They’re Using Real Explosives!
An Army battle re-enactment goes horribly wrong when audience members stray into the field of fire
It was supposed to be the dramatic highlight of the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. On Sept. 18, 1920, soldiers at Camp Meade, Maryland planned to re-enact the World War I Battle of Montfaucon. a pivotal battle that opened the Meuse-Argonne offensive and led to the end of the war. The event was billed as a chance to offer veterans an opportunity to recall “the thrilling scenes gone through ‘over there,’ and the folks back home a chance to arrive at the faintest realization of the terrors of the great conflict.”
The Army poured a great deal of money and energy into setting the scene. According to the Washington Times, “an exact reproduction was built of the French village of Montfaucon and the chateau where the crown prince had his marvelously well-fortified concrete lookout.”
Army engineers constructed the mock village on top of a prominence that resembled the actual French hill. Trenches, barbed wire, and a minefield girded the base of the hill, throwing an obstacle between the advancing American forces and a small unit of men tasked to defend the position.
The display began with a simulated air battle: German and American biplanes squared off over the field and put on an aerobatic display. After a few loops and rolls, the American forces drove off their German adversaries, gaining control of the skies.
Once the aviators cleared the field, artillery opened fire from behind the American lines. For ten minutes the heavy artillery lobbed projectiles at the “Germans.”
Shells exploded as they fells on Mountfaucon, softening up the enemy before the American forces advanced. Two tanks pushed forward, rolling over the trenches and shredding the barbed wire. The defenders detonated a mine, but that did not slow the tanks.
The American forces belly-crawled up the hill as their machine guns chattered. “Further realism was afforded by the appearance of an active machine gun nest in the rear of the attackers.”
The battle re-enactment was meticulously planned and “so carefully and accurately reproduced by the War Department that it afforded the nearest approach to modern warfare ever seen in the United States.”
Unfortunately, the Army’s commitment to accuracy extended to the use of real explosives in the “sham battle.”
Although the idea of using live charges was less than sensible, the event’s planners did map out safety zones to keep the spectators out of the live-fire zone. Perhaps they did not anticipate the crowds that gathered to witness the re-enactment: an estimated 15,000 people crowded the battlefield, all hoping for a better view.
As the action unfolded, the crowd surged forward, and members of the audience entered the fire zones. One man, Henry Volkman, had his toes crushed when it was struck by “a piece of a shell jacket.” His injury, claimed the camp doctors, was not serious.
Mrs. Dorothy Guntz, a native of Baltimore, suffered a bruised shoulder when a shell exploded near her. Private Michael Marco was also struck by a shell fragment.
They all were lucky.
The same could not be said for the other casualty among the spectators. Henry Kuehnle and his young nephew, Carl Dornbush, had joined the people who crowded the field. He had been looking forward to the display for days; witnesses later recalled that “he was delighted at the maneuvers, at the rockets, the airplanes, the shells, the dash of the infantrymen and the tanks.”
As Carl stood next to his uncle, a fragment of one of the exploding shells, fired from the “American” artillery, whistled through the air and struck the four-year-old in the head. The soldiers threw the boy in a car and rushed him to the camp hospital, but the surgeons declared him dead on arrival.
The military sent a car to fetch the boy’s father, John Dornbush. When Dornbush arrived, he found his brother-in-law weeping over his nephew. The shattered men escorted the boy back to Brooklyn that night for burial.
Ex-soldiers, experienced men who had fought in the Great War, figured that the killing shell “must have been short-timed or defective.”
That evening, the camp commander ordered a full investigation of Carl’s death and the other injuries. The review of the day’s action found no fault with the re-enactment. Contrary to the earliest newspaper reports, the army had been firing exploding smoke bombs from its artillery pieces.
The charges were sealed in a heavy cardboard shell, and when this blew apart, “it had sufficient force to seriously injure a person. The paper covered bombs were fired from trench mortars and were supposed to burst in the air at a sufficient distance from the onlookers to insure safety.” The military police had attempted to keep the audience out of the fire zone, but the large crowd had been impossible to police.
The soldiers were heartbroken over Carl’s death. The boy, according to his family had dreamed of being a soldier. The men took up a collection to help pay for the funeral expenses.
Members of the company and an Army band traveled to Brooklyn to offer the deceased a “military funeral.” Normally, such honors are only granted to fallen soldiers, but in consideration of the circumstances, the army decided to permit the gesture.
“So far as is known,” wrote the Evening Sun, “never has such honor been shown an American boy before.”
Sources: Chicago Tribune, May 18, 1920; Washington Post, May 18, 1920; Washington Times, May 18, 1920; Baltimore Sun, May 18–20, 1920.