During the spring of 1917, German troops withdrew to new defensive positions on the Western Front, 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.
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.
In a letter to his mother and father, dated 20 March 1917, Lieutenant Jeffrey Walker of the 1/6th Royal Warwicks, articulates the confusion among Allied soldiers as news of the German retreat began to spread.
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.
Abandoned German Trench
A trench bridge over a former German trench at Gommecourt, March 1917.
In their letters home, Lieutenant Jeffrey Walker and Lieutenant B L Lawrence, 1st Grenadier Guards, both remark on the strangeness of the abandoned German positions but also the potential dangers they posed.
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.
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.
St Quentin on Fire
A sketch view across a flat landscape with a tree in the centre foreground, looking towards the buildings of Saint-Quentin ablaze after being set on fire by retreating German forces. A large cloud of smoke drifts skywards.
The Allies had planned to launch an offensive in early 1917. They now found themselves occupying the territory they had planned to target unopposed. In a letter written to C K Ogden, edition The Cambridge Magazine, Lieutenant B L Lawrence describes walking through areas deserted by the Germans. While Vincent Bayne, an NCO of 2/5th Londons, in a letter to his mother dated 26 March 1917, describes being able to see the retreating German Army.
Lieutenant B L Lawrence
We walked up to our old front line at St Pierre Vaast Wood and found it empty. An orderly who was wandering about said the line had been advanced the night before to somewhere the other side of the wood and that BHQ were just inside the wood. We could see all round the horizon a glare in the sky from the villages the Boche were burning preparatory to their evacuation. As we walked across what had lately been No Man’s Land we noticed that the REs had dug up or wired off a number of land mines which the Boche had laid in the hope that we might set them off when we advanced…
We found that our line consisted of a number of outpost positions formed by hastily dug bits of trench near the far edge of the wood. There was absolute silence, just as if the war had suddenly stopped and all the country looked deserted and neglected as if no human being had been near it for years…
You will be pleased to hear that things are improving out here. The Hun has gone back some miles and we are following, somewhat uneventfully so far ‘tis true. On Monday morning I went for a stroll around the front with our platoon officer and we had a most enjoyable time. Could see the Hun plainly through glasses. Someone took a prisoner the same morning who had kindly sniped one of our chaps in the shoulder. I saw him (our chap) going back to the aid post and he seemed overjoyed at the prospect of Blighty.
Abandoned German Position
A well concealed and revetted trench, between two-lines of trees. Gommecourt, given up by the Germans in March 1917.
The German retreat may have momentarily felt like a victory for the Allies but many months of fighting still lay ahead. Allied soldiers would have to wait until August 1918 for the decisive breakthrough on the Western Front, leading ultimately to the collapse of the Hindenburg Line.