Losing Once Again: Reenacting the Battle of Als, June 29th, 2014
Throughout 2014, the 150th anniversary of the Danish-Prussian War of 1864 is being marked on many levels in Denmark. In Sønderborg, near the present-day Danish/German border, the Day of the Dybbøl battle (18 April) was devoted to the official commemoration (see this gallery), while a number of more popular and touristic activities had been concentrated on the last weekend of June, the so-called ‘1864 Days’. Historically, this was the time of the Battle of Als, the second major defeat for the Danes (after Dybbøl) in which the Prussian army launched a surprise night attack on the Danish forces fortified on the island of Als. Crossing the Sound of Als in small boats, the Prussians shattered the last line of the Danish defences, effectively ending the 1864 War and reducing the Danish territory by one-third and its population by two-fifths.
In 2014, project participants Thomas Pedersen and Mads Daugbjerg took part in the reenactment of the Battle of Als, both in Danish uniform. The night battle was restaged on the exact (dark) hour of the attack 150th years ago, with more than 200 historical reenactors and around 2,500 spectators who had skipped their sleep to witness the carnage. As usual at such events, the result – Danish defeat, Prussian victory – was known in advance, providing everyone with a reflective hindsight that their historical counterparts would of course not have had. Still, the darkness, morning fog and artillery smoke made the battlefield experience into a confusing and thrilling affair in which participants just might have caught a glimpse of what it would have felt like in the ranks of 1864.
Over the rest of the summer weekend, a large soldier camp set up nearby constituted a ‘historical’ context for friendly and non-aggressive engagements between Danish and foreign reenactors (participants had come from Germany, Norway, Czech Republic and a single one all the way from Australia) and the visiting public. Storytelling sessions, sewing workshops, 1864 medical workshops and weapons and artillery demonstrations were just some of the offers at hand. A joint march through the packed summer streets of Sønderborg was undertaken by the troops of both sides, combined with a commemoration concert outside the Sønderborg Castle performed by the regional military brass band Slesvigske Musikkorps. For a weekend devoted to warfare and destruction, it was remarkably peaceful – indeed often ‘hyggelig’ to use the Danish term for cosiness – with the Danish losing, once again, in high spirits and good order.