Some thoughts on the film “1917” (2019)

Secret Panda

I saw this Sam Mendes directed film in the IFI back in the Before-Time. As you know, it deals with an imaginary episode from the eponymous year, where two soldiers are sent running to halt a British advance into a carefully laid German trap. As such the premise subverts some of the clichés of First World War films, which more usually feature callous or delusional generals sending the lower ranks off to certain death.

For me much of the film’s appeal lies with the Roger Deakins cinematography – as with everything he touches, it looks amazing and keeps managing to present stunningly composed shots and images to the viewer. The attack scene at the end is obviously one such, but there are many others. The strange scene in the woods where a unit’s commander sings the folk song ‘I Am A Poor Wayfaring stranger’ to his men before they attack…

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December 1917

Britain takes Jerusalem. Russia agrees an armistice with Germany and starts negotiations towards a peace treaty. The Bolsheviks consolidate their power. Australia rejects conscription. War brings famine to East Africa.

2/12/1917 Using unconventional methods, the Bolsheviks assert their power over the State Bank and the army

6/12/1917 Finland declares independence again

6/12/1917 The Halifax Explosion: a Canadian city devastated

7/12/1917 Cambrai: a bloody draw but a German victory on points

9/12/1917 Jerusalem falls to the British

9/12/1917 Romania throws in the towel

11/12/1917 Allenby arrives in Jerusalem

13/12/1917 Motuihe jailbreak: a German pirate busts loose

15/12/1917 Russia and Germany agree an armistice

16/12/1917 Turkey’s extermination of the Armenians

17/12/1917 Canada’s conscription election

18/12/1917 Russia and Turkey agree an armistice

19/12/1917 Russia’s voters reject the Bolsheviks

19/12/1917 Britain attempts to close the Channel to U-boats

20/12/1917 Australia votes against conscription again

20/12/1917 The Cheka: Soviet Russia’s political police force

21/12/1917 Germany’s sea wolf Luckner at bay

22/12/1917 As civil war begins in Russia, Soviet and German delegates meet at Brest-Litovsk

25/12/1917 Creeping authoritarianism in Russia

26/12/1917 Brest-Litovsk: Trotsky spins out the peace talks

30/12/1917 Germany and Austria’s winter of hunger

31/12/1917 Chaos in Trebizond as the Russian army disintegrates

31/12/1917 The horrors of war in German East Africa

image sources:

Allenby arrives in Jerusalem on foot (Wikipedia: the Battle of Jerusalem)

New Zealand officers celebrate Christmas on the Western Front (Mental Floss WWI Centennial: Last Christmas At War)

map (Mental Floss WWI Centennial: Armistice on the Eastern Front)

see also:

Monthly Archive 1917

November 1917

January 1918

@ww1liveblog (Twitter)

World War 1 Live Blog (Facebook)

November 1917

Red October: the Bolsheviks seize power in Russia. Britain pushes into Palestine. The Balfour Declaration. The muddy hell of Passchendaele winds down. Caporetto ends with the Italians thrown back to the Piave. Cambrai: triumph of the tanks, then the Germans strike back.

1/11/1917 Allenby prepares to strike against Gaza

1/11/1917 A new German Chancellor

2/11/1917 Caporetto: the unstoppable Teutons cross the Tagliamento

5/11/1917 Mesopotamia: Britain takes Tikrit

6/11/1917 Rapallo: Allied leaders demand Cadorna’s head

6/11/1917 Kerensky’s failed attempt to crush the Bolsheviks

6/11/1917 Passchendaele finally falls to the Canadians

7/11/1917 Gaza falls to Allenby

7/11/1917 The Bolsheviks seize power in Petrograd

7/11/1917 Lawrence brings the Arab Revolt to Syria

9/11/1917 The Balfour Declaration: Britain gives away Palestine

9/11/1917 Caporetto: as the enemy advance falters, Italy sacks Cadorna

9/11/1917 The embattled Bolshevik government decrees land reform, bans the opposition press

11/11/1917 The Mons Conference: Ludendorff decides to attack the British next year

