THE CIRCUS GOES TO WARSHOW BUSINESS AND THE ARMED FORCES OF WORLD WAR I
Throughout history there has been an odd symbiosis between circuses and armed forces stretching back to the Roman circus of ancient times. The Circus Goes To War covers the interplay between circuses and armies before and during World War I. Themes for circus acts have often been borrowed from the military. For instance, Wild West shows were basically traveling re-enactments of the Indian Wars. Hugo Zacchini (1898-1975) got the idea for his human cannonball act while he was serving in the Italian artillery in World War I. On the other hand, the iconic image of Uncle Sam in Montgomery Flagg's "I Want You" recruiting poster originated with a clown costume of Dan Rice (1823-1900), the famous circus owner whose fans included Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Abraham Lincoln.
More serious has been the influence of American railroad circuses on the logistics of armed forces. The Germans got their ideas for rolling field kitchens and loading equipment lengthwise on railroad flatcars from Buffalo Bill's Wild West touring Germany in 1891 and from Barnum & Bailey's Circus touring Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1900-1901.
During World War I millions of men under arms were stuck in the muddy trenches and faced daily monotony. Some had hidden circus talent. It is not surprising, then, that some of these troops would kill time and amuse their buddies by performing makeshift stunts, acts, even mini-circuses. All over northern France impromptu circus acts popped up here and there to pass the time of day.
The crescendo of these improvised circus acts was the American First Division Circus in Montabaur, Germany, during the Occupation in 1919. The First Division Circus was complete with street parade, sideshow, and 19 acts in a three-ring performance. For two days Montabaur, just outside Coblenz, was transformed into a circus extravaganza. All was done with men, horses, and equipment organic to the First Division. As the back of the program declared, the First Division was, "First in everything ... including circuses."
Waving the Flag
Handmade Uncle Sam costume worn during bond drives and parades in World War I. The image of Uncle Sam originated from Dan Rice, a circus owner and clown of the 1800s.
German cooks with their rolling field kitchen, circa 1916. The Germans derived their idea for field kitchens from American circuses touring Europe before World War I.
American troops loading field artillery onto a railroad flatcar during World War I. American circuses were the first to use "runs" to load wagons lengthwise on flatcars instead of hoisting them over the side. The Germans copied the idea and other armies followed suit.
German troops on their makeshift ride during World War I.
Walking the Wire
German soldier, complete with steel helmet and Gew98 rifle, on a slack wire entertaining other troops of his unit, June 30, 1918.
The Greatest Show in the AEF
The First Division Circus in Montabaur, Germany, July 11-12, 1919. This three ring circus during the Occupation of Germany was probably the biggest backyard circus of all time.