One weekend as a Poilu, one day as a Canonnier with the 338ème Régiment, author James Vance takes part in two re-enactment events in France that give him goose bumps and memories that will last forever…
To live in France is the fulfilment of a dream; to partake in French life adds an extra ingredient to the potage du bien-être. Twelve years ago, I crossed the channel to pursue a latent ambition in the tranquillity of the Limousin – an ideal location to build my credentials as a writer of historical fiction. Striving towards that goal drew me to innumerable locations where I could research the material I required for my novels and find survivors who were still able to recall their experiences of living through the occupation of WWII. Visits to Oradour-sur-Glane and to the Musée de la Résistance in Limoges and in Montauban were of special significance. In fact, several visits were necessary to explore the amount of information they had accumulated. Les Archives Départementales at Montauban also provided a valuable insight into the dark years of that period.
Of course, 2014 focussed on the centenary commemoration of The Great War and, through the connections I had established whilst trekking through remote areas of the Creuse, the Corrèze and Haute Vienne, I learned about the Fresque Historique at Bridiers. This ‘pageant’, depicting life in the Creuse department from 1900 to 1925, was scheduled to take place during the first weekend in August. Following enquiries at La Souterraine, my son and I enrolled as actors (along with about 500 other French, British and German participants), not realising the enormity and impact of this spectacular event.
First meeting at Bridiers
The director, Jean-Noël Pinaud assigned to my son and me the role of a poilu, a French infantry soldier, one of many who were mobilised at La Caserne in Magnac Laval. My son also took on the role of Raoul Villain, the assassin who, a few days before France went to war, shot Jean Jaurès, a French politician and pacifist during a meeting at the Café Le Croissant in Montmartre in Paris.
Our poilu group with German soldiers
To be involved in the re-enactment of the battle of Verdun sent shivers coursing throughout my body. Though expertly choreographed with gunfire, explosions and the sounds of warfare, it was still difficult to imagine the fearsome nightmare the troops must have endured in that dreadful conflict. The three performances during that first weekend in August will live in my memory forever.
Sadly, being involved in the tableaux, one is unable to see the full production and must rely on photos and videos posted later on the internet to appreciate the amazing spectacle witnessed by packed audiences (The Fresque Bridiers Facebook page helped).
Having recovered from the Bridiers experience, we volunteered to partake in a mini evening spectacular on a similar theme at Magnac Laval in September. Staged at La Caserne, the event portrayed the mobilisation of the 338ème Régiment in August 1914.
La Caserne, Magnac Laval
On this occasion, my son and I played the part of canonniers, gunners in charge of cannon. On 28th August 1914, in one of the first major confrontations with the enemy, more than 2400 soldiers, 600 of which were recruited at Magnac Laval, lay massacred by German machine guns in the cornfields of Morhange in the commune of Moselle. Taking part in a re-enactment that depicted the conscription, departure and annihilation of those soldiers brought a touch of solemnity to an otherwise spectacular event to commemorate the centenary of WWI.
Canonniers du 338ème Régiment
Although only a few British actors participated in this unique event at Magnac Laval, I believe the interest created by both spectaculars will encourage further involvement next year, when similar productions will celebrate the seventh decade since the end of WWII.
Several rehearsals preceded the weekend event at Bridiers whereas at Magnac Laval, only the morning and afternoon (apart from a two-hour interruption by a thunderstorm) allowed time to practise before the evening performance. Participation provided a wonderful opportunity to immerse oneself in the local community and establish new contacts and friendships. Despite the inevitable language difficulties, a party spirit existed amongst all the actors and support staff as everyone shared food and drink in their appointed groups. The attention to detail and extraordinary effort by the costume makers, the set designers, planners and all those involved behind the scenes each night deserved the enthusiastic reviews that followed each performance. The organisation and professionalism displayed throughout this amazing adventure was especially impressive; I look forward to taking part again in 2015.
James R. Vance, Resident of Haute Vienne, Author of historical fiction novels about the French Résistance in the Limousin region during the Second World War. Jamesvanceauthor.wix.com/awesomefiction