on the battlefield.
“Seeing Napoleon fall flat on his face, trying to get onto his horse, has got to be up there. I also remember when a group of Germans woke up and decided to march from the campsite to the battlefield in full kit,” he said. “They were taking everything really seriously, with the rest of us eating McDonald’s and catching a bus to the location. Later that night, there was a group of Czech guys who decided to play a prank on the Germans, so they burst into song, with full band and all, at 02:00 to wake them up, hilarious.”
Battle re-enactments vary in period and in size, with multiple conflicts throughout history recreated annually in the Czech Republic. However, there are some events that are absolute must-sees on the re-enactment calendar every year.
Battle of White Mountain
For the area now known as the Czech Republic, 8 November 1620 is a day that changed the course of history. Bohemia was invaded by the combined armies of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, led by Charles Bonaventure de Longueval, Count of Bucquoy, and the German Catholic League under Johann Tserclaes. They went into battle against forces led by Christian of Anhalt and Count Jindřich Matyáš Thurn in what was the beginning of the infamous Thirty Years’ War.
In the battle – taking place at the modern-day Bila Hora – the Bohemians were defeated, with people forced to break away from nearly two centuries of Protestant rule, in favour of Roman Catholicism.
Every year, the re-enactment of the battle draws an ever-growing audience, with those in attendance given the chance to peruse through a replica market from the 17th century, observe training drills, explore army encampments, attend musical performances, and, of course, watch the big battle itself.
Next year will be an important one for the event, with the Battle of White Mountain set to celebrate its 400th anniversary.
Battle of the Three Emperors
The Battle of Austerlitz, otherwise known as the Battle of the Three Emperors, was perhaps Napoleon’s greatest conquest throughout the Napoleonic wars.
Every year, over 1,000 participants converge on Slavkov u Brna to recreate this famous battle, combining live artillery firing, cavalry formations, and movements with (of course) Napoleon Bonaparte taking centre stage; you can even take a tour of the nearby Slavkov Chateau led by Napoleon himself.
There is an abundance of traditional 19th-century fare, with revellers also getting the chance to join various live combat trainings and demonstrations throughout the weekend. The event is capped off with a military parade by the combatants and an impressive fireworks display over the town of Tvarožná.
Battle of Slivice
The Battle of Slivice was one of the final battles on the European front in World War Two. It saw Czech partisans and the Soviet Army take up arms to pin down the retreating German forces as they headed west. In the early hours of 12 May 1945, around 6,000 Germans were captured by the Soviet troops, along with a large number of vehicles.
Every year, the Hornické Muzeum organises a service honouring those who fought and died in the battle, along with an action-packed re-enactment that involves heavy military vehicles including various armoured tanks, off-road support vehicles, and mortars.
This event is supported by the Czech Armed Forces, with current military personnel participating in the on-field exchanges, taking authenticity to new heights!
By Ethan Paki
Photos by sarkafoto.info