British forces in Libya had been roundly defeated by Rommel in mid-1942, and a reshuffle saw Bernard Montgomery take over the 8th Army dangerously close to Alexandria. Some essentials for success had been put in place by his predecessor, but Montgomery’s refusal to attack until he was ready, careful briefings, pep talks to troops and coordination of land and air power all strengthened his hand.
The battle began with a huge artillery bombardment on October 23, and owed much to Montgomery’s belief that, wherever possible, metal, not flesh, should do the work.
There was hard fighting in the middle phase as British and Dominion troops clawed through the German and Italian defences.
It’s easy to say that Monty, with over 200,000 troops to Rommel’s 100,000, should have won, but previously defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory.
Alamein paved the way for Allied victory in North Africa, and Churchill was right to hail it as a turning point
It has been described as a true First World War epic and Sam Mendes’s answer to Dunkirk.
Yet very little is known about 1917 beyond that it has a star-studded British cast list including Richard Madden, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch.
The film, due to be released this winter, focuses on two young British soldiers given a seemingly impossible mission at the height of the Great War.
“In a race against time, they must cross enemy territory and deliver a message that will stop a deadly attack on hundreds of soldiers,” the official synopsis states.
Eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Mendes, 54, would be co-writing the script. It is the first time the distinguished stage and screen director, who took charge of the last two Bond movies, has turned his hand to screenwriting.
The reason for his hands-on involvement can now be disclosed: the plot is inspired by a story told by his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, an acclaimed Trinidadian novelist who spent two years on the Belgian Front after volunteering to fight for Britain.
The younger Mendes confirmed the film’s genesis in a podcast interview with Variety, the US entertainment magazine.
“I had a story that was a fragment told me by my grandfather, who fought in the First World War,” he said. “It’s the story of a messenger who has a message to carry. And that’s all I can say. It lodged with me as a child, this story or this fragment, and obviously I’ve enlarged it and changed it significantly. But it has that at its core.”
Mendes acknowledged that filming had been an extremely complex undertaking but said he set out to create a “big, experiential, immersive movie”.
Producers applied to construct a replica French farm on Salisbury Plain and recruited local Wiltshire men as soldier extras.
The first trailer, released last week, has been viewed seven million times on YouTube. It reveals a handful more plot details, including the suggestion that 1,600 men will be massacred if the young messengers fail to get through. Further clues can be gleaned from the autobiography of Alfred Mendes, who died in his nineties in 1991. Born into a Portuguese Creole family, he became one of Trinidad’s most celebrated intellectuals, known for his novels and short stories.
Alfred Mendes spent two years on the Belgian Front volunteering to fight for Britain
His son, Jameson Peter Mendes, a university professor, was the director’s father. Sam Mendes was born in Berkshire and his mother is the novelist and poet Valerie Helene Mendes.
Alfred Mendes defied his family to join theBritish Army, serving on the front line for two years before German gas ended his war. He went on to pursue a literary career.
In his memoir he recounted an act of bravery during the Battle of Poelcappelle in 1917 for which he was awarded the Military Medal.
Volunteering to act as a runner, he carried messages between companies under continuous machinegun fire. He described the terror of feeling like a “lone man wandering in circles around no man’s land”, but completed the mission successfully. “I found all three companies, and in spite of the snipers, the machinegunners and the shells, arrived back at C Company’s shell hole without a scratch,” he wrote.
His citation read: “It was largely due to his coolness and his complete disregard for his personal safety that his commanding officer was kept informed of the state of affairs on that important flank.”
Mendes has yet to confirm that this incident inspired the film, although there are striking similarities to the known plot. Intriguingly, his grandfather’s memoir reveals that the story became part of Mendes family folklore. He wrote that the mission left him with a “series of hair-raising experiences that would keep my grand- and great-grandchildren enthralled for nights on end”.
The film also stars George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman and Andrew Scott. It is being produced by Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks Pictures and is scheduled for release at the height of Oscar season.
Its backers will hope that 1917 replicates the success of Christopher Nolan’s epic filmDunkirk, which took $525 million.
Rooted in the truth
Saving Private Ryan
Although Steven Spielberg’s 1998 Second World War classic was fictional, it was loosely based on the story of the Niland brothers, all US servicemen. One of the four, Fritz, was sent back to the US when it was thought that his three brothers had lost their lives. It later emerged that one, Edward, actually survived the conflict in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
The Great Escape
The 1963 film starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough told the true story of the mass escape of Allied prisoners from Stalag Luft III, a German prisoner of war camp. However, some key details were changed for dramatic effect — and US airmen were included among the escapers to increase the film’s appeal to American audiences.
Black Hawk Down
Dramatisation of a disastrous 1993 US military raid in Mogadishu, Somalia. Ridley Scott’s 2001 film relied heavily on a book of the same name by the journalist Mark Bowden.
Could you handle a 13 werk 12 hour shift in a Mark IV Tank? If so read on.
The Mark IV was a more heavily armoured version of the Mark I, and went into production in May 1917.
The Mark IVs were used successfully at theMessines Ridgein June 1917, where they outpaced the infantry on dry ground, but in theThird Ypresof July and August they found the swampy ground difficult and were of little use. About 432 Mark IV tanks were used during theBattle of Cambraiin November 1917.
Modern tanks are a jumble of exposed brackets, junction boxes, and hard angles that cut and bruise the ingénue crewman as he learns to slink about the inside.
However, inside early vehicles like the Mark IV, there were all manner of additional hazards, like exposed scalding pipes and moving machinery.
