Battles like the real thing

It takes a lot of money to become a historical reenactor. A fully equipped mounted rifleman’s uniform, without a horse of course, costs between 5 and 6 thousand zlotys.

Every year, on the fields of Grunwald, which have not existed for centuries, Polish-Lithuanian and Teutonic knights fight against each other. They all look more realistic than those of 1410. It’s pretty much the same with reenactments of way more contemporary battles. Last year’ reenactment of the battles on the Warta River in 1939 brought together as many as 27 historical reenactment groups – in total: over 200 people, 4,000 projected cartridges and 80 different explosions.

It’s more than a passion. Reenactors aren’t actors who play one person today, and someone else tomorrow. They actually impersonate their predecessors, nay they try their best to reproduce the soldiers of the past and to do it perfectly. Everything is important: right uniform cut, proper shoes, regulation equipment. It can be assumed with all likelihood that a pre-war officer looking at those reconstructing the Polish Army of 1939, wouldn’t reproach them with anything. Perhaps only that their weapons, though real-looking, won’t shoot…

Riflemen from Grajewo

Groups reenacting pre-war, Polish troops operate practically all over the country, although most often they sprang up where infantry or cavalry regiments had their headquarters before WWII. One of them is Grajewo, a small town (22,000 inhabitants) situated near the border between Podlachia and Masuria. The 9th General Kazimierz Pułaski Mounted Rifles [9 Pułk Strzelców Konnych – 9 PSK] had been stationed there since May 1924. In September 1939 this regiment fought within the Podlaska Cavalry Brigade, gaining renown, i.a. entering Prussian territory. Having gone to battle in Podlachia, the 9 PSK retreated to Polissia, fought at Kock and eventually capitulated – together with other troops commanded by gen. Kleeberg – on October 6. The regiment was reconstituted as part of the Home Army and its soldiers (partisans, of course) fought a few battles against the Germans.

Our group has been in existence for almost 20 years – says Grzegorz Marciniak, leader of the 9th Mounted Rifles (historical) reenactment group. People interested in the town’s history came along, some of them were strolling with metal detectors before… We founded the Society of Friends of the 9 PSK, and then our group as its branch. And so we began to operate… – he recounts.

Today they are able to recreate not only the Mounted Rifles which constituted – along with the Uhlans and Cheavu-légers – a substantial part of the pre-war Polish cavalry units. If necessary, they also act as Home army soldiers or even as a motorized section of the German Wehrmacht. They have access to a considerable number of weapons although these are all non-shooting replicas. The Polish machine gun is “gasified” (it produces a shot-like sound thanks to a special construction that uses gas), shoots with a sonorous bass voice, while the replica of the hand machine gun has slightly higher tones. Both look genuine. Both look genuine. The “Germans” may drive a replica of the Kfz 13 armoured vehicle, i.e. the older, pre-war version, which nonetheless was in service that September.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE It’s not easy to acquire such equipment. Anyway, being a reenactor also takes a lot of money. – A fully equipped mounted rifleman’s uniform, without a horse of course, costs between 5 and 6 thousand zlotys – says Grzegorz Marciniak. The uniform alone it’s about 1200 zloty, the boots – officer’s boots, worn by officers of all arms including cavalrymen – can cost even more. And a soldier should have two sets of uniforms (field and service), while an officer should have even three, because he also needs a gala uniform. So the hobby tends to be on the expensive side…

Soldiers of the Border Protection Corps from Osowiec

The Osowiec fortress, or rather its remnants, is located no more than 24 kilometres east of Grajewo, near the road to Białystok. It was built in the second half of the 19th century by the Russians, it was supposed to protect them from an expected German attack from East Prussia. In 1914 it withstood for several months and even survived a gas attack, although the Russians didn’t have gas masks at their disposal at the time. It wasn’t until August 1915 that the army was evacuated, partially destroying the fortifications. During the inter-war period the 42nd Infantry Regiment was stationed here, it was also the seat of the KOP Central Non-Commissioned Officers School. In September 1939 the Germans simply bypassed Osowiec, whose garrison later withdrew.

The Border Protection Corps was a special unit. As much as the pre-war frontiers with Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania had been secured by the Border Guard, the Soviet frontier, since 1924, had been monitored specifically by the Border Protection Corps (Korpus Ochrony Pogranicza – KOP). Unlike most branches, KOP soldiers (as well as Chevau-légers for example) wore round hats. In September 1939 most KOP soldiers were fighting in the west, those who remained in the eastern watchtowers tried helplessly to hold back the Soviet onslaught. The KOP soldiers are reenacted by the Central Non-Commissioned Officers School reenactment group.

– I come from Białystok, but for a long time I have been interested in border units, both former and present – says Krzysztof Szepiel, leader of the group. – I started working in the Osowiec Fortification Society, I became a guide to the fortress in Osowiec, that’s why I learnt about the KOP Central Non-Commissioned Officers School. The idea of founding a reenactment group was picked up by a few friends – he says.

There are currently nine people in the group, who also have a replica of the 37 mm mle 1916 TRP cannon (a French cannon, initially used by Polish infantry units, later handed over to the KOP), which is little known in Poland; a hand machine gun (the same browning as the one owned by the 9 PSK reenactment group) and a grenade launcher. And a variety of rifles; in addition to the Mausers typical of the Polish Army, it also has e.g. French Berthiers. At first, the Polish Army had many types of armament – German, Austro-Hungarian, French – and then it gradually unified them, giving older types of weapons to the police and border services.

