This week, the movie 1917 comes to UK and US cinemas. Directed and produced by Oscar-winner Sam Mendes, 1917 tells the story of two British soldiers, Schofield and Blake. The men are in a race against time to deliver a message calling off a doomed attack in which the lives of hundreds of men, including Blake’s own brother, are at stake. Set in April 1917, the movie focuses on a little-known period of the First World War on the western front, when the German Army conducted a major retreat from positions they had occupied throughout 1915 and 1916 into a new, specially-built defensive position: this was known as the Hindenburg Line.
The story of Operation Alberich – Germany’s retreat into the Hindenburg Line – occupies a relatively minor place in histories of this period, which often focus on the devastating events in Russia that were taking place at the same time (the February Revolution that began Russia’s descent into Bolshevik tyranny, for example). Operation Alberich is often seen as a minor annex to the allied campaign on the Somme in 1916, or simply as a prequel to the spring offensives of 1917 that provoked mutinies in the French Army. In fact, it marked an important phase in the Great War and revealed how much had changed since the opening round of fighting in August and September 1914.
What did Germany retreat in 1917?
By the end of 1916, the First World War was more than two years old and there was no indication that it would end any time soon. Throughout the year, heavy and sustained fighting had taken place at Verdun and the Somme, twin battles that produced spiralling casualties but did little to bring about a decision for either side. In late August 1916, the German Chief of the General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, was replaced by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, assisted by his deputy, Erich Ludendorff. Both men had been brought in to provide a fresh assessment of Germany’s situation, which was looking increasingly precarious.
Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg meets troops during the First World War. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Caught in two brutal battles and facing growing Entente superiority in manpower and artillery [Entente being the understanding between Britain, France and Russia], the German Army was being ground down in what they called the materialschlacht (the ‘material battle’). The British and French Armies were now able to wield thousands of guns and millions of shells, turning the front into a shell-pocked wasteland. They also devised new means of breaking the trench deadlock – using tanks, for example, which made their debut in September 1916. As Ludendorff later wrote, Germany “had to bear in mind that the enemy’s great superiority in men and material would be even more painfully felt in 1917 than in 1916”. Ludendorff grew concerned that the German Army’s strength was fading. “If the war lasted, our defeat seemed inevitable.”
Recognising that the German Army could not withstand a recurrence of ‘Somme fighting’ in the following year, Hindenburg and Ludendorff authorised the creation of a vast new defensive position in France running from Arras, west of Cambrai, St Quentin, down to Vailly-sur-Aisne, which straightened out the ‘great bulge’ in the western front, shortening their front line by 30 miles and releasing 10 divisions from defensive duty. The retreat into the Hindenburg Line began on 9 February 1917 and over the course of the following week German troops moved into their new positions, laying waste to a vast zone of French countryside in which orchards were felled, villages razed to the ground, bridges blown, and roads and railways torn up.
An unsure response
The allied powers responded fitfully as the German line began to give way. General Robert Nivelle, the French Commander-in-Chief, was already planning a massive new offensive for the spring of 1917 in which two armies would attack along the Aisne river towards the Chemin des Dames Ridge northeast of Soissons. Unsure how to respond to the German Army’s retreat into the Hindenburg Line, he ignored growing calls from his subordinates to alter their plans and catch the enemy off balance with a sudden attack. Nivelle could not be moved, insisting: “There seems little likelihood that the enemy will abandon without fighting, and indeed without resisting to the utmost, one of the principal pledges he holds on our soil, that is to say the line nearest Paris, which includes Roye, Noyon and Soissons.”
Tentatively, the British and French forces moved forward, unsure of what was ahead of them and aghast at the swathe of desolate ground they encountered. It was this destruction that gives 1917 some of its visual power and which is a crucial part of the story. In contrast to most films about the First World War, where static trench warfare is a central theme, 1917 shows the two protagonists making their way across the razed ground, dealing with rampaging biplanes and shell-shocked civilians; offering an unfamiliar and disorientating theme of movement in a war usually known for its immobility.
By the time the German retreat had come to an end and the Hindenburg Line had been occupied at the end of March 1917, allied plans for the rest of the year had been badly scuppered. With more German divisions available to resist Nivelle’s thrust along the Aisne, there was much less chance that his forces would be able to break through, restore the war of movement and deal the German armies a decisive blow. When his attack finally went ahead on 16 April, the result was a disaster. Two French armies attacked uphill through snowstorms and sheets of hail and sleet, making gains but getting bogged down in fierce fighting along the bare slopes of the Chemin des Dames.
Barbed wire defences on the Hindenburg Line. The German retreat had come to an end by the end of March 1917. (Herbert/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
The British fared better. Sir Douglas Haig’s British Expeditionary Force had struggled through a bloody campaign on the Somme in 1916 but mounted a promising preliminary attack at Arras on 9 April 1917, using revised infantry tactics and the latest techniques in artillery registration [involving laying guns for better accuracy by adjusting the gun’s range and trajectory based on weather/wind conditions]. Following a punishing preliminary bombardment and creeping barrage, Canadian troops secured the heights around Vimy and dealt the German Army a heavy blow in the north. But it mattered little. So much hope had been invested in Nivelle’s offensive that its failure sparked off mutinies in the French Army that almost brought the First World War to a premature end.
Sam Mendes’s film brings some welcome attention to the pivotal year of 1917, showing how greater forces were at work. (Image by Universal Film Studios)
What did the German retreat achieve?
Despite the sense of failure that hung over allied operations in the spring of 1917, Hindenburg and Ludendorff saw little reason to crow. The occupation of the Hindenburg Line had bought time and given Germany a greater flexibility in how they fended off enemy attacks, but allied superiority in the technological and industrial methods of war (including air power, armour and artillery) would only strengthen as the war continued.
In August 1916 Germany launched the Hindenburg Programme, a renewed campaign of domestic industrial production aimed at matching British, French and later American output [following the USA’s formal entry into the war in April 1917], but the situation darkened during 1917 as allied forces launched a renewed series of attacks, at Arras, Messines, Ypres and along the Aisne.
The year 1917 would see some of the greatest crises of the 20th century: America’s entry into the First World War; Russia’s tumble into revolution; and the intensification of fighting on the western front, which set the scene for the climactic operations of 1918 when the fate of Europe would be decided. Sam Mendes’s film brings some welcome attention to this pivotal year, and in the German retreat into the Hindenburg Line we can see how greater forces were at work that would go on to have profound implications for the nature of warfare and the outcome of the First World War.
Nick Lloyd is reader in military and imperial history at King’s College London based at the Joint Services Command & Staff College in Shrivenham.