The First Person Impression
by Uffz. Gerhard Dreisbach,
3./J.R. 23, "von Winterfeldt"
First Person? What's that? How can I do it? These are just a few of the many questions that new recruits might ask in this hobby. Aside from the bewildering mass of new equipment, foreign commands, and endless searching through surplus junk, the "neues Helden" or "Fleisch" coming into the hobby is also faced with oldtimer windbags extolling the virtues of "first person." "First person" out of the trench? The car? The event? Into the food? Multiple personalities? Unfortunately, this arcane art is often assumed to arise instinctively in the reenactor, and few questions are asked or answered about it.
Basically, first person is the direct portrayal of a participant in the Great War. It is the mental or non-physical aspect of all of our impressions. Anyone can get into a uniform and run around a muddy field with a helmet and rifle, but having a good first person impression is more difficult to do. It is strongly related to character acting, or "living the part", and is truly "living history".
It isn't for everyone, but if even a few practice it well, the whole event can benefit dramatically, and everyone will have a better time. World War One is probably more suited to first person portrayal than any of the other eras of re-enacting. The trench, and the subterranean life of the soldiers in it, demands a very high level of living history to make it work, and if we don't try, then why are we here at all? To really achieve the feeling of having seen a small part of the Great War is what we are all here to do, and there is more to this than just the uniform and equipment. The ability to put himself and others "in-period" by using first person is one of the greatest skills that a reenactor can possess, and the following basic steps can help everyone, from the Alte Hase to the newest Grünschnabel (recruit)--give it a try.
Choose a Name
The first thing that you should do is choose your name. There are two different ways of doing this, either by using your own name, or creating a new one. Due to the different nationalities involved in the war, it is often impossible to use your own name, due to the inappropriateness of your name for the nationality you're portraying. Many people modify their own name, usually by adding to it.
Selecting a new name can be a lot of fun. You should first look at the types of people in the area that your unit was from. Most of the armies of the great war recruited units from particular areas of their nations, and certain names may be especially appropriate for the area that your unit is from. The second half of choosing a new name is to broadcast it to the other members of your unit, so that it is used. This may take some insistence on your part, but as long as you haven't chosen something impossible to say (or remember), it will eventually stick. Just remember to answer to it when called!
This is one of the areas that many impressions founder on. When were you born? The best way to find this is to look at the year that you are portraying, (or the beginning of the war if you are planning to stamp your birthdate on a tag) and subtract your age. You can use your own birthday, and a good idea to help your impression is to check the traditional German holidays, to see if it falls near a period holiday of some sort [found elsewhere in der Mann]. This can give you a good item for your impression, i.e. born the same day as the Kaiser [January 27], the week after a battle in 1870, the Diamond Jubilee, Ladysmith, during Fasching, etc.
This is important to soldiers of every war, and perhaps even more on the minds of soldiers in the muddy trenches of 1914-18. Where was it for your character? Again, look at where your unit is from. The towns and cities of the home district make great fodder for this. Choose one, and if possible, read all you can about it, even studying modern tour guides for pictures. What is the terrain like? The weather? The main industry? If you have some major reason why you don't quite fit or would be unusual, (like English-language tattoos in Germany) you will need a cover story as to how you got there. If you choose a hometown outside your unit's district, again, you'll need a cover story. Business? Wife's family is from the unit's area? Shanghaied? Unit reputation? Family/Friends already in the unit? Whatever the reason, you'll need it, but will enjoy making it.
Married? Bachelor? Rake? Who is waiting for you at home? How many brothers and sisters do you have? The size of families had decreased tremendously in Europe, especially Western Europe, since before 1850. It had become a major issue in France in 1890-1910, as the Generals worried about the "baby gap" between France and Germany. Some in the French military were even interested in stopping contraception, so that more future French soldiers could be born.
Again, study where your unit is from. Southern Germans (Roman Catholics especially) had large families. Urban French generally didn't. How are your parents? Grandparents? Is your spouse living? Is it your first spouse? Are all of your children alive? Many of the late Victorians/Edwardians married fairly late, usually in their 20's. This is especially true if you were educated. Uneducated and rural types might still get married younger, at age 18 or 20. It would be highly unlikely for anyone to get married at 16 or younger, except in Russia, Serbia, or points in-between. It was common for many Germans to put off marriage until after the obligatory two years service with the colors. Divorce was generally extremely difficult, and very uncommon. The education of your family is also something that you should decide, such as has your spouse attended any school?
Chances are, that this war thing is not what you do for a living, unless you were 18-20 at the start of the war. If you were, than what did your father do? The rank that you are will have a great affect on the occupation that you can pick. Officers for all armies were generally either professionals or men of means in civilian life. The enlisted ranks held a huge variety of people, and people from every walk of life were brought together in any unit. Again look at were your unit is from. If farming was common in your area, pick that, or if factories were common, pick worker.
Above all, pick something that you know something about, or study up on the occupation at the local library, so that you can discuss it. If you have a group of friends that all live together, perhaps you should pick something that would have brought you together as a group in civilian life, and invent a story about your enlisting together! Just make sure that your story of your career can hold water. No-one, then or now, can make a farm profitable on ½ acre of land,(legally) and there were precious few--read no--airmail pilots.
This would probably be tied to your job that you hold in civilian life. Almost all of the people in the various nations of Central and Western Europe could read and write, and most had attended secondary education, like a modern high school. Many were exceptionally well educated by the standards of the American Civil War era. Almost any impression that you choose from the Western or Central European nations should be able to read and write. In the east, the story is different. Russians and other eastern troops would be the opposite, often being illiterate. Germany had a very good nationwide schooling system, and so did Austria-Hungary, England, and France.
