PICTURED: Sam Mendes' grandfather who inspired his new movie 1917 after volunteering to take vital messages across No Man's Land... and regaled the director with the tales when he was a boy
- Alfred Mendes was in born in Trinidad in 1897 to a prominent Portuguese family
- After attending private schools, at 15 he went to boarding school in England
- World War I broke out on July 28, 1914 after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire
- Against his father's wishes, Alfred, 17 going on 18, signed up to fight for Britain in 1915 and starting in 1916, he served as a rifleman in France and then in Flanders
- In October 1917, his unit part of an assault whose objective was Passchendaele Ridge, and he volunteered to carry messages across No Man's Land
- He was awarded a Military Medal for 'his complete disregard for his personal safety' by braving 'continuous machine-gun and sniping fire from the flank'
- He continued to fight until May 1918 when he was gassed at La Bassee Canal in France, he wrote in the Autobiography of Alfred H Mendes, 1897-1991
- Alfred returned to Trinidad and became a writer of short stories and novels
- He was married three times, and with his third wife, Ellen, he had two sons, Peter - Sam Mendes' father - and Stephen. He also had an older son named Alfred
- 'The idea (for 1917) was loosely based on a story my grandfather told me,' director Sam Mendes, who also co-wrote the screenplay, told Deadline
- In the one-shot film, two British soldiers must get a message across No Man's Land or risk 1,600 men being slaughtered
- The film, set to be released on December 25 in the US, has already earned praise, Oscar buzz, and Golden Globe nominations for best picture and director
The young soldier volunteered for the treacherous mission: somehow make it through the No Man's Land full of machine gunners and snipers to reach three other units and report back.
In October 1917, the destruction and carnage of World War I continued, and for the third brutal time, the British and their allies were fighting the Germans at Ypres in Belgium when rifleman Alfred H Mendes took the assignment that 'may entail no return.'
Somehow, Alfred survived 'without a scratch,' he wrote later in his autobiography, 'but certainly with a series of hair-raising experiences that would keep my grand- and great-grandchildren enthralled for nights on end.'
Indeed, his stories are now the inspiration for a new World War I film, 1917. Acclaimed director Sam Mendes – American Beauty, two Bond films – took the seed of truth from his paternal grandfather's trench warfare experience and grew it into the fictional account that is his latest movie.
The film, which has already earned praise, Oscar buzz, and Golden Globe nominations for best picture and director, is about two British soldiers who must get a message across No Man's Land or risk 1,600 men being slaughtered.
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Born in Trinidad in 1897, Alfred H Mendes attended private schools before he went to a boarding school in England at age 15. After World War I broke out July 28, 1914, he returned home briefly the next year. But he enlisted to fight against his father's wishes. By late 1915, he was part of the King's Royal Rifles. He was sent to fight in France the next year and then in Flanders. After the war, he became a writer of short stories and novels, and told his wartime tales to his grandchildren, which include director Sam Mendes. Above, Alfred H Mendes in his uniform sometime in 1916
'The idea was loosely based on a story my grandfather told me,' Mendes, who co-wrote the screenplay, told Deadline. 'The movie is dedicated to him…
'He was very young, and small and very fast. He was given the job of carrying messages on the Western front. I won't go into specific detail about what things in the movie were specifically influenced by what he told me, but there are several. The characters George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman play are not my grandfather. But the spirit of what he told me and the central idea of a man carrying a message wouldn't leave me. It just clung on in there somehow, for the last 50 years.'
Alfred Hubert Mendes was born in Trinidad in 1897. 'Alfy,' as he was called by family and friends, was the 'eldest of six children in a rising Portuguese Creole family,' Michele Levy wrote in her introduction to the Autobiography of Alfred H Mendes, 1897-1991. He went to private schools in Trinidad until he was 15 and then attended a boarding school in Hertfordshire, which is about an hour and a half north of London. Alfred wrote that he 'did not suffer a single pang of homesickness' but rather 'revelled' in the new way of life.
Describing himself as a shy creature, Alfred was a little over 5 foot 6 inches and wondered in his autobiography how his life would have turned out if he went to university in England as he intended. But instead the Great War broke out on July 28, 1914.
A new World War I film, 1917, is 'loosely based' on Alfred H Mendes' wartime experiences, his grandson and the film's director, Sam Mendes, told Deadline. 'He was very young, and small and very fast. He was given the job of carrying messages on the Western front. I won't go into specific detail about what things in the movie were specifically influenced by what he told me, but there are several. ' Above, Mendes, center, speaks with the film's stars, Dean-Charles Chapman, left, and George MacKay, right, on set
Mendes, who also co-wrote the screenplay, noted in his interview with Deadline that 'the characters George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman play are not my grandfather. But the spirit of what he told me and the central idea of a man carrying a message wouldn't leave me. It just clung on in there somehow, for the last 50 years.' Above, a still from the film, which will open in the US on December 25, with MacKay, left, playing a Lance Corporal Schofield and Chapman, right, as Lance Corporal Blake
The film, which has already earned praise, Oscar buzz, and Golden Globe nominations for best picture and director, is about two British soldiers who must get a message across enemy lines or risk 1,600 men being slaughtered. Mendes told Deadline he was always fascinated with World War I and wanted to make a movie about 'a man carrying a message. But the war was a war of paralysis, where nobody moved more than 200 yards... Millions of people, literally were killed over 300 yards of land...' Above, MacKay as Schofield in a still from the film
Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which then declared war on Serbia. Germany sided with Austro-Hungary and along with the Ottoman Empire fought Britain, Russia, France, Italy, and other countries with the United States joining them in April 1917.
