One of the most celebrated films of the year, 1917 tells the harrowing tale of a pair of World War I soldiers tasked with carrying a message across enemy lines in an effort to save the lives of thousands of British soldiers.
The story is mostly fictional and the characters are not based on real-life figures. However, the concept that lies at the heart of the movie — entering extremely dangerous territory to carry a life-saving message during a crucial moment in World War I — was inspired by a story from director Sam Mendes’s own family history.
Alfred Mendes in No Man’s Land
Sam’s grandfather, Alfred Mendes, was born in Trinidad to a Portuguese Creole family.
When his plans to attend university were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I, Alfred decided to join the British army and assist in the war effort. He served in the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade, and was then sent to Oisemont, France, where he trained as a signaller.
He was then sent to fight in the Battle of Passchendaele, Belgium. Also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, this battle took place from July 31 to November 10, 1917.
On October 12, the British army attempted to take the village of Poelcappelle in harsh weather conditions and sustained significant losses: almost a quarter of the 484-man battalion were killed, wounded, or missing. Those who went missing were cut off from the rest, scattered throughout the nightmarish landscape known as No Man’s Land.
The survivors among them huddled in the muddy shell craters, not daring to come out or reveal their positions. Doing so would be extremely risky— they could be targeted by snipers or shells from the German side. Alfred’s commanding officer knew that the only way to rescue his men was to send someone to locate them, and he asked if anyone would be willing to take on this incredibly dangerous task. Alfred volunteered.
“I had done a signalling course and although it bore little relationship to the job at hand, I felt myself under an obligation to the battalion,” he wrote in his autobiography, Autobiography of Alfred H Mendes 1897–1991.
Alone in a vast wilderness surrounded by death
In an interview with Ed Zwick for the Director’s Guild of America, Sam explained that his grandfather didn’t start telling the stories from his wartime experiences until he was in his 70’s. “I was always struck by the fact that he was always very alone in his stories,” Sam says. Alfred was small in stature, measuring only 5”4’, and Sam says this made him a good candidate as messenger, since the winter mist in Belgium was often 6 feet high and provided cover. “That image of that one little man alone in that vast wilderness surrounded by death — that was the inspiration for the film,” says Sam.
Alfred succeeded in his mission: he located a number of survivors and brought about their rescue, thus saving their lives. He emerged from the mission without a scratch, but, as he wrote, “with a series of hair-raising experiences that would keep my grand and great-grandchildren enthralled for nights on end.” Sam adds that Alfred was deeply affected by those experiences. Alfred had a habit of compulsively washing his hands, apparently due to the memory of the mud-soaked battlefield and the experience of being unable to get his hands clean.
In recognition of Alfred’s courageous actions, he was awarded the Military Medal for bravery.
Learning Alfred’s story gives us a new appreciation for the raw, immersive realism of his grandson’s award-winning film.
Tell us your ancestor’s World War I story to win!
Do you have an ancestor with a remarkable story from World War I?
If so, you just might be in luck. MyHeritage is partnering with Universal Pictures, the makers of 1917 to offer you the chance to win an exclusive package of 1917 keepsake merchandise, which includes:
- A Blu-ray copy of 1917
- A poster of 1917, signed by all key cast and crew
- A vinyl of the 1917 soundtrack
- A special military-branded box that includes a 1917 notepad and an antique clock
To enter the contest, share the story of one of your ancestor’s experiences in World War I in the comments below or on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram with the hashtag #My1917Story and tag @myheritage by May 31st. One lucky winner will be selected to receive the prize. Good luck!
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Source: My Heritage