“1917” – A film experience that brings the horror of World War I to life

If you are looking for a worthwhile movie experience this winter, look no further than the stunning World War I movie 1917.

While the film focuses on the British perspective on the Western Front, I did find a connection to Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal fields. It came in the form of a scene near the end of the film (no spoilers, I promise!)

In the film, there is a scene in a “casualty clearing station” or first aid station near the front-line trenches. The scene reveals the shocking devastation caused by machine guns, artillery, and small arms fire on World War I battlefields. This scene was quite illuminating to me, as previously on Wynning History, I wrote about a doctor from Tower City, Pennsylvania who served with the British Expeditionary Force in such a place.

In the blog post from March 2018, “Schuylkill County native became a British war hero in March 1918,” I examined how Dr. Daniel E. Berney earned a medal for merit while serving in a first aid station at the front lines during a German offensive in early 1918.

Berney Photograph
Dr. Daniel E. Berney

This line from a letter Dr. Berney wrote to his brother Tim in Tower City struck me as particularly poignant:

When the Germans made their first drive on March 21st., they hit the British line where I had been assigned as Medical Officer. My corps never did know when to quit, and when we saw our line slowly pressed back I leaving the helpless wounded fail prisoner to the Huns, I guess it was that inner stuff of the Schuylkill miner boy which bubbled out, boys. [An] American never deserts a comrade. What say you British?

“Aye, aye, sir. Come on Doctor.”

All day they shuttled with helpless burdens from the front line to the first aid station as fast as [possible.] It was a first-aid, a lift, a lean, a carry, a stretcher.

Tim: it was a slaughter house Hell till 5 o’clock, then we also got caught. As a fresh row of German machine guns swept back our ranks one stabbed me in the thigh. First Sergeant, none braver nor more loyal ever lived, grabbed me as I fell and bore me on his shoulders; second bullet knocked off the heel of my shoe; a third grazed my knee and a 4th, oh horrors, split open the Sergeant’s helmet.

Two stretcher-bearers saw us fall equally fearless and faithful they rolled me on their stretcher and started back for a shell hole, both were dead before we got back there.

I dragged myself in till night fainted at 10 o’clock started to drag myself to the rear; arrived alone at the dressing station 2 miles back at 4 o’clock next morning, exhausted, blood-empty, but living…

Read the full post here

First Aid
A Royal Army Medical Corps first aid station in WW1. (Wellcome Collection)

The scene in 1917 brings such a first aid station to life. But that’s just one short scene in a massive film that endeavors to put the horror and hopelessness of the First World War to life.

I hope you’ll consider checking out the film – and when you do, drop a comment below and let us know what you think!

Interested in learning more about the First World War. I highly recommend Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” episodes about the conflict. In a six-part podcast series, “Blueprint for Armaggedon” explores the conflict from multiple perspectives, using primary sources to reveal the realities of the Great War. Carlin answers a lot of questions and raises many more about soldiers’ motivations, the new technology, and the complete insanity of the First World War. 

Featured Image: A scene from the film 1917. 

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