After war broke out, Alfred's father, a prominent businessman, wanted him to return to Trinidad, but Alfred managed to stay at school in England and became determined to fight. 'I had indeed been bitten by the bug of war and had contracted the disease of wanting to share in the experience,' he wrote.
Eventually, though, Alfred did return to Trinidad, but soon enlisted behind his father's back. Through the Merchants Contingents of Trinidad - an organization whose main objective, Alfred wrote, was to enroll and transport to England 'those young men who wished to serve in the war "for King and Country"' - he was on a boat back to Britain.
'I think I know why I wanted to go to war: my insatiable curiosity. History had proved war to be a fact of life, therefore I must savour it,' he wrote. 'And always at the back of my mind lurked the suspicion that in order to write novels one must live. I could not then know that such talent as I had would fall far short of my aspirations and my dreams.'
In late 1915, he arrived in England and soon joined the ranks of the King's Royal Rifles. Not long after, he was deployed to France, where he became part of the First Battalion of the Rifle Brigade. In May 1916, Alfred was close to his first taste of war when his unit reached Abbeville in the department of Somme.
From July until November 1916, the Battle of the Somme was a major and costly battle of World War I. There were over a million casualties and an estimated 300,000 deaths.
Alfred recalled that rain was falling and that during the night, they could hear the 'distant booming of the guns' and see the 'flashes in the wet sky.' When they were near the front line, men shouted orders, shells shrieked, he wrote in his autobiography, and 'there was confusion generated by the appalling return to the conditions, the ways and habits, of primitive man; there were stretcher-bearers with their heavy burdens wobbling in the mud and slime, uttering obscene words to the dreadful night sky…
'The menace was a living presence: you could feel it, you could smell it.'
The company made their way to the front line, mud clinging to them when they heard the 'abrasive, metallic, staccato beat' of machine guns, and he described how 'death's ordour assailed me, overpowering, revolting to the queasy stomach. The countless putrefying dead lying in No Man's Land were getting their own back upon those for whom they had died.
'The movie is a fiction based on a fact, like all of my favorite war literature movies. Like Apocalypse Now and All Quiet on the Western Front. These are historically accurate but the characters are creations,' director Sam Mendes told Deadline. Above, a still from the film featuring actor George McKay as a young British solider on a dangerous mission to get a message across enemy lines
Machine guns, mud and madness: No Man's Land during WWI
In his autobiography, young rifleman Alfred H Mendes describes the horrid conditions in the trenches that included mud, fleas and rats, and the stench of the soldiers who had died.
No Man's Land was populated with snipers, shells and machine gunners, and so there were signs such as:
'If you want to live, don't expose your head at this spot'
'If life is sweet, keep low here.'
In one incident he described, they were under assault from German mortars when one struck his fellow soldier, Rigsby. 'What happened to Rigsby cannot be imagined. He disappeared with the searing flash and thunder…'
In another incident, a shell hit a solider he called Redhead.
'Redhead was squatting and heaved up a mass of earth which cascaded over the rim and into the crater. At that instant Redhead disappeared. The earth had buried him.'
They dug him out but the shelling left him 'stark mad' to the point they had to bound Redhead's hands behind his back when they made their escape.
'The machine-guns and rifles from both front line trenches facing each other across a No Man's Land of a few hundred feet were grimly celebrating the relief, the bullets pinging around and about us setting astir little vortices of air the percussions of which fanned our checks or ears as the bullets passed by, near enough.'
Alfred and two other members in his unit went to their 20-foot deep dugout whose floor was covered in 'the sucking kind' of mud, he described in his autobiography, and how they were 'unshaven, unwashed; invisible fleas were setting up house in our pubic hair.' He also had to beat back rats.
By the time Alfred went to Flanders to fight in the Third Battle of Ypres, which is also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, he had spent over a year in the trenches.
'The Ypres Salient was a marsh of mud and a killer of men. Walking from Poperinge to the Salient, an area in which countless men, the flower of Britain and Germany, lost their lives, an area into which countless shells plunged destroying whatever tree, plant, bush, or grass there was and left behind a moon-like desolation, many shell craters as traps for sucking in live men and drowning them – to this sector we came in October 1917,' he wrote.
His unit was to be part of an offensive whose main objective was Passchendaele Ridge. Attached to the Fourth Division, his battalion, he wrote, 'would be on the right flank, and my C Company, commanded by Captain Craigmile, was assigned the task of entering and holding the village of Poelcappelle which straddled a ridge in serrated line – the ruins of houses – against the misty sky.'
