The students of Loughborough Public School in Sydenham, Ontario, take their history seriously. How could they not, with a teacher like Mark McCrady to lead them in the annual re-enactment of the Battle of Queenston Heights?
This year's re-enactment fell on Friday, October 14, a day after the anniversary of General Brock's charge up the slopes. The original battle was fought beneath trees that were dripping from the rain storm the night before. This year, the kids gloried in one of the warmest days of a spectacularly bright autumn.
In the original battle, General Brock was killed by an American sharpshooter before his forces could reach their objective.
This year... Well, it's a long story.
Together, Mr. McCrady and his colleagues marshal four classes of mixed grades 7s and 8s. I was invited to help them prepare for the action by giving a presentation on the War of 1812, using the Jake and Eli books.
I don't think I've ever come across a class that knew their history so well. They even knew the Jake and Eli books! Mr. McCrady had used Brothers at War for class study in past years.
The presentations took the better part of the morning. After the lunch break, Mr. McCrady changed into his re-enactor uniform as a private in the 100th Regiment of Foot -- the Dubliners who came to Canada and decided to stay.
He was General Brock. The General was a big man. Mr. McCrady may not have had the uniform of General Brock's rank, but I think he was the right size!
I put on the uniform of the Canadian Volunteers -- the Canadians who fought on the American side in the War of 1812. In that uniform, I was to portray General Van Renssalaer, the American commander at Queenston Heights.
Before the battle could begin, General Brock gave both the American and Crown forces some preliminary drill -- how to form line, how to march (start with the left foot), how to right face, left face, how to turn one line into two.
And then we parted ways, each with our army of about 60 very enthusiastic grade 7s. The Crown forces (grade 8s) took the high ground, representing the redan where the British guns had been placed. I was to assemble my American forces at the bottom of the hill.
In 1812, the Americans came very close to winning the Battle of Queenston Heights. Their early success was the result of a flanking maneuver by Captain Wool, who found a fisherman's path up the cliffs and was able to come at the guns from behind. We needed to find a similar way to surprise the enemy.
We divided our army into three: one force to assault the "guns" head on; two more to swing around the flanks in either direction. The assault force in the centre were to march forward bravely; the other two were told to use whatever stealth and cover they could find -- not easy to do when one side of the battlefield is cordoned off by a fence.
After they had marched forward a couple of hundred yards, our centre was harassed by the Mohawk warriors and light infantry set out by General Brock. He was trying to break our ranks, and he succeeded pretty well.
Because this is how the game is played: essentially it's a game of tag, combined with dodge ball. Each player is given a number of colour-coded washers that represent their "lives" -- blue for Americans, red for British regulars, green for British light infantry, brown for First Nations, white for militia. Each of the colours has different rules for how many washers must be turned over if a player is tagged.
At the top of the hill, other players (British regulars with their red washers) throw dodge balls. These players are the gunners of the redan. If you are hit by one of their dodge balls, you've been killed by a cannonball and are out of the game immediately. No one wants to get too close to a dodge-ball thrower!
So, if the object is not to get tagged, and not to get hit by a dodge ball, the tactic of marching bravely in formation up the hill doesn't prove to be very effective. And once the game of tag begins, it's every soldier for himself or herself. So much for the precision of the drill we'd just been taught...
But what about those crafty columns sent along the flanks, to try to overcome the batteries by cunning and stealth? Well, one of them came to the rescue of that central column as soon as it could. These light infantry couldn't do much else: they were hemmed in by the chain link fence and so a long flanking maneuver was impossible.
But that other column -- the right flank -- well, now... Under the able command of Mr. Macdonald, they staged a flanking movement that rivaled Jeb Stuart's ride around the Army of the Potomac. Not only did they swing to the right of the play area, they continued around to the other side of the school. They circled the entire building, cut between it and the High School across the road, and came back to the battlefield through the parking lot at the front entrance. They were able to sweep down through the woods at the top of the hill behind the "redan" -- just like Captain Wool.
But it took them a long time. And there were distractions. After all, in order to replicate the British strategy in the battle, Mr. McCrady had hidden a good portion of his forces in those very same woods. They were to come out and save the day at the end of the battle, just like General Sheaffe did after General Brock had been killed.
So on a beautiful summer day -- the last glorious heat of Indian summer -- when you're staging a flanking maneuver and come across some of your friends hanging out in the woods at the top of the school, what do you do? Well, why not hang out there with your friends and classmates? Let the war take care of itself!
Meanwhile back at the redan, the high ground had already been captured by the Americans but lost again to a counter-attack by the Crown. When you're a gunner and your major weapon is a dodge ball, once you throw that ball, you have to run down the hill to retrieve it. You swoop down on your attackers like a wolf on the fold. Soon almost everyone on the hillside as sitting down, a casualty of war, bereft of washers -- at least, nearly everyone in the American army.
So by the time General Brock came to stage his glorious assault, there were no Americans left to shoot him. He marched to the top of the hill unscathed.
It was a glorious day for the Crown forces and Mr. McCrady lived on to celebrate as the Saviour of Upper Canada.
After the battle, we gathered at the boulders that had been placed in a large circle formation at the foot of the hill. We took pictures, signed books, and talked about what battle must have felt like to those soldiers 204 years ago.
One of the lessons I learned: once the battle has begun, all the best-laid crafty plans of the generals tend to go awry in the fog of war -- or in the glory of sunny October afternoon. I hope that Loughborough Public School will invite me back the next time they reenact the Battle of Queenston Heights!