12/11/1917 As the Bolsheviks’ situation improves, Kerensky departs the stage

14/11/1917 Caporetto winds down as Italy manages to hold the enemy at the Piave

16/11/1917 Georges Clemenceau, France’s latest Prime Minister

17/11/1917 The Bolsheviks tighten their grip on power

18/11/1917 Allenby decides to press on towards Jerusalem

20/11/1917 Cambrai: triumph of the tanks

21/11/1915 Germany’s Zeppelin safari

23/11/1917 Germany’s Zeppelin safari aborted

23/11/1917 Cambrai: British progress stalls

25/11/1917 Negomano: Lettow-Vorbeck smashes the Portuguese

25/11/1917 Russia votes for a Constituent Assembly

26/11/1917 Sykes-Picot revealed: the world learns of British and French plans to carve up the Middle East

27/11/1917 Cambrai: as British attacks halt, the Germans prepare for a counterattack

29/11/1917 Fate catches up with German fighter pilot Erwin Böhme

30/11/1917 Cambrai: the Germans strike back

image sources:

poster (Robert Graham’s Anarchist Weblog – The Russian Tragedy: Alexander Berkman on the Russian Revolution)

map (Mental Floss WWI Centennial: The Second Bolshevik Coup Attempt Succeeds)

see also:

Monthly Archive 1917

October 1917

@ww1liveblog (Twitter)

World War 1 Live Blog (Facebook)

31/12/1917 The horrors of war in German East Africa #1917Live

The outcome of this war will no doubt be decided in Europe, but the conflict nevertheless stretches its tentacles further afield. By now Germany’s overseas colonies have mostly been overrun, but in German East Africa Lettow-Vorbeck still flies the flag for the Kaiser, despite his isolation from the Fatherland and the much larger forces the British Empire is deploying against him. Lettow-Vorbeck’s army is mostly composed of locally recruited African troops, with a small number of white German officers in command. At this stage his main goal is not to defeat his enemies but to keep his army in the field, thereby preventing the Allies from transferring the troops he is fighting to the Western Front.

The armies deployed in East Africa are tiny compared to those seen in Europe. The casualties they suffer in combat are insignificant in comparison to those seen at Verdun or Passchendaele. But this is not some kind of clean war devoid of human suffering. For the native population of German East Africa, this war has been an utter disaster. Lettow-Vorbeck is keeping his army in the field by confiscating the food supplies of the local civilian population. As a result, famine and pestilence stalk the land. Some 300,000 people have died from the famine since the war’s start, roughly 5% of the colony’s pre-war population.

Lettow-Vorbeck is not just taking the people’s food: he is also taking their men. Some of these are press-ganged into his army to make up the numbers lost in the fighting, but more are seized as labourers. The poor roads and the vulnerability of horses to the Tsetse fly mean that men make the best carriers of an army’s essentials.

The British too are press-ganging a vast number of labourers from their colonies to serve in East Africa. Like the Germans, the British are treating these labourers effectively as slaves. They are also underfeeding them relative to their African soldiers, with the result that the labourers are severely malnourished and thereby vulnerable to disease. The African labourers pressed into service by the British have a higher mortality rate than infantrymen serving on the Western Front.

image source:

British troops and African bearers (Wikipedia: East African Campaign)

See also: How The Great War Razed East Africa

31/12/1917 Chaos in Trebizond as the Russian army disintegrates #1917Live

The war against Turkey had gone well for Russia, but now the Bolsheviks have signed an armistice with the Turks, agreeing to return their gains since the war’s start. Russian forces are now withdrawing from the former frontline. The situation is becoming chaotic as the Russian army disintegrates, leaving a power vacuum in the countryside.

In the Black Sea port of Trebizond (also known as Trabzon), Russian troops are out of control, defying their officers to either commandeer ships to bring themselves home or engaging in riotous bacchanalia. The Russian army commanders in Trebizond declare martial law in an attempt to bring the disorders to an end, but the effort is futile; they no longer have any means with which to enforce their authority.

