The film '1917' and the allegory of the wooden-headed

The recently released film “1917” is a cinematically stunning and dramatically riveting “war movie”.  I have no quibble with its receipt earlier this month of the Golden Globe award for best film of 2019 (albeit Quinton Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” a sort of anti-history of the Manson murders, is equally deserving).  But I want to argue here that it is so much more than a typical war-genre film.

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.” [1]

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.”[2]

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.

Cataclysms, of course, were nothing new in the history of warfare, when World War I rolled around.  Also not new was the abysmal “wooden-headedness” of military leadership. Credit Barbara W. Tuchman for introducing this label in her 1984 book The March of Folly.[3]  Tuchman, who built her reputation on the First World War with The Guns of August[4]some two decades earlier, walks us through a series of military disasters from the Trojans’ acceptance of the wooden horse, through the Brits’ loss of the American colonies, to America’s Vietnam debacle.

Still, for sheer stupidity, World War I arguably has no equal, either before or since.  The eminent English historian Martin Gilbert sums it up for us in his The First World War: A Complete History. “The destructiveness of the First World War, in terms of the number of soldiers killed, exceeded that of all other wars known to history.”  He approximates the total as 8,626,000.[5]  While World War II --- which some might characterize as a continuation and final resolution of WWI --- exceeded this figure in total human carnage (principally due to the extension of total war to civilian populations), eight-plus million remains a stunning figure.  It also remains a tragic figure in light of the technological innovations available literally at the fingertips of the generals who, time and again, threw the flower of their national manhood at the barbed wire and machine guns.

The Context of “1917”

Wolff observes, “The conflict which had exploded in 1914 was, it was felt at the time, fortunately going to be a short one…. [I]n the event, the unexpected power of the defensive… brusquely smashed the respective military schemes….”[6]  After the opponents crashed head on “like two mountain goats” in 1914, the Western Front solidified.  Still both sides clung to the dream that victory by the weight of men and artillery massed could win.  Iron will was rated higher than iron tanks.  “In 1916 Foch, under the continuing delusion that sheer will power could break through barbed wire and machine guns, further drained the life blood of France in vast, notorious battles….”[7]

Wolff goes on to tell us that 1917 would have been a good year to end the struggle.  Both sides were bled white and exhausted.  Instead, first the French and next the British launched new, abortive offensives.

By the time of the Third Battle of Ypres, Field Marshall Haig was again convinced that he could 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 largely a novelty. Haig, himself a cavalry officer, clung to the view that his beloved horse soldiers would play a crucial role in his triumph; once the vaunted breakthrough occurred, they would pour through the gap and seize the day. Claims Wolff, “By 1917 Field Marshall Haig had lost not a particle of his optimism and self-esteem, though all his offensives to date had miscarried, the war was a stalemate, British casualties exceeded a million, and his fitness for command had become a known matter of debate….”[8]

This, then, is the context in which the protagonists of “1917” go off across No Man’s Land, carrying a typewritten message.  And, as I have said, the story is indeed an engaging one.  Still, no matter how one cheers for our side, no matter how we clutch the arms of our seats in our anxiety for their fate and that of the troops they are attempting to warn of impending disaster, when the theater’s lights go up, we are left with a gnawing suspicion that we’ve been had.  After all, it was 1917.  Wasn’t there an easier way?

Why not a wireless message?

At the film’s start, we are informed that those nasty Germans, as they retreated, unhelpfully cut all the telephone lines in the abandoned trenches. But wait.  What about wireless radio?

In Intelligence in War, another eminent British military historian, John Keegan, writes, “Between 1897 and 1899…, Marconi so much improved his apparatus that by 1900 the British Admiralty had decided to adopt wireless as a principal means of communication….”[9]  Keegan added that wireless worked better at sea than on land for a variety of technical reasons.  However, he granted that laxity in the use of unencoded (“clear”) communications was a greater hindrance to effective wireless communication on the battlefield than was technical difficulty.[10]

As with the tank, so it was with the wireless radio.  Per Keegan, “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.” (my emphasis) The technology was known. It was either available or readily adaptable.  It was the will to adapt that was missing.  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 at the German’s Hindenburg Line.

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.

Then why not an airplane?

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[11]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. 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, with his blood up Mackenzie might ignore the order and proceed with his planned attack. But 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 (to a limited degree at least) an accepted innovation on both sides.

Airpower, admittedly, was in its infancy.  Pilots, similar to knights of old, fought one on one for control of the sky. Beyond scouting the enemy’s lines, they did little of real use to the war effort.  Bombing raids, which were the hallmarks of the Battle of Britain 20 years on, were novelties in WWI.  Still, the capacity of a biplane or two to get the message to Mackenzie seems beyond debate.

So, is Director Mendes’s tale no more than a contrivance for dramatic effect?

I don’t think so.  If one accepts his claim that he inherited his story from his granddad’s lips, and we also take Keegan at his word that the generals clung to the hand-carried message, then the yarn takes on the trappings of veracity.  Add into the mix the ample circumstantial evidence --- Haig clinging to his faith in cavalry, when early experiments with armored tanks had proven them efficacious, for example --- and “1917” is a microcosmic dramatization of Tuchman’s “wooden-headedness” thesis.

A cautionary tale for today?

The March of Folly’s finale is Vietnam. Just as the Germans learned from World War One and opened hostilities in 1938 with “blitzkrieg” (lightening war), the American military learned from its bloody humiliation in Southeast Asia. This was demonstrated in spades in Kuwait in 1991.

But wooden-headedness, like all traits of human nature, is intractable. Assuming that Bush the Elder’s lightning war against Iraq was the appropriate template, Bush the Younger plunged us back into Iraq in 2003.  Seventeen years later, not only are we still there.  We may be only one more drone strike away from a new Middle East war.

Viewed with one eye on this current context, “1917” can surmount its surface characterization as an exciting “war movie” to become an allegory. “As a literary device, an allegory is a narrative, whether in prose or verse, in which a character, place or event is used to deliver a broader message about real-world issues and occurrences.”[12]  Instead of “1917,” let me propose the alternative title “The Allegory of the Wooden-headed,” with a suitable bow to the late, great Barbara Tuchman.

[1](New York: Time, Inc. edition, 1963) pages 122-23.

[2]Ibid. at xxxvi.

[3](New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1984) at p. 7 (“Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government.”)

[4](New York: The MacMillan Co., 1966)

[5]Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History (New York: Henry Holt & Company 1994) at pages 540-41.

[6]Wolff, op. cit., page 6.

[7]Ibid., page 9

[8]Ibid., page 53.

[9]John Keegan, Intelligence in War (New York: Random House 2004) at page 102.

[10]Ibid. at page 144.

James Castagnera holds a JD and a PhD (American Studies) from Case Western Reserve University. He is a shareholder and chief consultant of Holland Media Services, LLC.