1917: The Movie and The History

Released in late December last year, 1917 is a movie that has swept over the cinematic world, stunning it’s viewers; much like Operation Michael, a sweeping spring offensive launched after the Germans strategically retreated to the famous Hindenburg line. Set in northern France around spring 1917, the film takes place during a very fluid period of the war. The Allied and Central Powers were stuck in a stalemate on the Western Front, engaging in brutal trench warfare without making substantive gains.But the conflict was on the brink of changing course. In Eastern Europe, rumblings of revolution set the stage for Russia’s impending withdrawal from the conflict. Back in Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II permitted unrestricted submarine warfare, a decision that pushed the United States to join the fight in April 1917, and engaged in acts of total war, including bombing raids against civilian targets.

The film is set specifically when the Germans had consolidated their forces by pulling back to the Hindenburg line, where, although they had to retreat, they now had much more strategically valuable ground, with newly built and massively fortified defenses. And don’t think they left anything behind them; as is seen in the movie, the Germans razed and destroyed everything in their wake, so as to not aid the Allies in any way.

Not only was the retreat a sound strategic decision in itself, but it allowed many more effective offensive operations; the retreat shortened the front by 25 miles, and freed 13 divisions for reassignment. The main offensive would come to be known as Operation Michael, a spring campaign in 1918, that found the Germans using a “Blitzkrieg-type” strategy, sweeping and stabbing deep into the British lines, further than they had ever been before.

The director, Sam Mendes, focuses his film around the confusion and disorder which followed what seemed to the British a German retreat. “There was a period of terrified uncertainty—had [the Germans] surrendered, withdrawn, or were they lying in wait?” the director said to Vanity Fair. The events in the film seem to be a part of / precede the Battle of Poelcappelle, which was a smaller skirmish during the Battle of Passchendaele. The film’s events were heavily inspired by the latter campaign, which counted Alfred Mendes (the director’s grandfather) among its combatants. These major Allied offensives took place between July and November 1917 and ended with some 500,000 soldiers wounded, killed or missing in action.

To focus back on the story, Allied supply lines were being stretched, with battalions extending further than may have been logical. In the mostly fictional but contained storyline, Mendes follows Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) as he prepares to launch his regiment against the “retreating German forces.” In reality, these German regiments that had retreated were already forming into complex and fortified defensive lines. Not the Hindenburg line just yet, but it did resemble it:

The front line regiments retreated far behind an artillery protective line, so as to recover and be replaced. More artillery was to be used against British artillery to protect the German eingreifdivisionen (German Army formation) as they advanced. This eingreifdivisionen was placed closer to the front, so as to intervene as swiftly as possible once an attack commenced. These divisions were not only used to reinforce these new defences, but they were also to be used for precise offensive counter attacks. These new strategies and defences would be fatal to disorganized pursuing British battalions.

In short: Colonel MacKenzie was walking into a trap, soon to be a bloodbath. The two main characters in 1917, Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield, are tasked with delivering a message to the Colonel, in order to call off the attack.

With the history in order, I’d like to talk about and praise the film itself. It was created in a way that the entire movie, just under two hours, was just one, long, and uninterrupted take. The camera never cuts. We get a grim and harrowing first-person tour of the front line trenches, No Man’s Land, and the suffering peasants. To add to the incredible immersion of this technique, it is also coupled with a sparsely used but stunning soundtrack, composed by Thomas Newman. The acting was phenomenal, too. To sum up the movie in one statement, my thought as I walked out of the cinema was this: “I just spent two hours in the First World War.”

 

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