So is the person that you are portraying an easygoing old trench hog, or a snapping martinet? What kind of person are they? You don't have to be the same kind of person that you are in civilian life! Actually, the sort of person that you are might be partially determined by the rank that you are and the job that you have. A drill-corporal would very likely be a strutting martinet, while a supply officer might be a sneering thief. Remember though, that there would be far more good or normal people than the legendary "Col. Blimp" types, and that the SuperHero types were few.
What has happened so far in the War?
This is not absolutely necessary, but helpful. Find out the nominal dates that the event is set in, and look up the events of the day. What is the news of the war? What has happened to you or your family directly? Has your family lost anyone so far? Have your fortunes prospered or declined? What battle is going on? We are supposed to be historians, and a big part of living history is research. Look it up. Take some notes. It probably won't take very long, if you can keep from just reading all that you see.
Is there some area of the war that you are particularly interested in your real life? Transfer it over! If you like airplanes, look up what the latest models are that each side has out. If you like trucks or motorcycles, look up what the latest developments in them were, or how they were being used. If you like artillery or guns, study the newest things or most interesting new idea of the day. Maybe the Navy and the commerce raiders have your attention, or the war in the colonies. Look it up, and you can talk about it. If enough of us look these things up, it can lead to great discussions and a better experience for us all.
Yes, the favorite topic of lots of people now, was the favorite of a lot of people then. What do you want out of the war? What kind of politics did you believe in before the war and how have you changed? Remember that politics then in Europe were far different than politics in the United States now. Communism was a bold new idea, and one that swept through the armies and nations of Europe in 1917-18. There should be communist activists, monarchists, and even democracy activists in the armies of all nations. Defeatists, war hawks and people just wanting to survive would all be there as well. Do you believe in the goal of a greater Empire? What goal, for you, would make all the deaths worthwhile? Why did the war start in the first place?
Most of the soldiers in any army should believe in the system that they are fighting for, or the nation as an abstract idea. But there would also be many who would not believe, such as Communists, leftover Bonapartists, and other groups, especially by 1918.
We portray soldiers of many different nationalities and languages, and knowing how to speak the language of the nationality that you are portraying is a real plus. Learn it! Chances are, you'll have a fun time doing it, and will learn a lot more about the people that you are portraying. You'll also meet a lot of very fun people, and be able to read all that WWI printed matter that we all collect.
If you know something of the language, even a little bit, you can truly help the other side have a better event as well. This is true from the easiest impression on the field, the Americans, to the hardest to do right, the French or Russians. If the language of your nationality is English, study the dialect. Learn the period slang and the way that people talked then. Remember that "Black Adder" is a TV series, not reality, and try and study what the soldiers would have really said.
If you don't have the time or the inclination to study the language, then just try to speak with an accent, and softly. A German loudly speaking English isn't really right, and if you've spent all the money and all the time to get out in the field, why not do it right? We've all been guilty of doing this at times, and will do it again, whether in the heat of action or just exasperation. And of course, no-one can do this the whole event. Just using a few words of your language at the right time can make all the difference. Above all, if you do speak a foreign language, don't be elitist about it. Try to bring others into the conversations that you are having. You might be amazed at how quickly they start to pick up the language! Remember, we're all out here to have fun together, not to show off that Doctorate in French or German!
Just look it up and find out some basic facts about it. If you know what it's done so far, or did in the past, you can talk comfortably about it. You might also talk about some of the things that you've done in it, such as how you got up to the line this time, what that last fun trip to Etaples was like, or when the last time that you saw any cavalry in action was. You might also discuss something that has actually happened to your current unit, like an attack several years ago, a lorry going kaput on the way to the event, (the front) or someone doing something especially noteworthy, heinous, or atrocious. When talking about an old battle, remember that just because the history books say one side or the other won it, it didn't have to look that way from your point of view! You would also likely see only a small part of the battle anyway.
You should also know the names of your (reenactment) commanding officer and your ranking NCO [knowing the real unit CO's name wouldn't hurt either]. What do you think of them? What company do you belong to, and when did you join it? Why? Are you a volunteer or a conscript? How long are you signed up for? Where were you inducted into the unit? You should be able to come up with a short history of the company from the soldiers point of view, and the others in your unit should help with this. You should also be able to explain the different distinguishing points on your uniform, from bayonet knots to patches, to people from other units. What is the history behind all that stuff?
Last, but certainly not least, religion played and still does play an important part in many people's lives. You can stay with your own, or you can do an impression of someone else's. Keep in mind though, that if you are taking on some one else's, to make sure it is period (no Moonies existed then) and that you do it right. Your use of it may be limited to a religious medal or book, or may even involve daily ritual, like Indian or Jewish troops' religious dietary scruples. Whatever you decide to do, remember to do it right and have fun!
This article is not all encompassing, and can't be. But it may start you on the right direction, and hopefully, even help a little. Doing first person can bring our impressions to life, and lend a whole new dimension to our hobby. It is not easy, and in the beginning, you'll have a tendency to slip back into the current time. There will even be those who will purposely try to make you slip out of character. When you have mastered it though, you'll have a much better time with your Kameraden, and even with the enemy.
I wish to encourage every one to give first person a try. World War One is, again, perfect for it. We have few spectators, and none visible inside the trench lines. If we ever do, running candlelight tours through the trench, in which everyone is in first person except the guide, would be a wonderful way to show what we do. But since we are all in the trenches together at any event, we can give each other a better time by practicing first person in the trenches and bunkers of the front. If you give it a try, stick with it, and ask others that have done it for pointers and tips. The end result truly is Living History, which is, after all, what we're all here to do!