Next week marks the centenary of the start of one of the most important battles of World War One. It comes the same week as a new film depicting trench life in the build up to the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser's Battle) is released in the United States.
Almost a hundred years ago, British soldiers sat in cold and muddy trenches all along the Western Front knowing exactly what horrors they were about to face. After three and a half years of trench warfare, having been gassed, shelled, sniped at, and ordered over the top, war-weary and shell-shocked men were about to be consumed by a ‘Grey Avalanche.’ From Field-Marshall Haig to the youngest private soldier in an infantry company peering out into no-man’s land, everyone was fully aware of what was about to happen.
Since the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914 Germany had been forced to fight a war on two fronts. After the Russian Revolution and subsequent treaty signed at Brest-Litovsk, Germany was finally able to move thousands of fresh troops to the west. By the middle of March 1918, Germany had 192 divisions in the field – the allies only 156. Even though the United States had entered the war a year earlier it was taking time to deploy its divisions to France. Germany knew it had to win the war before the might of the United States could be brought to bear. So as soon the weather permitted it would attack with overwhelming force, defeat the British and French and be able to dictate any subsequent peace talks.
British defensive positions were constructed with the major consideration being depth with which to absorb and fend off the German Army when it attacked. Three zones – Forward, Battle and Rear – were lines of defensive positions with intermediate lines in between each of those, all of which were connected by support trenches. A five division corps area of operations would typically have three divisions in the ‘Forward’ and ‘Battle’ line trenches, and two divisions in the ‘Rear’ and ‘Battle’ line trenches. This strength in depth would prevent any German breakthrough, but for the battalions in the ‘Forward’ trenches, there was no escape. The artillery bombardment, mustard gas and overwhelming numbers of German infantry meant they would be wiped out. Generals many miles to the rear offered these men up as a speed bump to the on-coming juggernaut.
This latest WW1 film to hit the big screen depicts one of these battalions who had to face the German onslaught a century ago. Set in trenches around St. Quentin, the story follows a young recruit, Lieutenant Raleigh who has pulled strings to be in the same company as his childhood hero, Captain Stanhope. The captain is horrified that Raleigh is now in harm’s way. Stanhope is shattered by war, a shell of the man he once was, altered by three years witnessing death and destruction. The only thing that had kept him going was returning to his sweetheart, Raleigh’s sister, Margaret.
Adapted from a 1928 play, from the trailers I have seen and according to critics who have written about it, the film has a level of gravitas missing from some depictions of the war. Written just a decade after the Armistice, RC Sheriff, an officer in the East Surrey Regiment, used his experience at Vimy Ridge, Loos and Passchendaele to bring true authenticity to language and dialogue that has in turn come through in this new adaption.
After being seriously injured at Passchendaele, Sheriff returned to England where he became a writer whilst convalescing. He found it difficult getting Journey’s End produced – no one was interested in a play about the war and especially one that had no leading lady. It was eventually picked up by the Incorporated Stage Society on the recommendation of George Bernard Shaw and opened at the Apollo Theatre for just one night. Cast in the role of Captain Stanhope was a young actor by the name of Laurence Olivier. It was a huge success, transferring to the Prince of Wales Theatre where it ran for two years. Now adapted in many languages and played all over the world, Journey’s End is set to be released a century after the real-life and death events that inspired it.
RC Sherriff would go on to become a successful playwright and novelist. He would be nominated for an Academy award as co-writer of Goodbye Mr. Chips, and his screenplays The Dam Busters, and The Night My Number Came Up, were nominated for BAFTA awards. RC Sherriff died in 1978, aged 79.
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