Hunted by Snipers: How Director Sam Mendes’ Hero Grandad Inspired The WWI Movie 1917

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

The film chosen for the 71st Royal Film Performance to be held on the 4th December, is 1917 a WWI drama directed by the great Sam Mendes. The film, 1917, is highly anticipated and expected to be a colossal money-earner.

The film is based around the story of two young soldiers that are tasked with carrying a message across the lines to prevent 1,600 men walking into an ambush. Making the story more poignant is the fact that the brother of one of the messengers is in the group that needs to be warned.

The story that influenced Mendes to make this film came from listening to his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, tell stories of his life in the trenches during WWI. Alfred was awarded the Military Medal for bravery during his service in WWI.

Alfred recounted his wartime memoirs in his autobiography, Autobiography of Alfred H Mendes 1897-1991. In this fantastic book are stories of Alfred’s courage, as well as the sexy romps in which he took part!

Military records indicate that Mendes came to Britain in January 1916, and six months later, in June, he was enlisted into the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade. The Brigade was posted to Oisemont, a small town near Dieppe in France where he was to train as a signaller.

Alfred recounts how he did not want to be a signaller and would have preferred to qualify as a machine gunner, as he believed that would be of more use in the war.

Alfred was then posted to Passchendaele, an area pockmarked by shell craters that was both depressing and dangerous. At dawn on the 12th October 1917, the British troops were sent to the Passchendaele Ridge to protect the village of Poelcappelle.

It was dreadful weather with the rain pouring down, and the attack ended in disaster, with almost a third of the soldiers killed. The rest were left strewn across the brutal WWI battlefield in water-filled craters.

The only way to find out where everyone was, was to send messengers to each cater in no-man’s land to find them and pass on instructions. When the commanding officer asked for volunteers to undertake this hazardous mission, Alfred stepped forward.

As he left the safety of the trenches, the rain stopped, making him a clear target for German snipers and machine gunners. Soon bullets were whizzing past his head. Alfred believed that the Germans were a little disconcerted at seeing a lone man wandering around in no-man’s land, perhaps thinking that he was crazy. They then made little effort to actually hit him.

Sam Mendes. Photo: Richard Goldschmidt / CC-BY SA 3.0
Sam Mendes. Photo: Richard Goldschmidt / CC-BY SA 3.0

He located many of the survivors. After braving the gauntlet of enemy fire, he arrived safely back at the headquarters trench of C Company.

Alfred was fond of recounting the story of his two wet, muddy, terrifying days in WWI in no-man’s land where he stumbled into a German pillbox manned by ten German soldiers; all of whom surrendered to him! It was for these two days that Alfred was awarded the Military Cross.

This episode was the apparent basis for the film that his grandson, Sam, would make.

In the film, the action takes place in France just after the Germans retreated to the Hindenburg Line at the time of Operation Alberich. Two young British soldiers, Schofield, played by George MacKay and Blake, played by Dean-Charles Chapman, are tasked with carrying a message that warns of an ambush.

The British battalion of 1,600 men, one of whom is Blake’s brother, must be notified, but they are on the other side of enemy lines, so the mission is fraught with danger.

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Included in the star-laden cast are Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Claire Duburcq, Mark Strong, Richard Madden, and Colin Firth. The film will be released to the public on Christmas Day in the USA and on 10th January in Europe.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE