The real trench runners of WW1

Sam Mendes’s blockbuster film 1917 follows two young British Army messengers in an against-the-clock attempt to deliver a message behind enemy lines. Historian Alexandra Churchill reveals what the conflict was like for the real trench runners of World War One

A despatch rider during WW1, as featured in new Sam Mendes film '1917'

With the release of 1917, film director Sam Mendes promises a unique, continuous-shot cinematic experience that won’t feel like your average war film. The premise concerns two British Army messengers crossing enemy lines to deliver a crucial communication that could save the lives of 1,600 of their comrades. The action is set amid the German staged retreat to the Hindenburg Line at the beginning of 1917, and as a time of chaos and unpredictability, it gives a writer much scope to stretch their imagination. I should know – I chose exactly the same setting for my 2016 novel Black Winter. It makes the plot improbable, rather than impossible, and I’m looking forward to a hugely entertaining watch. But what was life really like for messengers in the First World War?

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Firstly, they didn’t necessarily operate on foot. A feature of the First World War was the graduation from horse-mounted men delivering information to the motorcycle despatch rider. Operating towards the rear of the front lines, it was still a risky existence. The terrain was difficult, as was the maintenance of temperamental vehicles by complete amateurs at times when the British Army was still fighting a war dominated by movement.

A feature of the First World War was the graduation from horse-mounted men delivering information to the motorcycle despatch rider

One 27-year-old messenger, named George Fletcher, grew to despise his motorbike. He had no experience of them before the war and spent much of late 1914 pushing it rather than riding it, kicking it, cursing it at every opportunity, and wishing he had a horse instead. With all sides covering ground rapidly, it was easy to end up with the wrong army. On one night during the retreat of 1914, Fletcher rode into the middle of a German patrol. Luckily for him, he taught French and German at Eton, and he simply began bellowing at the men and pretending to be one of their officers, before jumping on his bike and making his escape before they realised what was happening. Luckily, on this occasion, the motorbike behaved.

George Fletcher, who served as a trench messenger during the First World War
George Fletcher, who served as a trench messenger during the First World War. (Image by Alexandra Churchill)

Despatch riders are a good example of how new technologies and innovations changed communications at the front. But although innovation exploded during the Great War – especially in terms of artillery – in actual fact, the progression of technology did not make the humble runner, who had operated on the field of battle for thousands of years, redundant. Radio communications were still primitive, and therefore units relied on contact maintained by field telephones linked up by vulnerable copper wire, often laid tentatively around surviving tree stumps and along trenches. As soon as battalions disappeared into the lines for a spell in the trenches, all it took was one shell among thousands to smash the delicate telephone wire and cut them off from those in charge. Then, officers would begin calling on their runners, because the best way to ensure that your orders had definitely arrived was still to send a man on foot.

Despatch riders at Gallipoli
Despatch riders, such as these soldiers at Gallipoli, show how new technologies and innovations changed communications at the front. (Image by Alexandra Churchill)

What was the job of a trench messenger like?

A lot of runners doubled up as ‘batmen’, or officer’s servants. This could be a plum job, with better conditions. Often, if a man had experience as a runner, he would be continually recruited by new officers throughout the war. As commanders died, the runners moved on and changed units.

Others remained with the rest of the men until they were called back to headquarters to deliver a sealed envelope or a discreetly folded piece of paper. The runner would shove it safely in his pocket and be on his way. This could go on for days as German batteries continually shelled telephone communications out of existence. Messages went from company to company in the trenches, back to battalion headquarters or even further, to brigade or divisional HQ.

A messenger delivers information on the western front
A messenger delivers information on the western front. (Image by Alexandra Churchill)

If runners were new to a unit or area, they didn’t necessarily know where they were going. They were expected to be self-sufficient and were often left to find a route for themselves with no guidance. One man admitted to nearly wandering into German lines looking for an officer before the recipient stopped him, took the note and gave him directions to get home safely. Another recalled ambling around Mons during a battle with no clue where headquarters was.

Though runners might have been awarded a little extra comfort for looking after an officer, it was by no means a safe job. At the beginning of the war, one messenger recalled that no communication trenches had yet been dug to link up the burgeoning British system. To deliver a message, he would have to wait for dark, roll out of the trench, run to the next one and roll in, hoping to evade any German snipers.

And the situation had not improved much by 1917, when another runner was tasked with delivering a message to a British machine-gun position in no man’s land, beyond the barbed wire. He lost his way in the dark and couldn’t find the entrance to the nest. The Germans spotted him, sent up a star shell that illuminated his position and began shelling him. The barrage landed perilously close either side of him until the Germans finally found their mark and blew him up. Buried alive, with just one arm and his head sticking out of the mud, the messenger was trapped until someone pulled him out. He suffered from deep shock and remembered nothing from the next 24 hours.

Perhaps the most (in)famous runner of the Great War? One Adolf Hitler. Debate reigns as to how close to danger he actually came, and it is hard to separate historical fact from later propaganda. As a regimental runner, the future dictator did not occupy the most dangerous of positions; working further forward with a battalion or a company would have been more perilous. He was awarded the Iron Cross twice. The first was a common award, but the second, not so (though it was often awarded to soldiers who happened to work in proximity to Headquarters). Hitler received his after an attack in which normal communications were rendered obsolete and messengers were absolutely crucial.

Adolf Hitler during the First World War
Adolf Hitler (right) with fellow foot soldiers during the First World War. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

What was communication like in the trenches?

The British Army tried every back up they could think of to maintain contact with troops when they went into battle. They laid sheets out on the ground with markers; they sent aeroplanes to record reflective discs and coloured patches attached to soldiers’ backs as they watched their advance; they used flares and Morse lamps. Feathered messengers were prevalent, and pigeons were used to maintain knowledge of where troops were on the map and how they were progressing. They even rode in baskets in the first tanks, ready to send back news of these new machines’ trundling advances. But still the runner was a crucial part of any engagement when men disappeared over the top and out of sight of their commanders.

A still from Sam Mendes film '1917'
The events of 1917 represent a hypothetical and one-off situation as far as runners are concerned, says Alexandra Churchill. (Image by Universal Film Studios)

In the summer of 1916, Delville Wood, on the Somme, seemed a heinous, unfathomable spectre to British troops. One runner was ordered to climb out from his cover and find a way back through the inferno with a note. He dodged shells, corpses and German snipers until he found another man attempting to make the same run. Together, they searched for a way out. While crossing a sunken road, they discovered a grisly spectacle – the bodies of as many as a hundred British soldiers, all killed seemingly by a barrage of shells while coming from the battle. They had lain there undiscovered until they became blackened by the sun. The runner remembered one that lay on a stretcher with a leg missing, and four more men, one still attached to each handle, who had died in the act of carrying him away.

Carrying messages by foot in the middle of a battle could be a lonely, terrifying experience. While other men hid from terrifying artillery barrages, messengers would be expected to run the gauntlet to and from various headquarters to keep the battle moving forward, whatever the risk.

The events of 1917 represent a hypothetical and one-off situation as far as runners are concerned. It’s entertainment, not a documentary. That said, for those that really did that set off with messages across all fronts, life could be dangerous, unpredictable and required both bravery and an ability to adapt under the most dramatic of circumstances if they were to complete the mission they had been given.

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Alexandra Churchill is a historian and author, whose publications include In the Eye of the Storm: George V and the Great War (2018).