The Trench

Movie portrayals of warfare can be very powerful, even when the war is not the central focus. Michael looks at an example from the 1990s51-jS45YczL._SX342_

William Boyd’s 1999 film The Trench depicts a fusilier section during the 48 hours leading to the start of the Battle of the Somme.

The soldiers’ accents suggest a group drawn from different parts of the country, apparently in pairs with shared peacetime backgrounds. The putative lead, the Lancastrian Private Billy MacFarlane (Paul Nicholls) is partnered with his brother Eddie (Tam Williams) while a private dispute emerges on the part of the two Glaswegian soldiers over the issue of one’s clandestine engagement to a girl of their shared acquaintance. Lance Corporal Victor Dell (Danny Dyer) is a Cockney and Privates Ambrose (Ciaran McMenamin) and Rookwood (Cillian Murphy) Irishmen. Fusilier Colin Daventry (James D’Arcy) is evidently of a higher social class than his comrades and the likely beneficiary of a grammar school education (he has at least a smattering of German and has to pointedly moderate his latinate vocabulary to make himself understood even by his fellow Anglophones). He is, nevertheless socially inferior to the naive section commander, Second Lieutenant Ellis Harte (Julian Rhind-Tutt) who numbs his sense of being out of his depth with repeated slugs of whisky and private deferrals to his Sergeant, Telford Winter (Daniel Craig), the sole professional soldier in the unit.

The film’s action is almost entirely contained within the titular trench, creating an intentionally claustrophobic atmosphere that recalls a stage production. The young cast, mostly drawn from recent graduates of drama school is a reminder that the men who populated the trenches would, in other circumstances, be regarded as boys, a point emphasised by their scripted eagerness to participate in demonstrations of petty bravado, earning one lad a ‘blighty’ or in acts of barrack-room possessiveness over contraband photographs of nude girls.

Sgt Winter and Pte MacFarlane
Sgt Winter and Pte MacFarlane

Indeed, it is this matey comradeship (that includes minor rivalries) that is most impressive about this film. Take away the scenery and the uniforms and these lads could really be anywhere. Anywhere that raising your head too high might get you shot, that is. The effect of the scripting and the, let’s be honest, less than perfect nature of the performances (the young leads have all developed their acting skills since this film was made), lends The Trench a human quality that reminds us that the young men who fought in the real trenches were young, inexperience, scared and human.

All Quiet on the Western Front

In advance of giving an introduction to the film, Nigel Hunt explains what All Quiet on the Western Front means to him

The cover of the film, showing the main character, Paul Baumer
The cover of the film, showing the main character, Paul Baumer

When I was a second year (modern year 8) at my local comprehensive school, I went to the book store with the teacher, saw a pile of copies of All Quiet on the Western Front and, as I had read the book the year before at the age of 11, I asked the teacher if we could study it in class. She said we were ‘too young’ for such a book. This had two profound effects on me. First, I more or less gave up on school as a place I could gain a decent education. Second, I continued to read the book virtually every year for at least the next decade. It was, and is, my favourite book about war.

One of the great anti-war war novels of all time, Erich Maria Remarque’s book about the First World War came out in 1929, a decade after the end of the war. It was quickly translated into many languages, including English (the Wheen translation remains the best), and it has remained popular ever since. While the book is about the experiences of Germans on the Western Front, and the action takes place throughout the war, Remarque himself spent about a month at the front, before being wounded and spending the rest of the war in hospital. His vivid description of war is memorable; his characters real, his dialogue dramatic. The book was so popular, and so anti-war, that it was banned during the Third Reich. Remarque himself had to leave Germany, first to Switzerland, and then to build a successful career in the USA. Remarque was from the Rhineland, a descendant of French people who escaped the revolution. He reverted from Remark to Remarque as it was the original spelling, and took Maria from his mother’s name.

The teacher who persuaded the young boys that it was their patriotic duty to join up and fight for the Fatherland
The teacher who persuaded the young boys that it was their patriotic duty to join up and fight for the Fatherland

The first – and in my view best – film of the book came out in 1930. It was filmed in the USA and used hundreds of actors, many of whom were ex-German soldiers who had moved to the USA after the war. They were used as advisers for the action sequences and for the uniforms.

