So I saw 1917

Over the weekend I watched 1917, the Great War Western-front epic by British filmmaker Sam Mendes.

Not to spoil too much of the plot, the broad-strokes (which you can get from the preview) is that two humble lance corporals of the fictional 5th Rifles (KRRC)– salty veteran Will Schofield and newcomer Tom Blake– are sent on a last-ditch near-suicide mission to deliver a message to the 2nd Dorsets, the latter of which have broken out and are chasing German troops who they believe are on the run from the Noyon and Bapaume salients.

The reason to stop the Dorsets? The Germans are not running, but are instead evacuating in good order to prepared positions at the massively fortified Siegfriedstellung (aka the Hindenburg Line, from Arras to Soissons) against which the British light infantry, attacking alone, would surely be massacred.

While elements are true (the Hindenburg Line and the relocation from the salients happened as part of the so-called Alberich Maneuver), others were slightly fictionalized. For instance, the 2nd Dorsets never saw France, as they were deployed from India to Egypt and fought in Palestine during the war while the 5th KRRC never stood up in the Great War. The story the film is based was a soldier’s tale passed on by Mendes’s paternal grandfather who served in the KRRC during the conflict, so there is that.

With that being said, I felt there was great attention to detail. For example, the BEF veteran, Schofield, wears older Pattern 08 gear while the newer Tommy, Blake, has elements of modified Pattern 14 leather gear.

P08 vs P14 British gear

Likewise, they use period-correct SMLE Mk III rifles with magazine cutoffs and long P’07 sword bayonets, carry E-tools, wear their puttees correctly, and have Brodie helmets (but, like most actual soldiers, often do not wear said tin caps.)

Further, while threading their way across No Man’s Land, they encounter the most horrific scenes imaginable. One that struck me was the extensive and complex barbed wire entanglements they have to negotiate. Too often in film, barbed wire is shown as a single strand or two, something that could be quickly snipped by a small cutter or a line that an energetic point man could fall across to allow his mates to tread over.

The real thing was far from being that simple:

Ultimately, our two Tommies find themselves in abandoned but excellently-constructed German trenches, complete with concrete blockhouses and an extensive underground bomb-proof barracks. This again was correct to form.

Read Storm of Steel by German field-grade officer Ernst Junger, who spent years in such complexes, and he talks about them on virtually every passage. Even relating that he would on occasion sleep through British bombardments, knowing that his batman would come and fetch him should something pressing develop.

Tales of the German “Labyrinth” at Arras, captured by the British in 1917 during the repositioning, highlighted such installations.

The German “Labyrinth” at Arras, under new management, 1917

It should be remembered that the Kaiser’s men had been in their positions since 1914 in most cases and were determined not to take a step back when they laid them out, hence the extensive fortifications. Some dugouts even had wallpaper and electric lights! The British and French, on the other hand, were always on the assumption their trenches would be only temporary before the “Big Push” came in which they would drive the Jerries/Boche out, so they often would leave their men in muddy holes.

Other scenes in the movie were striking, but I will not cover them as they would be too spoiler-filled.

All in all, for the correctness and “grit” the film does a better job than just about any WWI Western Front movie I have seen prior.

The plot, while slightly far-fetched, is workable enough to move the story along. The Germans are, with the exception of one close-up encounter with a very blonde young man in the middle of the night, faceless and appropriately unseen but no less ominous, and remain deadly even when you think they would not be. The British officers are, for better or worse, very proper English, ala the final season of Blackadder.

I’d watch it again and would recommend it to others. Do yourself a favor and watch it on a big screen rather than a small one should you have an interest.

For a great short work specifically on life in the trenches, check out Eye Deep In Hell by John Ellis. You can often buy used copies for like $3.

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