The Real-Life WWI Operation That Inspired ‘1917'

In his Golden Globe acceptance speech last night for Best Director, Sam Mendes thanked his grandfather, Alfred Hubert Mendes, for his service in the First World War and for inspiring Mendes’ film, 1917.

Alfred Mendes fought as an English soldier at the age of 17. One day at dusk, he was ordered to run a letter across No Man’s Land, the barren, body-strewn strip separating the German and British frontlines. Sam Mendes was 10 when he first heard the story from his grandfather, who became a novelist and short story writer after the war. The image of a lone soldier running across the battlefield captivated the young Mendes. Four decades later, he was inspired to co-write a film based on this mission.

That film, 1917, chronicles the epic, Dante-like journey of two British soldiers, sent across the battlefield to deliver a message warning of ambush. Though inspired by his grandfather’s stories, Mendes wanted to tell his own tale, and the film’s two leads, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) were written for that purpose. Neither character existed, however, their experiences are based on several accounts of what WWI infantrymen would have experienced during that stage of the war.

Their particular mission was also based on an actual moment in the war.

Mendes needed an event that might have led two soldiers across an empty battlefield and into enemy lines. He chose Operation Alberich. Date: February 9, 1917.

By this time in the war, the frontlines had changed little. Four-hundred miles of No Man’s Land ran north-south between the British and German forces. At some places, the width was a couple miles. At others, a couple NFL first downs.

Operation Alberich was a retreat. The Germans, who had a year earlier refused to peace terms proposed by President Woodrow Wilson, planned to withdraw 25 miles to a more easily defensible formation called the “Hindenburg Line.” By then, they were outnumbered and playing a defensive strategy in the war.

A section of a Hindenburg trench near Cologne Farm. Part of the ’Hindenburg Line.’
Hulton ArchiveGetty Images

The German withdrawal took four days, leaving empty trenches and fortified positions and making it more difficult for the British to advance closer to the line. The British were mostly taken by surprise despite early reconnaissance that may have indicated the Germans building a new line behind the front. The German retreat would ultimately slow the British advance, which they had planned for that spring.

It was at that moment, when British forces were still uncertain about German positions, that 1917 begins. The fictionalized soldiers Blake and Schofield “go over the top” and into No Man’s Land, advancing on an empty German front line. They are the soldiers who discover the German’s new position and signal the retreat.

To bring all this to life, Mendes and his production team built over a mile of trenches. Mendes also chose to shoot the film in a style that would imitate a “single take,” meaning the entire film takes place in real time. It’s one of the many reasons Mendes’ directorial efforts were recognized by critics as one of the most impressive film achievements of the year. Mendes also has cinematographer Roger Deakins to thank for this achievement.

Though Blake and Schofield’s delivery of an ambush warning may be fictional, the death and carnage they see across No Man’s Land certainly is not. It’s what makes 1917, and its quieter, battlefield-crossing moments, so haunting and powerful.

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