13 January 2020

How I wish I had
heard my grandfather’s
tales of World War I

Patrick Comerford

My grandfather was sent on to Thessaloniki after the Gallipoli landmarks during World War I. I have no doubt that had he not been infected with malaria in Thessaloniki then instead of being sent home in 1916 he would have been moved on to France or Belgium at the height of World War I, and ended up in the trenches on the Western Front in 1917.

All of this was in my mind on Saturday afternoon as I sat in the Omniplex in Limerick, watching 1917, the new epic war film directed, co-written and produced by Sam Mendes.

I rarely go to see ‘war movies.’ It is a genre I tend avoid, and I have been a pacifist all my adult life. But this move is different from all other movies.

The film is based in part on stories told to Sam Mendes by his paternal grandfather, Alfred Mendes. It tells the story of two young soldiers during World War I in the spring of 1917 who are given a mission to deliver a message. This message warns of an ambush during a skirmish soon after the Germans have retreated to the Hindenburg Line during Operation Alberich.

The film stars George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch.

The film 1917 was released in the US on Christmas Day and in Britain and Ireland on Friday [10 January 2020]. It has already received positive reviews along with early awards and nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director at the Golden Globes.

In northern France at the height of the World War I in April 1917, two young soldiers, lance-corporals Will Schofield (MacKay) and Tom Blake (Chapman), have to hand-deliver a message to the Devonshire Regiment, with orders to call off a planned attack on the German forces. The Germans have feigned their retreat to the Hindenburg Line and are prepared to ambush the battalion of 1,600 men, Blake’s brother Joseph among them.

As they set off, they almost receive absolution and a blessing from a priest-like Lieutenant Leslie, played by Dublin-born Adam Scott, who was the Irish priest in the second series of the BBC drama Fleabag last year.

Schofield and Blake cross ‘No Man’s Land’ and reach the original German front, with its abandoned but booby-trapped trenches. The two survive and reach an abandoned farmhouse, where Blake is fatally wounded by a downed German pilot they have tried to rescue.

But Schofield finds courage, reassurance and support from the moral and upright Captain Smith (Mark Strong). Scofield, now on his own, is a war-time Odysseus on his Odyssey, battling a 1917 version of Cyclops, tempted by the Sirens, avoiding the Lotus Eaters, guided lovingly by a Circe, having a close escape from Scylla and Charybdis.

He stays on course, survives a sniper attack at the bombed-out village of Écoust-Saint-Mein, is over-awed by the burning cathedral, and escapes down the river, reaching the Devons in the morning only to find the attack has already begun. He eventually reaches Colonel Mackenzie and convinces him to call off the attack. The day is saved, if not all 1,600 soldiers.

But is this 20th century Odysseus ever going to reach his Ithaka? We do not know, but we are allowed to know his Penelope is waiting for him back home, as Schofield sits alone with a photograph of his young wife and their daughter.

World War I created a particular culture of anti-war movies, most noticeably Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Of course, I am in no position to argue how 1917 compares with other moves about World War I and how many liberties have been taken with the storyline. But it does tell a story of how soldiers fight not only against one another but also for one other, and it honours the dignity and humanity of those who are caught up in war as well as telling of the horrors of war: apocalyptic landscapes, the trenches and the barbed wire, the bombed-out homes, the burning towns, the rivers filled with floating corpses, the craters filled with dead horses, the trenches filled with gnawing rats, the shell shock and the barbed wire.

Few of the men who survived the trenches and returned home told their stories. The horror was too great to share, there was nothing to gloat about or glory in. Sam Mendes listened to his grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred H Mendes, and his stories.

I wished my grandfather’s stories had been told and passed on to successive generations. Like Penelope, my grandmother had waited at home, in Portrane and Rathmines, waiting patiently but pining for his return. He was sent back to Dublin in May 1916, when the political climate was changing, the war heroes and the shell-shocked alike were treated with disdain and contempt.

In 1917, Schofield tells how he exchanged his medals with a French captain for a bottle of wine when he was thirsty. In my grandfather’s case, even his medals were lost between house moves from Ranelagh and Rathmines to Rathgar, to Terenure and Rathfarnham. Malaria eventually brought about a sad and lonely death, without dignity, in 1921.

But had my grandfather been sent from Thessalonikito the trenches in 1917 instead of being sent home, I doubt that I would be here today.

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