Dr. Jim Castagnera, Esq.
Special to The History Place
This film is cinematically stunning and dramatically riveting. I have no quibble with its receipt earlier this month of the Golden Globe award for best film of 2019. Filmed from April through June last year on Britain’s Salisbury Plain (which reportedly upset conservationists, who feared the disturbance of undiscovered ancient-human remains), the film succeeds in placing us in the extensive trenches and corpse-strewn No-Man’s Land of the Western Front.
Of the latter, Leon Wolff, whose 1958 In Flanders Fields: The 1917 Campaign is still the best book on its topic, writes, “The problem of terrain has bedeviled military commanders in Flanders throughout history… For clay plus water equals mud -- not the chalky mud of the Somme battlefield to the south, but gluey, intolerable mud.” Wolff quotes one officer, instructed to consolidate his advance position, as writing back to HQ, “It is impossible to consolidate porridge.” (Time, Inc. edition, 1963, pages 122-23)
The film’s two protagonists’ trek across No-Man’s Land depicts this “gluey, intolerable” muck, punctuated by decaying men and horses, perfectly. It also depicts, though not so obviously (and perhaps unintentionally), the abysmal stupidity with which warfare was still being conducted nearly three years after hostilities started in August 1914.
Wolff remarks, “In the fourth year of this war there occurred one of many military cataclysms: The Third Battle of Ypres, often referred to as the Paschendaele campaign, or the 1917 Flanders offensive.” (p. xxxvi)
Field Marshall Haig was convinced that attrition was the only way to win and he intended to win before the Americans arrived in force and stole his thunder. And, although a few visionary leaders like Winston Churchill appreciated the value of tanks against barbed wire and machine guns, this weapon remained a novelty.
Stalin said, “When one man dies, it’s a tragedy. When a million die, it’s a statistic.” 1917 puts two human faces on the statistics of that year’s cataclysm.
As with the tank, so it was with the wireless radio. Another distinguished military historian, John Keegan, writes in his 2002 Intelligence in War (NY: Vintage Books at 144), “During the years of static warfare…, neither wireless messaging nor interference played any significant part, since the available equipment was ill-adapted to trench conditions and most communication, both strategic and tactical, was conducted by hand-carried paper, as was traditional, or by telegraph or telephone.”
We are informed at the start of the film that the Germans, retreating to their new Hindenburg line, destroyed all the telephone lines. And so our two young Tommies sally forth with a letter from General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), warning the latter that his impending attack would run straight into a deadly trap.
Director Sam Mendes tells us at the film’s conclusion that the plot is based on stories related to him by his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, who was a Lance Corporal in WWI. Keegan, as we see, confirms the veracity of the elder Mendes’s recollections of running messages.
That said, my friend and colleague, Dr. Gregory J. W. Urwin, professor of history at Temple University, and himself a distinguished author on the history of warfare [https://liberalarts.temple.edu/academics/faculty/urwingregory-j-w], and I have been speculating about the sheer lunacy of sending the two corporals (played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) off on their Quixotic mission.
Let us grant that wireless radio, like the armored tank, was a neglected technology. No surprise there, since Haig, himself a cavalry officer, still clung to the notion that his beloved horse soldiers would play a crucial role in his promised 1917 breakthrough. But why place the fate of Mackenzie’s two battalions (1600 men) in the hands of a couple of corporals afoot?
As Dr. Urwin opined to me, “ [S]ince they knew the location of the 1600 troops in the two advanced battalions, send over one or more aircraft to drop containers. Heck, you could have landed a plane on the ground that the regiment occupied to transmit the news.”
General Erinmore insists that Colonel Mackenzie read the message in front of witnesses, because Erinmore fears that, with his blood up, Mackenzie might ignore the order and proceed with his planned attack. So, then why not send an officer with the message in a biplane? In fact, why not opt for redundancy (the hallmark of trench warfare) and send two planes? We see plenty of aircraft in this film, reflecting that, in contrast to tanks, ‘aeroplanes’ were an accepted innovation on both sides.
Granting that Mendes received his plot “from the horse’s mouth,” and that Keegan confirms the arcane practice of sending off runners with written messages, the blame for the corporals’ harrowing misadventure must be placed at the feet of the (thick-as-Flanders-mud) military minds of the time and not upon Hollywood’s penchant for sacrificing veracity to suspense.
Kudos to Mendes for fashioning an exciting and moving movie from his granddad’s recollections of the horror and lunacy of the Western Front in 1917. He tells a simple story that is a microcosm of the grand tragedy.
Kudos to him, too, for giving us this indictment of military stupidity and intransigence at a time when America’s next war may be only one more drone strike away.
Rated R for violence, some disturbing images, and language.
Jim Castagnera is a shareholder and chief consultant of Holland Media Services LLC, a freelance-writing, communications, and training company with offices in Los Angeles and Philadelphia.