Of course, KOP soldiers from Osowiec can act as “ordinary” infantry, because when they put on field uniforms and helmets, they look the same as their colleagues reproducing soldiers of one of the infantry regiments. – But we try to play KOP wherever we can – says Krzysztof Szepiel.

War close up

What do reenactors actually do? The answer is seemingly simple: they take part in reenactments. Sometimes they are large, such as those recreating the Battle of Mława (which lasted from 1 to 3 September 1939). There are remains of Polish fortifications and combat shelters (commonly known as bunkers) to the north of this city. And that’s where the annual events took place. The Germans attacked, reinforced by a tank and an armoured car. The Polish infantry defended themselves, anti-tank guns fired, a tankette and a Polish armoured car showed up. A crowd of civilians, escorted by soldiers, left the village buildings. One house, then another, began to burn. And an airplane with black crosses on its wings started circling in the sky…

Of course, in the reality of 1939, the soldiers of the two opposing armies were not so close to each other, but here everything had to be visible to the hundreds of spectators gathered behind a special fence. The village houses were built quite provisionally, because they were to be destroyed; the plane didn’t look very much like a wartime one, though it was painted in protective paint. But the German grey PzKpfw II tank with white crosses on the turret looked real, as did the Polish armoured car model 34. The soldiers of both sides looked great, and since it is usually warm in the first days of September, the reenactors also looked tired with battle fatigue…

In Warsaw’s Praga-South, on Grochowska st. at the junction with Międzyborska st., the defence against the German attack in THAT September was reconstructed a few years ago. The reconstruction site was surrounded by a large crowd of people. You couldn’t see much, because when the Wehrmacht attacked from somewhere near the Wiatraczna roundabout, the whole area was sometimes enveloped in a huge cloud of smoke from the explosions. Those standing against the wall of the building were startled by a bass rattle coming from above – apparently a heavy machine gun had been placed in one of the windows. From a distance you could see the indistinct silhouettes of running soldiers, flashes of explosions, shots were heard. Finally, the spectacle ended and the spectators dispersed, commenting vividly on what they had seen and heard…

This is what reenactments, or rather historical staging, look like, because what is shown in them is not exactly the same as what happened years ago. Such an event usually lasts no more than an hour, otherwise the spectators will get bored; the events of a few consecutive days are thus heavily “compressed”. And while you can create “real” trenches somewhere in the fields, you can’t cover up all the signs or remove satellite dishes or road signs in the city. But viewers forgive such shortcomings, because everything is conventional anyway...

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In turn, the film will not forgive the lack of proper “characterization” of the streets, and reenactors willingly act in films. For directors, they are ideal candidates for something more than extras, because although they are not always perfect in scenes where something needs to be said, at least one or two sentences – after all, they are not actors – actors would have to learn a lot to play the scenes properly reloading weapons, aiming and shooting. And the film gives the reenactors an opportunity to earn money. It's not a lot of money, but both parties are satisfied; providing unprepared extras with uniforms and weapons would probably be even more expensive than hiring reenactors. And if the reenactment group also has machine guns or cannons, their earnings will be higher.

In fact, a large armoured unit could be assembled in Poland. Let’s have a look at the vehicles from the beginning of WWII. There is one Polish 7 TP – partly built from real parts, by the way. There are Polish tankettes and armoured cars of various types. There are tanks and German cars. Even Soviet cars have recently appeared, something that was sorely lacking before. Although they have to be transported to the reconstruction site by tow trucks, they drive without any problems and even shoot if necessary. For the moment, as far as September 1939 is concerned, the air and sea battles cannot be reconstructed.

How do you become a reenactor?

First of all – you have to really want it and be aware that this is a costly activity and by no means a holiday one. Today’s military uniforms are above all comfortable and suitable for both hot and cold seasons. Admittedly, those pre-war uniforms weren’t as colourful as 30 years earlier (in the First World War the French went to the front in dark blue jackets and red trousers…), but they were usually made of cloth so they warm you up in the summer. Calf-length boots can also be troublesome. The reenactment itself can last a good few hours, just as taking part in the filming…

On you can search for uniforms. The Polish Battledress, model 1936, costs about PLN 600, riding breeches (trousers) are more expensive, as you have to pay over PLN 700 for them. It is possible to find pre-war style uniforms of the Internal Security Corps from 1945-1965, but they have to be remade. The belt happens to be cheaper, ca. 100 zlotys, but you have to spend three times as much for cartridge cases. There is no problem finding weapons. We should buy a Mauser-like rifle on the spot for 849 zlotys. A KOP-used Berthier is way more expensive as it is less common – up to 3000 zlotys.

But the best idea, instead of browsing through Allegro or OLX, is to get in touch with a selected reenactment group. Its experienced members will suggest what and where to look. It will be better, which doesn’t mean cheaper.

But if you’re interested – it’s worth the cost.

– Piotr Kościński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kościński
Main photo: Reenactors from Osowiec at their gun during the staging of "Vilnius 1939 in Suwałki" in September 2022. Photo: author's archive
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