Cinematography at its best, but a story line with loopholes

From the quiet and untouched lands where the rear echelons rest and perform their duties to intent faces waiting for the verge of an attack, most films decide to focus on the heat of battle. In the film 1917, director Sam Mendes goes beyond the battle and immerses you in World War I, depicting what happened inside and outside the trenches. As a military historian, I’m very proud of what he has given us. But as a researcher of the battlefields, I’m kind of disappointed.

The film starts on April 6, 1917, where corporals Tom Blake and William Schofield are being tasked by the Division Commander, General Erinmore, to deliver a message to the 2nd Devons (2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment). The 2nd Devons have been making a lot of progress due to the intentional withdrawal of the enemy troops in their area. Aerial reconnaissance has shown that they did this on purpose, and if the 2nd Devons continue their attack the next morning, they’ll be walking right into a trap. However, during their retreat, the Germans cut the telephone wires, so the order has to be delivered on foot through no man’s land.

Corporal Schofield ( George MacKay) in 1917.

[SPOILER ALERT]

What follows is a breathtaking journey of these two corporals across the battlefields and trenches of the Western Front in 1917. The 2nd Devons are supposedly located in the Croisilles Wood, near the commune of Écoust-Saint-Meine in France. Whether that forest really exists, I’m not sure as there are many patches of woods between Écoust and Croisilles. In our world, Croisilles is actually northwest of Écoust.

Studying the war diaries of the 2nd Devons, one can discover that they never entered Écoust nor Croisilles. So where were the 2nd Devons on April 6 and 7, 1917? According to the war diaries, they were in billets in the town of Moislains where the battalion supplied Working Parties during the day. On April 7, the battalion moved from Moislains to Aizecourt-le-Bas. Both of these towns are approximately 30 kilometers (19 miles) away from Croisilles. It would take six hours of walking from Aizecourt to the Croisilles.

Did the scriptwriters have any knowledge of military organization?

The unit of Blake and Schofield were not mentioned until Schofield addressed himself as ‘Lance Corporal Schofield of the 8th’ to Colonel Mackenzie, the Commander of the 2nd Devons. Now, this could mean two things: the 8th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment or the 8th Division of which the 2nd Battalion was officially part of. During the First and Second World War, regiments were not part of the order of battle in the infantry division. The battalions of the regiments were spread over infantry brigades that were made up of usually four battalions of different regiments. The 2nd Devons were part of the 32nd Infantry Brigade of the 8th Infantry Division, and the 8th Devons were part of the 20th Infantry Brigade of the 7th Infantry Division.

War Diary April, 1917 (National Archives WO 95/1655/2)

The real Devons in Écoust were the 8th Devons

By this point, one can say the scriptwriters either didn’t understand or wanted to follow the organization of the army. It is more plausible that Blake and Schofield were part of the 8th Battalion. This Battalion actually liberated Croisilles and Écoust on April 4, 1917. This can be seen in their war diaries of April 1917. These diaries contain a whole report of operations in the town of Écoust. The battle at Écoust resulted in more than 112 deaths for the Battalion.

Moreover, the letter that Blake was carrying also hinted that the film took place somewhere on the Western Front instead of a more historically correct location. At one point in the film, ’18th Division’ can be seen on the back of a letter, but this Division didn’t exist until the Second World War.

For a normal viewer, none of this would matter as Mendes’ film grabs your attention from the first scene until the very last moment. He has shaped a world that allows his audience to understand life near and on the front line.

One thought to “1917: The Film vs. What Really Happened”

  • Ben

    I just watched this film for the first time, and have been googling the locations, having lived nearby in southern Belgium for 3 years of my youth.

    I don’t know anything about Military Organization, and have no reason to doubt any of your research of primary documents regarding troop locations on the relevant dates.

    My only comment is to suggest that while no “Bois de Crosille” may exist today, it is certainly possible that it existed at the time.

    Many of the woods all along the front were barraged to the ground during the war in order to destroy cover. Or to destroy the units who were taking cover within. Also, as the industrial era progressed into the early 20th century, tracts reserved for local timber needs were cleared for farmland as the transport of timber from distant regions become more economically efficient.

    The fact that the woods are named after Croisilles does not mean that they must have been entirely located in Croisilles. As with roads, a length of forest might be named for a town at one end, while the forest itself extends a great distance away.

    On google earth, I see some hints that a canal (a canal is depicted in the film between the corporals’ starting point and Ecoust) may once have existed running roughly east-west through both Ecoust and Croisilles, and of course many canals have been abandoned with the advancements of rails and trucking after the war.

    The river depicted in the film is a bit more of a mystery, however, again, there are very long lines of trees in the area suggesting rivers which no longer exist. Certainly in my region of Eastern North Carolina, I have records of creeks existing in 1910 which now consist only of ditches between farm fields. Developments of hydroelectric dams, increased farmland acreage and other factors can easily result in the disappearance of small rivers or creeks over 100 years.

    Anyway, thanks for the info on the 8th Devons, you saved me some research time on that one 🙂

    Cheers

    Reply

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