In Sam Mendes’ Oscar-nominated World War One film 1917, two British soldiers – Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield – find themselves in a race against time to deliver a message calling off a doomed attack that could put hundreds of lives at risk.
While the film’s protagonists are fictional, the setting of the film was based on real events. According to Mendes, the idea for 1917 came from stories that his paternal grandfather, Alfred H. Mendes, shared about his time as a Lance Corporal in the War.
At five-foot-four-inches tall, Alfred was chosen to be a messenger on the Western Front, delivering notes from post to post while hidden in the mist on No Man’s Land.
The late Mendes was awarded a medal for his bravery, and later retired to his Trinidadian birthplace to pen his memoirs.
The film focuses on a period of time when the German army conducted Operation Alberich, which saw a major retreat from positions they had occupied into a new defensive line, known as the Hindenburg Line.
The operation was considered one of the shrewdest defensive operations of World War One.
The Hindenburg Line
By the end of the Somme in November 1916, Germany’s situation looked increasingly precarious. Although neither the British nor the French had broken through the front, they had mostly destroyed the German defences.
Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the new German Chief of the General Staff, and Erich Ludendorff, his deputy, were concerned that the strength of the German army was fading.
The Battle of Verdun and the Battle of the Somme had left the German western armies exhausted and they could not defend the front indefinitely. General Ludendorff, writing at the end of 1916, observed:
If the war lasted, our defeat seemed inevitable. Economically we were in a highly unfavourable position for a war of exhaustion.
The German leadership decided to change tactics, building a brand-new system of defences which they called Siegfriedstellung, otherwise known as the Hindenburg Line.
Hindenburg and Ludendorff authorised the creation of a massive system of specifically prepared defences, running from Arras, west of Cambrai, down to Saint-Quentin and beyond the Somme.
The creation of the Hindenburg Line allowed the German troops to consolidate and withdraw to a more fortified position and along a shorter front line.
The Germans dug deep, wide trenches to stop tanks as well as dense belts of barbed wire – in some places 40 metres thick – which they believed were mostly impregnable.
This was supplemented with concreted machine gun positions with overlapping fields of fire as well as concrete mortar positions, infantry shelters and tunnels linking those shelters to the trenches.
After six months of planning and digging, the German army was ready to withdraw to a new, fortified and condensed line of defence, in an operation code named Operation Alberich.
Between 9 February and 20 March 1917, the Germans launched Operation Alberich and fell back to their new positions along the Hindenburg Line. They moved 40 km of their existing front line, while laying waste to a huge area of French countryside and destroying anything the enemy might find useful.
Railways were dug up, trees were felled, water wells were polluted. Electric cables, water pipes, roads and bridges were all systemically obliterated; telephone lines and telegraph cables were cut. A large number of land mines and booby traps were planted.
Entire towns and villages were razed to the ground, and hundreds of thousands were evacuated. Those able to work were sent to occupied France, while women, children and the elderly were left behind. As Ludendorff said:
On the one hand it was desirable not to make a present to the enemy of too much fresh strength in the form of recruits and labourers, and on the other we wanted to foist upon him as many mouths to feed as possible.
Response by British and French forces
Much of the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line had taken place under the cover of darkness.
As a result, the Germans had prevented the Allies from fully grasping their plans. British aerial reconnaissance failed to detect the construction of the Hindenburg Line or the German preparations for Operation Alberich.
British and French soldiers found themselves facing a desolate landscape filled with booby traps and snipers.
Amid great uncertainty, they moved forward cautiously. Allied forces came in fits and starts, becoming embroiled in deadly skirmishes with counter-attacking Germans.
The Germans’ withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line allowed them to fight back while consolidating their overall position.
The Hindenburg Line was attacked several times in 1917, but it was not until 29 September 1918 during the Hundred Days Offensive that the Siegfriedstellung was finally overwhelmed.
The Battle of Arras
The Battle of Arras, which commenced in April 1917, was essentially the British army’s first attempt to breach the Hindenburg Line.
Having been forced to follow the Germans into their new positions, Britain’s task was to test out this new German defensive belt and hopefully break through it.
In the spring of 1917 the British began to utilise tunnels and artillery with more strategic acumen than ever before.
Engagements like the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which saw all four divisions of the Canadian Corps successfully storm a near-impregnable position, proved to be landmark Allied victories.