Once committed to battle, the first tank men also discovered that the armour plate ‘spalled’, sending small shards of metal around the tank’s inside, as it stopped bullets and fragments on the outside. Chainmail face masks were quickly improvised to protect them.
Early tanks were agonizingly slow in their movements and the soldiers inside must have felt like sitting ducks. But the tanks soon spread panic in German lines and demonstrated their potential to change the face of war.
When the British tanks went forward, the terrified German soldiers threw everything they had at them – including machine gun fire, grenades and mortars – to try to destroy the metal beasts.
They became one of the most dangerous places to be in World War One.
Anyone fancy a pop at being part of Tank from for a few weeks, 12 hours a day.
By 1916 the Great War had become a total war. The British Army had expanded from a handful of regular and territorial divisions to more than 74 infantry divisions by 1918.
The Battle of the Somme 1916, in which nearly 450,000 British soldiers became casualties, marked the start of some of the momentous battles of the war, and changes in technology and the introduction of new weapons created a new era of warfare and an ever changing life for the infantryman.
BASIC UNIFORM & EQUIPMENT 1916-18
The basic uniform and equipment worn by the British soldier during the 1916-18 period differed little from the Infantryman of 1914-15.
Service Dress and 1908 webbing equipment were commonplace, although the large pack was normally only worn on the march, and rarely in the trenches themselves. It was never worn in battle, or carried into an attack.
The Service Dress peaked cap was still worn, and as since the Winter of 1914/15 the internal stiffener had been taken out and it was usually worn ‘floppy’ (much to the chagrin of RSMs!)
CHANGES IN UNIFORM & EQUIPMENT 1916-18
While the basic uniform and equipment had not changed, many new pieces of equipment had been introduced and were commonplace by 1916.
In the early period of the war, it proved impossible to keep up the production of the 1908 webbing equipment, and so the War Office produced a set of leather equipment, known as the 1914 Pattern. This differed substantially in design to the webbing, and had two cartridge pouches, instead of smaller web ones.
It had a narrow leather belt with a brass, ‘snake’ buckle, left and right braces, a water bottle carrier, bayonet frog with entrenching tool handle attachment, and entrenching tool blade in a leather cover.
The haversack and large pack were in khaki material, but with leather fittings. It was issued to most Kitchener’s Army units from early 1915, and remained in use in the field right up until the end of the war. Unpopular with soldiers, as it did not distribute the weight correctly and pulled on the base of the spine, veteran campaigners normally exchanged theirs for webbing as soon as was possible.
The 1902 Service Dress tunic and trousers remained in widespread use, but from 1914 a ‘Utility Tunic’ was produced, which was a simplified version of the original; both cheaper and easier to produce in large numbers. It differed in that the breast pockets were much larger and had no pleats.
The arrival of gas on the battlefield, following the Second Battle of Ypres (April-May 1915), saw the introduction of Gas Masks. The first ones were very primitive designs, often a face mask with goggles.
By the time of the Battle of Loos (September-October 1915) the PH Helmet was in widespread use, which was a large cloth hood with two eye pieces and a filter through which the soldier breathed. It was uncomfortable and difficult to use, the eye pieces normally misted up, but it stayed in use well into 1917. At the close of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 the Box Respirator, the first proper gas mask issued to British troops, appeared and all soldiers had one by the Spring of 1917. However, many continued to carry the older PH Helmet as a back-up.
While it was first introduced in late 1915, the Steel Helmet, or Shrapnel Helmet, was only in widespread use from the Spring of 1916. Indeed, the Battle of St Eloi (April 1916) was the first time that it had been worn in battle. The ‘soup-bowl’ design had a leather liner, with a leather chin-strap.
More than 7.5 million were made by 1918, and as it was constructed of tough steel, it offered greater protection that other designs. Some soldiers welded their regimental badges to the front of the helmet, but this was found to weaken the steel and German snipers often used them as an aiming point! More common was to find a regimental design painted on, as well as a battalion, brigade or divisional battle flash. Some soldiers wore khaki covers on the helmets, to stop them reflecting the light, and sometimes these were improvised from sandbag material.
A whole host of new weapons appeared in this period, and they will be dealt with in detail elsewhere on this part of the Old Front Line. However, they included hand grenades, light machine guns, flare pistols, trench weapons, and trench mortars. ILLUSTRATIONS
This WW1 British Infantryman soldier from 1914 is issued with the 1908 webbing which is set up in the “Marching Order”. The 1908 Marching Order webbing set consisted of the following:
1908 Ammunition pouches
1908 Shoulder straps
1908 Cross straps
1908 Water bottle carrier
1908 Water bottle
1908 Bayonet frog
1907 Enfield bayonet
1908 Helve carrier
1908 Helve (wooden handle for E tool- shovel)
1908 Entrenching tool (shovel head) carrier
1908 Entrenching tool head
1908 1908 Small pack
1908 Large pack
The British WW1 1908 webbing equipment carried all the soldiers kit that he would need in the field or trenches. The 1908 webbing system carried his 303 rifle ammunition, Enfield 303 bayonet, entrenching tool, food rations, mess tins, knife fork and spoon, water bottle, drinking cup, spare clothing, wash kit, housewife sewing kit etc.
The British Small Box Respirator (SBR) was designed in 1916 and began service by the end of the year.
A canvas covered rubber hose attached the mask to the canister. The mask was made of thinly rubberised canvas. The whole lot was contained in the canvas bag. The bag is hung from an adjustable strap.
Here are two informative videos to watch.
Next week personal weapons of the British army Infantry of WW1.