Rare Personal Accounts Of Life In The Trenches In 1917

During the spring of 1917, German troops withdrew to new defensive positions on the Western Front Life, known to the Allies as the Hindenburg Line. Heavy casualties during 1916 had placed a severe strain on the German Army and this shorter, heavily fortified line could be held by fewer troops.

Life

The award-winning film 1917, directed by Sir Sam Mendes, is set in spring 1917. The film follows two soldiers who are sent into enemy territory to deliver a message and avert a catastrophe.

Cast and crew, including the film’s writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, visited IWM and drew upon the museum’s rich collections for inspiration.  Explore some of the real life stories of those who served in the trenches in 1917.

CROSSING THE SOMME

British troops are seen crossing the River Somme at Brie, near Peronne, 20th March 1917, following the German withdrawal.

LIEUTENANT JEFFREY WALKER

This retreat may be a good sign if it means he cannot stop our offensives without shortening his line and so temporarily releasing a large number of men and guns. It’s going to take a long time for our army to advance 12 miles over demolished country. It may on the other hand mean that he is releasing his own men to do an offensive of his own – say for Calais – laying great store in some new weapon of modern invention which he has so far kept quiet hoping to launch it forth at the last stage of the war – the final decision, Victory.

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ABANDONED GERMAN TRENCH

A trench bridge over a former German trench at Gommecourt, March 1917.

LIEUTENANT JEFFREY WALKER

Imagine the feeling next day of walking over No Man’s Land and all over his trenches. I took my map and compared the Intelligence with the real thing. Frightfully interesting. Everything was there – but we found other positions which we had never known of. It was just like going into fairy land. Everything remained just as the Boche had left it. All his machine gun positions, trench mortar positions, sentry posts, empty but intact. The trenches were much wider than ours, deep dugouts and lots of wire. He left a few traps – bombs tied to doors of dugouts, mines etc.

LIEUTENANT B L LAWRENCE

There were plenty of dugouts in the trench we occupied, but everyone was rather chary of entering them. All sorts of stories of booby traps, explosive dug-outs, and so on, were in circulation and some of them were only too true. The battalion we relieved had had several casualties, in one case a man found a full rum jar, which, on being uncorked, exploded. In another case a man picked up a spade which set off a mine. And of course there were several cases of souvenirs, such as helmets, which detonated bombs when you touched them. We therefore had good reason to be careful.

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SCORCHED EARTH

British troops repairing a road in ruined Bucquoy, 23 March 1917.

The retreat to the Hindenburg Line was carefully orchestrated. The German Army employed a scorched earth policy, stripping the surrendered ground of anything that might be utilised by the Allies, including fruit trees, buildings, bridges and roads. Major Frederick Joseph Rice, in a letter to his parents on 29 March 1917, was appalled by the destruction left behind. Lieutenant Jeffrey Walker struggled to understand why the Germans would have gone to such trouble.

MAJOR FREDERICK JOSEPH RICE.

…it is disgraceful the way the Boche have blown up the villages they have left and cut down the trees and blown huge mine craters in the roads. We got an ammunition wagon with 6 horses and 3 drivers down one about 35 feet deep; we managed to get the horses, drivers and ammunition out, but the wagon is still there!

LIEUTENANT JEFFREY WALKER

We are advancing all the time and every village we come to seems to be in a worse condition. He has left nothing. Smashed up everything. Blown up every house and road. The ones he leaves intact are mined with clockwork to set them off in so many days. That’s why we chose a home with only 2 walls!

He has cut down orchards and apple trees – for why I cannot image. Kultur I suppose. Why we still take prisoners I don’t know – 97 yesterday. If things go on like this all the way to Berlin I expect we shall refuse to take prisoners and kill them all. The soldiers (Regulars) are all for it. In Peronne they have smashed every house, the furniture is all burnt. In my billet the last occupant pushed a hammer through a looking glass, the bath, the stove and covered everything with the down of his eiderdown. It took a long time to clean it out. They can’t have done it for that reason – for we can all sleep in the open if necessary.