Every year some members of the 10th Essex make the trip across the pond to Newville, Pennsylvania for a weekend of WW1 living history.
Carl, Kieran and I arrived on site Wednesday evening where we were plied with all manner of curious fruit style beers, this was to signal the arrival of the 10th Essex with our friends, the Borders, at the 100-acre site in rural Pennsylvania.
After a day of trench repairs and an introduction to the greatest fast food phenomenon on the eastern seaboard that is Sheetz we started to get ourselves into kit. That evening was spent on a windy and cold hillside at the Officers mess with our American friends. There was plenty of jokes and laughter, including asking me to give a blessing for the food. I said no as I would turn into a pillar of salt… I then started… and the glass shattered on thelanterns… literally.
Friday swung round and it was now officially incredibly cold. It didn’t get above freezing all day and much of the evening would be spent in -5 Celsius (22f). The Borders had now fully arrived with a strength approaching 30 men. Mitch would keep his rank as Colour Sgt and Shadow me in my Newville roll as Company Sgt Major, something I was both looking forward to and ever so slightly nervous about. Kieran operated as a Scout for the entire company with his battle buddy Benjamin Gottlieb. NCO meetings were had, new guy training conducted, Drill took place and the air was getting colder as we readied to fall in for action to start.
I stood in front of a company of men, near 200 in strength of mixed forces. Borders, PPCLI, RND, Australians, Black Watch, Gordon Highlanders, 27th AEF and a dozen smaller regiments. I bought the company to attention, formed to fours and we witnessed the promotion of Pte Julius to L.Cpl…. Julius is a Convalescence Cat who helps soldiers rehabilitate with cuddles.
Before heading into the lines we were treated to hot food ration from Dan Comes. I can’t stress how good this tastes and how much it adds to the entire event. The tiniest details like eating bully beef sandwiches in newspaper that has period current affairs on it. Such detail.
With no major assault planned for Friday night, Guy and the rest of the GWA command had set up a fantastic scenario representing us heading into the lines. Soldiers would have inoculations and health examinations conducted at the Aid Station by the awesome nurses’ team. From there the soldiers would move to the next station for ammunition distribution and dropping large packs. From there, into the front lines. Mitch and I walked the lines collecting the relevant combat strengths of each unit to deliver back to command. We would then join the line for a night repulsing pin prick attacks from the Germans, mortar strikes, and re-enforcement of the front. Benjamin and Kieran vanished into the night as Scouts to, we can only assume, spend the evening slitting throats and terrifying the enemy.
Border fire discipline was as tight as its noise discipline. I’m so proud to be a part of such a quality regiment. Any time the Germans got even close to our position, they would be repulsed by a withering hail of fire from well trained and expert hands.
We took the time out to stage a mass casualty for the nurses who only get to play the game if the soldiers play. The aid station is a massive part of Newville. Its where everything comes together with details and precision and a team of Nurses who are AMAZING at their job, interaction and being able to tackle literally anything you throw at them. The level of immersion here is so good it’s easy to get wrapped up in it all. Though when Niamh Miller Koch and I get together it can become a moment of us just coursing with laughter. Which is equally welcome!
Friday night in the block house was so cold, my tins of coke froze on the windowsill…
Saturday rolled around. Dan and Neil Hobbins sprang into action to cook us sliced bully beef and brown sauce sandwiches, bread butter and jam and enough tea to float a battleship. Today would be a hell of a day. Straight into the line, we knew something was up. The Allied forces were preparing a huge assault on the front and left (preceded by a rolling barrage with pyro charges) and the Borders would hold the Entire British line as a skeleton crew while the main thrust of the attack happened… The Germans had planned the same thing though… in the same place. What went down was chaos. The French assaulted but the American attack stalled centrally, Cpt Gormley ordered that Mitch and I lead a counterattack to the counterattack on the far-left flank. Borders springing into action seized the initiative and managed to relieve the forces and cover a withdrawal. Getting mixed up with Colonial French troops to whom issuing orders in English would not work… so Pidgin French was needed. The entire attack faltered and had to stop as a chap was genuinely injured, showing the dangers of jumping into holes with barbed wire. Requiring 14 stitches, he was okay and i’m sure will wear them as a badge of pride.
