Sam Mendes’ new World War I drama 1917 has proven a critical and commercial hit since its release last month, with a raft of awards nominations and places on best-of-2019 lists. Set amidst Operation Alberich and the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line, the film follows two young soldiers as they aim to deliver a vital message preventing what would be a disastrous attack on an enemy position.
The events of the film are only loosely based in truth – inspired by stories told to Mendes by his grandfather. But the messengers it depicts tell a fascinating true story of their own. Commonly known as runners, they became crucial to communication in the trenches and battlefields of the Great War.
You may be asking why human lives needed to be risked in order to deliver messages in an era when alternative communication methods were established and in use. The fact was that modern techniques like radio and telephone were fragile, unreliable and prone to interference from the enemy. Traditional means like carrier pigeon were perhaps even more so.
So, it fell to human soldiers to deliver the most urgent and sensitive battlefield messages. Identified by a red band around their left forearm, they were lightly equipped to improve mobility, often carrying just a pistol, canteen and small pack. They frequently worked on foot but sometimes made use of motorcycles, although the vehicle’s unreliability, difficult terrain, and the runners’ lack of mechanical training caused regular problems.
The trench runner’s CV was a fairly specific one: they had to be physically fit and nimble, with excellent stamina to quickly traverse battlefields filled with mud and other obstacles. They also had to be skilled map readers, and were often responsible for guiding troops into new areas of the battlefield. A good memory was also an advantage: one of a human’s main advantages over the technological means of communication was their ability to memorise messages should they be lost or too sensitive to write down.
Perhaps the runner’s most important attribute was an especially resilient character, for ventures beyond established positions carried with them a threat of injury and death even greater than that faced by ordinary soldiers. Varying weather conditions, with heavy rain producing swamps of mud, often served only to exacerbate this threat. The risk to a runner’s life was so great that messages were often sent with two or three carriers on different routes to ensure at least one reached its destination. As one veteran described the job, “it was merely a question of how long he would last before being wounded or killed.”
Trench runners were unsung heroes of the Great War. Often coming from ordinary backgrounds and the lower ranks of the army hierarchy, they risked life and limb to make sure vital communications reached their targets, likely saving countless lives in the process. 1917 should at least highlight this, as has not been done before.