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Trebizond in more peaceful times (Karalahana – Turkey’s Black Sea Region: Old Trabzon photos)

30/12/1917 Germany and Austria’s winter of hunger #1917Live

Germany and Austria-Hungary have had a good year on the battlefield, effectively knocking Russia out of the war and crippling Italy while Germany repelled enemy attacks on the Western Front. At home though things are more problematic. The British blockade and the wartime decline in agricultural production have led to food shortages. In Germany no one is starving as such, but civilian mortality rates are around a third higher than in peace time. Because food is being funnelled to the army and to workers in war industries, those deemed surplus to the war effort are getting the least to eat and so are vulnerable to illness and malnutrition.

The situation is worse in Austria-Hungary. The railway network is less extensive, making it harder to transport food to where it is needed, and the authorities have been less successful at organising an effective distribution of food. Agricultural Hungary has also restricted the transfer of food to the industrial regions of Austria. Large numbers of people are going hungry and actual starvation is a real threat to the urban poor.

Germany’s U-boat campaign was meant to bring the war to a victorious end but instead it has brought the USA into the war against the Central Powers. The leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary fear the indefinite continuation of the war will lead to revolution. Emperor Karl of Austria-Hungary wants an immediate peace on whatever terms he can get, but Ludendorff in Germany is determined that any peace must be a victorious one. He is preparing for a spring offensive on the Western Front, gambling that he can knock Britain and France out of the war before the Americans arrive in strength. Then Germany will not have to face another hunger winter.

image source:

Food queue, Vienna (1915) (The World of the Habsburgs)

26/12/1917 Brest-Litovsk: Trotsky spins out the peace talks #1917Live

The Germans and Russians are conducting peace-talks at Brest-Litovsk. The Germans are eager to conclude a settlement as quickly as possible so that they can redeploy their Eastern Front armies to the West. The Russian delegates are in less of a hurry. Because of the imbalance between the two powers, they know that any final peace terms will be harsh and are seeking to put off the day of reckoning. They also hope that if they play for time then revolution will spread across Europe, bringing the war to an end and ushering in an era of socialist peace.

While the German delegation is comprised of career diplomats and military officials, the Russians are a much more motley crew. Led by Bolsheviks catapulted to prominence by their seizure of power, the delegation also includes representatives of a cross-section of Russian society: soldiers, sailors, women, and industrial workers. The Bolsheviks had initially forgotten to include a peasant in their party, but on their way to the talks they picked one up from the streets of Petrograd. The rustic manners of this Roman Stashkov have charmed his German counterparts, who are particularly amused when he is asked at a formal dinner whether he wants red or white wine and replies “which is stronger?”.

Trotsky has taken over as head of the Russian delegation, his rhetorical flights of fancy ideally suited to the task of preventing the talks reaching any definite conclusion. Kühlmann, the German foreign minister, seems only too happy to oblige. The two men spend their time discussing Marxist philosophy and abstract points of principle, much to the chagrin of Ludendorff and Hindenburg, who want the talks concluded as quickly as possible.

Trotsky cannot however keep the talks in the lofty realm of abstraction indefinitely. When discussion turns to the post-war borders between Russia and Germany, he is on much shakier ground. The Bolsheviks have called for a peace without annexations or indemnities, but the Germans are determined to hang onto their gains in the east. Talks now break down on this point. But again, to the German high command this looks like another of Trotsky’s delaying tactics.

image sources:

Bolshevik leaders being greeted by German officers, as depicted in the Illustrated London News (The Illustrated First World War: Russian Armistice signed)

Trotsky greeted by German officers (Wikipedia: Treaty of Brest-Litovsk)

Note: Roman Stashkov’s bizarre adventure is worth reading about in detail. The first edition of Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy covers it on pages 540 to 541. If you do not have that to hand, a useful summary is included here. Stashkov was originally brought along to the negotiations that led to an armistice on the Eastern Front and may have been sent home by the time the full negotiations on a peace treaty were taking place.