Next action came when while at the firing step we spotted the Muzzle of a Flame Thrower across the way. A weapon that can’t be used from range, we sniffed the Germans about to pull an assault. Borders stood to… for half an hour. Rifles in the ready position waiting as the smoke and gas came down. This is a credit to Tom Backus and his incredible group. Few others can do it for that long. When the German attack happened, what would take place was one of the most stand out moments I’ve ever had. We read the signs and dropped the trench block to force the Germans into one of the most perfectly executed traps. Locked in our trench with no escape, our men crossed the Tee and launched 30-40 of Ethan Burns and Glenn Guginos new ring pull style hand grenades (as opposed to the old strike a light ones, these are around 5 times faster). The enemy were showered with explosives. No one would have walked out of that at all. It was some of the most textbook work I’d seen.
Around 2pm, many of the Borders were taken out of the line for something Guy and I had been planning for nearly a year. One of the most ambitious raids ever attempted at Newville. We withdrew and 30 men were issued with Trench Raider discs loaded with phoney information in the event of capture. We took the troops back to the block house to train them up in the plan. Simple enough, 60 seconds to cross no man’s land under smoke bombardment, ten minutes to cause as much chaos as possible, take information and then get out. We blacked our faces like coal miners with charcoal and paint, dropped all but the essentials, carried pistols, clubs, knives and mills bombs.
We trained in German words to bark at prisoners, hand to hand combat for silent take downs. Heading back into the lines in silence, we remembered those that came before us. Those that had been trench raiders for real. One of the most terrifying jobs in the great war. High risk but high reward. Waiting by ‘Suicide Corner’ 30 of us stacked up under the moonlight. A flare arced high in the sky and left a scar. Tension rose as we waited and waited. At one point the Germans looked to be making a counterattack… We held our nerve and stuck to the plan.
The mortars went in and smoke drifted across the field. Another flare lit the place up like some kind of Satanic imagery, where thirty ruthless looking men crossed an 8th of a mile at pace. My heart was beating so fast it nearly came out my throat. The men quickly moved around the trench, dispatching the enemy silently, confusing them with German, launching mills bombs and causing abject terror.
After 7 minutes I pulled the plug, we had gathered a mountain of intelligence and paperwork and ran back across no man’s land. James Taub counted us back in. Every man out had returned. Such had been the success of the raid that when we got back, Taub said ‘that’s not us shooting, that’s the Germans… they are still shooting at each other they think you are still in there’.
We disrobed our raider discs and headed up to the aid station for the last and most chaotic casualty set of the night. Representing a raid having gone catastrophically wrong (Rather than right), everyone had been shot, or stabbed in some manner. People carried each other and did the best they could. The nurses here were incredible. We kept pushing it (both parties) until genuine tears were flowing. It just adds so much to it and really helps bring home quite how awful it had all been. An amazing experience.
After all this, we headed back into the lines and from there into the blockhouse for the last time.
It was here that my dear friend Alexander A. Falbo-Wild delivered me a pristine copy with map and overlay inserts of the 18th Division from the 1920’s. I can’t stress how over the moon I was with this.
And so, Newville had ended as quick as it started. The following day we were treated to an amazing tour around Gettysburg with James Taub and then a tour around the Valley Forge with James Bevan. Two absolute experts in their fields.
*Sounds of deflating into a chair and decompressing*. Whilst I write this and by the time I finish, my comrades Carl and Kieran will be touching down at Heathrow from one of the best Newville events I’ve done. I’d certainly say the most intense for sure.
Blimey. What a few days. If you read this far, fair cop to you! This took me an hour to write!
You can see more pictures from this event here – http://camcbluebirds.ca/newville-pennsylvania—2/newville-pennsylvannia–/?fbclid=IwAR2UFdUfDbLI8O5IedqHz1SZfrC_Rhx4g3Ba4firDQQwyBRgcF0iLkDKUEk