Military Re-enacting

Page last updated 27th November 2013





If you are attracted to the re-enacting scene, the first thing to decide is whether you just want to wear a uniform to look smart at Forties dances, or whether you want to accurately portray a military character, either as an individual or part of a living history group. If it's the former, then near enough is probably good enough - nobody's going to pay too much attention to your kit in the dim light of a dance-hall. In which case, pick a uniform that you find appealing and is readily available in your size. But if serious historical re-enacting is your aim then accuracy and authenticity are essential. This means learning your subject thoroughly to give you a proper understanding of your chosen uniform, its badges and insignia. It's unsurprising that most serious re-enactors are also very keen amateur military historians and who therefore really know their stuff.


Assuming that you have chosen to follow the path of serious re-enacting, you must now decide what persona you will adopt. That is to say, in whose armed forces (British, US, etc), in which branch of service (Army, Navy, Air Force, etc), in what capacity (aircrew, infantry, etc), in what rank (which grade of officer or enlisted man), and so on, which will determine your uniform, badge and insignia requirements. These are all fundamental choices that will have to be made. Paragraphs 3 & 4 below may help to narrow the wide range of choices for you.


Choose a persona that is age-appropriate.  It is a fact of life that the majority of re-enactors are fairly senior in years, and often older than the military character they are portraying. However, most re-enactors do manage to put on a fairly convincing act. But there are limits. How many grey-haired RAF fighter pilots flew in the Battle of Britain? Not many, I venture, but there were certainly quite a number of older senior RAF officers who were qualified pilots from between the wars. How many sixty-year-old G.I.s stormed ashore on D-Day? None? But there certainly were senior commanders and staff officers of advanced years on the beaches. Pick a service and rank that fits with your physical appearance - age normally equates to seniority in the armed forces. Apart from the examples I have just given, the Royal Navy also had older experienced officers in frontline service throughout WW2. Or there is always the Home Guard if you are of a certain age and don't fancy being an officer. Unless you really do believe you can carry it off successfully, leave the Airborne or Commandos to the growing number of younger re-enactors on the scene. For example, I am not a young man anymore, so I deliberately chose to be a USAAF colonel because this fits with my apparent age. The normal pre-WW2 retirement age for US Army officers was sixty-four years, but this was relaxed during the war. So my age fits perfectly well with the armed service and rank that I chose to adopt.


Choose a persona consistent with your physical appearance. RAF fighter pilots simply did not sport beards during WW2, nor usually did paratroopers of the 101st Airborne. But Royal Navy personnel certainly did. If you have a beard then go as a naval officer. Or shave it off. Similarly, if you are very generously proportioned then you are unlikely to be very convincing kitted-out as a lean, mean fighting machine - be a staff officer instead, or a quartermaster. Not very warlike, perhaps, but 'they also serve . . .' as the saying goes.


Create a credible 'cover story' for your chosen persona and commit it to memory. Members of the public have an inconvenient habit of asking all manner of potentially embarrassing questions when they see you dressed in WW2 uniform, so you need to be mentally prepared with all the right answers. As an example, here is my own cover story:
"I am a Colonel in the USAAF, commanding the 100th Bomb Group at Thorpe Abbotts, Norfolk. I was born in 1880 (my replica ID Card states this) and was commissioned into the US Army Signal Corps in 1905. I was seconded to the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps after it was formed in 1907 and in 1913 I volunteered for pilot training and was awarded my Military Aviator badge in 1914. During WW1, in 1918, I served as an instructor at the First Air Depot in Colombey-les-Belles, France. I remained in what became the US Army Air Service between the wars, accumulating sufficient flying hours and experience to be eventually awarded my Command Pilot wings. As one of the early pioneering army fliers, I am permitted to wear my Military Aviator badge on the left breast pocket flap below my pilot wings. My medal ribbons include the Air Medal for flying in excess of five combat missions in the ETO, the WW1 Victory medal for service in France, the American Defense Service Medal for being on active duty in the US between 1939 and 1941, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal for service in the ETO."

This is a perfectly plausible, though entirely fictitious, cover-story that is firmly rooted in fact. All of this goes to explain, if I am asked, why I wear both the USAAF Command Pilot wings and the 1913 Military Aviator badge on my Class A jacket.


The question of wearing medal ribbons is a somewhat contentious one. Some maintain that if you didn't earn them then you shouldn't wear them. But another point of view suggests that, if the character you are portraying would have worn medal ribbons then, in the interests of authenticity, you should wear them too. I personally believe that, as long as the ribbons worn are consistent with the history of your character, then it is proper to do so. If wearing medal ribbons, do make sure that they are mounted in the correct order of precedence (check online guides) and that the reason for their award is understood. Similarly, the various badges and insignia worn should be absolutely correct and their meaning known. To avoid unfortunate embarrassment, and to correctly answer any questions asked by the public at Forties events, it is necessary to do some homework. We have added a bibliography page to this site which recommends specific books for those who wish to properly research their chosen uniform or costume. There are also some excellent websites that deal with the subject of medals and insignia (see our links page).