The director, Lewis Milestone, was a Moldovan, raised in Ukraine and educated in Belgium and Berlin. He was in the US army from 1917 as a signaller, obtained US citizenship after the war, and went to Hollywood. He quickly worked his way up the ranks and directed his first film in 1925, Seven Sinners. He won an academy award in 1927 for Two Arabian Nights, and won a second one for All Quiet on the Western Front (It also got best picture).

Baumer is in a shellhole, when a French soldier jumps in. Baumer kills him, and experiences intense, but shortlived, guilt
Baumer is in a shellhole, when a French soldier jumps in. Baumer kills him, and experiences intense, but shortlived, guilt

The main character, Paul Baumer, was played by Lew Ayres, who was so affected by the film that he became a conscientious objector in the Second World War, serving as a medic in action in South East Asia.

Nigel Hunt will give an introduction to All Quiet on the Western Front at a free public screening of the film at Broadway Nottingham on Monday 8th December at 6pm. Tickets are free and available from the venue on the day.

Indians in the Trenches

The Sikh contribution to the First World War was a significant one. Michael Noble looks at the written evidence of their efforts and at a modern campaign to ensure that their sacrifice is not forgotten.

The First World War is often described as the first modern war. Although other conflicts may also lay claim to that title, among them the American Civil War and the Boer War, certain commonalities can be found that make them ‘modern’. The advanced nature of the technology, the adoption of industrial techniques, the role of the media and the suggestion of ‘total war’ all make the First World War recognisably of our own era, even as it slips from memory into history.

One of the most significant ways in which the war can be considered modern is in the fact that, for perhaps the first time in history, a majority of the combatants were literate. Although some level of literacy has been present, by definition, throughout recorded history, prior to the late 19th century, testimonies have usually come from the wealthy, powerful and educated minority. The First World War could perhaps be described as the first major conflict of mass literacy.

Royal Horse Artillery gunners writing letters

Reading and writing skills were not merely useful from a military organisation point of view, as the ongoing Operation War Diary makes clear; it also means that many of the participants in the conflict left a paper trail of their thoughts and feelings in the form of letters, diaries and, famously, poetry. Reading the personal documents of soldiers and their families is a privilege that lets modern readers gain intimate insights into the experience of life and war from those who were directly involved.

Of course, part of that range of epistolary comes from the soldiers who were drawn from different parts of the world. In 1999, the historian David Omissi collected and edited a selection of letters from Indian soldiers who found themselves on the Western Front and published them as Indian Voices of the Great War.

A selection of these letters now form the basis of Indians in the Trenches, a short film made by Dot Hyphen Productions who have made it their mission to educate and inform people in the 21st century about the actions of Indian solders in the First World War. The film features modern Sikh performers wearing the uniforms of a century ago and giving voice to the words of their forebears.

Sikhs At War Logo
@SikhsatWar logo

A recurrent theme is the sense of bravery and willing sacrifice. The testimony stresses not so much the conditions in the trenches, or in Europe particularly, but rather the ‘opportunity’ to engage the enemy, the winning of distinction, the desire to be sacrificed and the need to observe Sikh practices while at war.

Sowar Natha Singh, writing from France in January 1916 mentions expecting, even wanting to die. As he set his pen to paper, he did not expect to ever leave France. ‘I should like to die in this country’, he says. ‘I have no hope of seeing [the children] nor do I wish to see them for I have found a good opportunity for sacrificing my life’

Fund Logo
The WW1 Sikh Memorial Fund (@SikhsatWar)

Eight months later, Bakhlawar Singh, 6th Cavalry writes about his belief that the Sikhs ‘are fortunate men to have been given the chance to fight in this great war’.


The spirit of sacrifice pervades not just the letters and diaries, but the breadth of the Sikh experience in the war. Over 100,000 Sikhs took part in the war and, of the twenty-two Military Crosses awarded to Indian soldiers, fourteen went to Sikhs. This contribution is being reflected in a new campaign to create a lasting memorial to these soldiers. Jay Singh-Sohal is leading the campaign to raise funds to set the memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum near Lichfield. He says ‘we want to ensure that our community has a lasting legacy of remembrance for those who fought – a memorial will ensure that their service is never forgotten and that in future people remember their heroism.’

Indians in the Trenches is available to watch below.

You can get involved in the Sikh memorial campaign here.