25/12/1917 Creeping authoritarianism in Russia #1917Live

The Bolsheviks are becoming more entrenched in power in Russia. Sovnarkom, their government, is meant to ruling on behalf of the Soviet Executive (which in turn represents the All-Russian Soviet Congress). However Sovnarkom has declared itself empowered to rule by decree and is presenting legislation to the Soviet Executive for approval only after the fact. Today the Soviet Executive meets for the first time in two weeks, now completely marginalised from real decision making.

Perhaps in an effort to hide the Bolsheviks’ authoritarian tendencies, the left faction of the Socialist Revolutionaries is now brought into Sovnarkom. The Left SRs were the only significant other party to back the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, for all that their instincts incline them towards a more decentralised and non-hierarchical vision of socialism. They hope that by joining Sovnarkom they will be able to moderate the Bolsheviks. To Lenin though they are simply useful idiots, thrown a few unimportant ministries to lend Sovnarkom a less dictatorial air. Real power remains with the Bolsheviks.

image source:

Sovnarkom, at some point after the Left SRs joined the Bolshevik government (Wikipedia: Council of People’s Commissars)
Picture captioned by Wikipedia, left to right: Isaac Steinberg (Left SR), Ivan Skvortsov-Stepanov (Bolshevik), Boris Kamkov (Left SR), Vladimir Bonch-Bruyevich (Bolshevik), V. E. Trotsky (unknown), Alexander Shlyapnikov (Bolshevik), P. P. Proshyan (unknown), Lenin (Bolshevik), Stalin (Bolshevik), Alexandra Kollontai (Bolshevik), Pavel Dybenko (Bolshevik), E. K. Kosharova (unknown), Nikolai Podvoisky (Bolshevik), Nikolai Gorbunov (Bolshevik), V. I. Nevsky (unknown), Alexander Shotman (unknown), Georgy Chicherin (Bolshevik). I am unsure as to whether V. E. Trotsky is meant to be Leon Trotsky or if it is another person with the same surname; it does not look obviously like the more famous Trotsky. I am also curious about Ms Kosharova, about whom I can find no information, unlike the more famous Ms Kollontai, one of the first women in the modern world to head a government ministry.

22/12/1917 As civil war begins in Russia, Soviet and German delegates meet at Brest-Litovsk

At Brest-Litovsk German and Russian delegates are attempting to negotiate a settlement that will bring a final end to the war between the two countries. The Germans are representatives of the Kaiser‘s imperial government, which effectively means that they are the agents of Hindenburg and Ludendorff; the Russians have been sent by Sovnarkom, the Soviet government of Lenin‘s Bolsheviks. The Germans hope that peace with Russia will allow them to send large numbers of troops to the Western Front; they also hope to seize territory and extract resources from the Russians. The Russian delegates however are playing for time, hoping to spin out negotiations until revolution spreads to the other belligerent nations of Europe. They try to advance the revolutionary agenda by making lofty calls for a peace based on no annexations and no indemnities and call for an immediate ceasefire on all fronts in Europe.

At home meanwhile there are signs that the Soviet government in Petrograd may soon have to fight for its survival. Fighting has broken out in the southern Russian city of Rostov, where Bolshevik forces are under attack from the newly formed Volunteer Army, led by Generals Kornilov and Alexeev. This force is top heavy, with a surfeit of officers, and greatly outnumbered by the pro-Bolshevik forces in Rostov. However the military discipline of the Volunteers means that they have the upper hand in the fighting, a worrying portent for the Bolsheviks if this fighting spreads.

image source:

Soldiers of the Kornilov Shock Battalion (World Socialist Web Site: Volunteer Army captures Rostov)

21/12/1917 Germany’s sea wolf Luckner at bay #1917Live

Germany’s Luckner had been imprisoned by the New Zealanders after his ship, the Seeadler was accidentally sunk. But a few days ago he busted loose, commandeering a small boat and setting sail to the Kermadec Islands, where he hoped to seize a larger ship and resume his raiding operations against Allied shipping. Unfortunately for him, the New Zealanders guess his destination; as he approaches the Kermadecs he is intercepted by a New Zealand warship and obliged to surrender. As he is returned to captivity it appears that now Luckner’s war really is over.

image source:

Felix von Luckner recaptured (National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy: Count Felix Von Luckner)