THE RED Army infantrymen peered from the trenches at US Civil War riflemen digging in. A Roman legionnaire trudged across the battlefield to the portable lavatories.
Such was the surreal collision of historical eras yesterday as "warriors" arrived in the grounds of a Northamptonshire country home for the world's biggest gathering of re-enactment enthusiasts. More than 3,000 knights, medieval archers, Victorian troopers and Allied squaddies will clank, twang, rattle and boom their way through a series of military set-pieces this weekend in search of the perfect recreation of the past.
The event, History in Action, has been organised by English Heritage at Kirby Hall, near Corby, to showcase Britain's status as a world leader in historical re-enactment to thousands of visitors. Some 30,000 Britons spend their weekends impersonating their ancestors as members of an estimated 500 re-enactment societies. An English Heritage spokesman said: "This is a festival of history. It will give both participants and the public the best possible glimpse of how our forebears lived and fought."
As assorted Vikings and Boer War soldiers took their places among a cast spanning two millennia, participants underlined their commitment to authenticity with almost evangelical zeal. Edwin Field, an undertaker from Walsall, West Midlands, was resplendent in his pith helmet and red tunic as a member of the British Army's Diehard Company from the first Zulu War. He said: "There is no room for mass-produced fakes. It has to be as authentic as possible, we even make our own dies to cast the original buttons because they can't found anywhere else.
"If we go to a museum to display the uniforms for example, they have to be 100 per cent accurate - right down to the labels inside. We are passing on knowledge of the past, so it has to be correct."
Joined by colleagues from Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and America, re-enactment enthusisasts represent a growth sector in the heritage industry.
The most respected groups, such as the Sealed Knot, which recreates the English Civil War, are in demand from film makers and television to act as extras and historical advisers. Fees for appearances, which can range from a few hundred pounds to six- figure sums, are ploughed back into research into costumes and weaponry as well as producing new replica equipment.
The National Association of Re-enactment Societies, which operates from a PO box in Swindon, has added to the air of professionalism around historical pageantry by running a website that offers advice on contracts and health and safety legislation.
But most re-enactment enthusiasts consider themselves as more than mere custodians of their adopted period - a fact shown by the painstaking detail with which their set-piece battles are reconstructed. Among the 14 skirmishes planned this weekend will be a return to the Battle of Cedar Creek from the American Civil War in 1864.
One organiser said: "We might not be shooting real bullets but it is a military operation in terms of the precision. …