The Real Story Behind ‘1917’

Learn all about the history that inspired Sam Mendes’ World War I film.
Over The Top
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on January 15th, 2020

Sam Mendes’ World War I thriller 1917 is a stunning technical achievement that thrusts viewers right into the trenches with the soldiers. As far as war movies go, it’s as immersive and realistic as they come, which makes for an enthralling and utterly terrifying experience. But just how connected to actual history is the film?

1917 follows two young soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), who are tasked with a dangerous trek across No Man’s Land to warn another squadron about a German ambush that could result in the deaths of 1,600 British soldiers. Thus begins a fight for survival as they navigate the harsh terrains to deliver the message before time runs out.

While the specific mission at hand on screen is entirely fictitious, it was inspired by the stories of Lance Corporal Alfred H. Mendes, the director’s great-grandfather. During the war, he was charged with delivering messages to other battalions and was even awarded the Military Medal after he volunteered for a dangerous mission to locate injured soldiers during the Battle of Passchendaele.

One real-life event does play a key role in the film: Operation Alberich. As it is depicted in the movie, this operation, which took its name from the poem The Song of the Nibelungs, commenced on February 2017 and saw German forces relocate some of their French-based troops to the Hindenburg Line, abandoning some of the lands that they had captured in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

The reason for the German retreat was pragmatic and necessary. In August 1916, Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy, Erich Ludendorff, replaced Erich von Falkenhayn and reassessed Germany’s position in the war. The Allied Forces were growing in terms of manpower, machinery, and superiority, while Germany had suffered heavy losses due to the battles that took place in the Somme and Verdun.

Basically, if German forces had stayed where they were, they wouldn’t have been able to survive the battles that were coming their way in 1917. The Hindenburg Line was a sturdier barrier that was equipped with machine guns, and they made sure that it was almost impossible to travel through.

The new defensive position ran from Arras down to Vailly-sur-Aisne. Its creation was the military’s biggest construction project at the time and absorbed an estimated 1,500 square kilometers of French territory. The plan was simple: destroy anything and everything that benefited the Allies. This included the destruction of electric cables, water pipes, roads, bridges, and villages. Towns were evacuated and destroyed. Regular people lost their homes, and Mother Nature was pillaged. However, the operation had its desired effect, as Germany managed to catch the enemy off-guard and scupper their plans.

The confusion exhibited by the British forces in 1917 also mirrors how the real troops felt all these years ago as well. Understandably, the German’s decision to retreat was met with caution and suspicion from the Allies, as it seemed very out of the ordinary. They were right to be careful, however, as the road to the Hindenburg Line was practically uninhabitable and loaded with booby traps.

At the same time, some members of the Allied Forces interpreted the retreat as a sign of weakness and proceeded to try and take advantage of the enemy’s supposedly weakened state. French army commander Robert Nivelle, against the advice of his colleagues,  led an attack across the Aisne river toward the Chemin des Dames Ridge in April 2017, which resulted in the Allies experiencing heavy losses. This led to mutinies within the camp, and Nivelle was subsequently replaced by a gentleman called Pétain.

The Hindenburg Line was attacked several times in 1917, but it was not until September of the following year — during the Hundred Days Offensive, the series of massive attacks that effectively ended the war — that the stronghold was finally conquered by the Allied Forces.

That said, during the early days of the operation, the German tactics were met with a mix of confusion and misinterpretation that took the Allied Forces by surprise. That’s something that the movie accomplishes well: a feeling of entering the unknown, only to encounter the terrors that await those who dare venture there.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.