Thousands of history buffs in early 19th-century costumes took to a historic battlefield outside Leipzig, Germany, on Sunday to reenact the Battle of the Nations that left French emperor Napoleon's army critically beaten 200 years ago.
The mock battle opened with a line of French troops dressed in brilliant green, red, light blue and grey uniforms, bayonets raised, marching toward villagers in period costumes huddled around a cluster of thatched-roof cottages.
Cavalry passes followed, then muskets finally flashed as opposing lines of French and Allied enemy troops opened fire on each other under a gloomy grey sky.
Fifes and drums played in the background as some of Napoleon?s forces tended to their muskets, and cannon boomed once again in the rolling green fields outside the eastern German city.
"I want to show history for our young people," said re-enactor Peter Bach, 59. "Otherwise they can only read about it in history books."
A historical commission spent years perfecting the scenario for the bicentennial re-enactment, and some 6,000 enthusiasts turned out to stage the mock battle, also known as the Battle of Leipzig.
Bach, from nearby Erfurt, played a two-star general in the service of Saxony, the region around Leipzig. The gold-braid trim on his uniform and his feathered, two-corner hat attested to a certain status on the battlefield.
Ahead of the re-enactment, however, he said he had no idea where his unit would be moving.
"We want it to be like reality, so I wait to get my orders from the big chief," Bach said, happy to be kept in the dark.
"It's good, it's real. I was in the German army, and it's the same," he said with a laugh.
Fighting for Napoleon's army, though, one thing is certain: "In the evening, we are all in heaven," Bach said. "It's no problem, though, we are all friends."
United Nations of re-enactors
The battle was the turning point in the Napoleonic wars.
Weakened after taking his wars deep into Russia, Napoleon lost outside Leipzig against allied forces from, among others, Prussia, Russia, Sweden and Britain.
The battle is known as the bloodiest in Europe prior to World War I, with roughly 100,000 of the 600,000 mobilised soldiers dying.
Sunday's mock battle was also meant to be a unifying force. Participants came from 28 countries, and in drills over the weekend marching orders were barked in a host of different languages.
"The winks and nods are helpful," said Robert Smith, 41, an American whose English-speaking unit got its orders in Polish. Smith relied on the international language of hand gestures and head nods for clues.
"There are six languages in this battalion, so it makes for an interesting drill," said Mark Koens, clad in a blue coat and grey wool pants similar to Smith's, both fighting for the Prussians.
Koens, 43, travelled from Sydney with a handful of other Australians. He said he was drawn to re-creating the Napoleonic wars because so many veterans emigrated to Australia after the fighting.
"It changed the Australian landscape," Koens said. "Areas are named after battles: towns, streets, pubs.? Lord Nelson, Hero of Waterloo" -- the place where the battle took place, less than two years later, that definitively ended Napoleon's rule over large parts of Europe.
The crowd for the sold-out event numbered well over 30,000, with children often sitting on their parents' shoulders for a better view.
Pavel Kmoch, 45, a long-time re-enactor from Prague, brought his nine-year-old son along to instill respect for the horrors of the past.
"The young are interested in fighting on the computer, and I want to show him that the computer is not the real life," said Kmoch, wearing a French uniform of white, red and blue, like his son. "This is still a game, but you can imagine, a little bit at least, how terrible it has to be to face a line of several hundred enemy rifles."
Participants said the best part of the event was spending time with a veritable United Nations of re-enactors in the evenings leading up to battle.
"Mostly it's about the camp, cooking, singing, sewing, everyday activities," Koens said. "Nations that were once at war come together to share and commemorate about that loss, which is great."