As they set off for Poelcappelle in the morning, 'bedlam was now let loose with barking machine-guns and whizz-bangs propelling their swift, low-flying shells at flesh and mud targets. The mist, the drizzle, and the shy dawn conspired to offer us some concealment from the machine-gunners and the snipers, but this was not enough to halt the massacre as we waded through. We came to a dead stop, flat on our bellies in the gluey mud, frantically wriggling towards a nearby crater.'
During World War I, many engagements happened during major battles. Starting in late 1914, there were several campaigns at Ypres in Belgium, and the third one is also known as the Battle of Passchendaele. Much blood was shed there between the Allied Powers – Britain, Belgium, France, Russia, Canada, Italy and later on the United States when it joined them in April 1917 – fighting against the Central Powers – Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire. Above, soldiers move a gun through the mud two days before the Battle of Passchendaele in October 1917
By the time Alfred H Mendes was sent to Ypres, Belgium in October 1917, the young rifleman had fought for over a year in the Great War. 'The Ypres Salient was a marsh of mud and a killer of men. Walking from Poperinge to the Salient, an area in which countless men, the flower of Britain and Germany, lost their lives, an area into which countless shells plunged destroying whatever tree, plant, bush, or grass there was and left behind a moon-like desolation, many shell craters as traps for sucking in live men and drowning them,' he wrote in the Autobiography of Alfred H Mendes, 1897-1991. Above, men carry a fellow soldier at Ypres sometime in 1915
For two days in October 1917, Alfred risked his life to carry messages through No Man's Land, for which he was awarded a Military Medal. 'In the event, I found all three companies, and in spite of the snipers, the machine-gunners, and the shells, arrived back at C Company's shell hole without a scratch, but certainly with a series of hair-raising experiences that would keep my grand- and great-grandchildren enthralled for nights on end,' he wrote later in his autobiography. His grandson, director Sam Mendes said he has 'loosely based' his new film, 1917, on Alfred's experiences
The Battle of Poelcappelle that October was part of the larger campaign. Rain that month had made conditions of the ground untenable. Soldiers were exhausted making through way through the mud and the offensive launched against the Germans that morning stalled.
By 9:30am, a message reached Captain Craigmile that a report on four companies was urgently needed – a dangerous assignment.
'I had done a signalling course and although it bore little relationship to the job at hand, I felt myself under an obligation to the battalion. I volunteered,' Alfred wrote in his autobiography.
Alfred H Mendes' Military Medal citation
In the Autobiography of Alfred H Mendes, 1897-1991, he wrote that his citation, below, was 'quite flattering.'
'On October 12th and 13th, 1917, this man acted as Company runner during the fighting around Poelcappelle. He belonged to the right Company that formed part of the defensive flank. For the whole of these two days he was continually on the move from Company Headquarters to Platoon and Battalion Advanced Report Centre at Ferdon House, and this in spite of continuous machine-gun and sniping fire from the flank. It was largely due to his coolness and his complete disregard for his personal safety that his commanding officer was kept informed of the state of affairs on that important flank. His activity and untiring energy under the worst possible conditions of ground and weather was remarkable. He set a fine example of devotion to duty and every soldierly quality.'
'The snipers got wind of me and their individual bullets were soon seeking me out, until I came to the comforting conclusion that they were so nonplussed at seeing a lone man wandering in circles about No Man's Land, as must at times have been the case, that they decided, out of perhaps a secret admiration for my nonchalance, to dispatch their bullets safely out of my way; or they may have thought me plain crazy.'
For his bravery – facing machine gun and sniper fire to keep his commanding officer informed of what was going on – Alfred Mendes was awarded the Military Medal. He continued to fight until May 1918 when he was gassed at La Bassee Canal in France. World War I ended when the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.
After recovering, Alfred sailed to New York City, then returned to Trinidad. He wrote: 'By this time, I wanted nothing more than to be a novelist and short story writer.'
He worked for his affluent father while he wrote 'sharply observed stories of Trinidad life in the 1920s and early 1930s,' according to Michele Levy's introduction to his autobiography. He then moved to New York City but the US was grappling with the Great Depression. Alfred applied for US citizenship but was denied. By 1940, he was back in Trinidad where he worked various jobs, including at the Singer Sewing Machine Company, while he continued to write. After retiring, he and his third wife moved to Barbados.
He was married three times: his first wife died, he divorced his second wife, and spent decades with his third wife, Ellen, with whom he had two sons: Peter and Stephen. He had his eldest son, also named Alfred, with his first wife.
Peter is Sam Mendes' father. Mendes' parents divorced in the early 1970s, according to a New Yorker profile of the director.
Representatives for Mendes and co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns declined Daily Mail's requests for interviews.
In his interview with Deadline, Mendes explained that his grandfather had behavioral tics due to his time in the war. 'One of them was, he washed his hands incessantly. And when he did that, he washed them for a very long time. I asked my dad when I was ten or eleven: why does granddad wash for so long? He told me it was because he remembers the mud of the trenches, when he could never get clean.'
Mendes said he was always fascinated with World War I and wanted to make a movie about 'a man carrying a message. But the war was a war of paralysis, where nobody moved more than 200 yards. In fact, many people were celebrated for taking land that was 300 to 400 yards away. Millions of people, literally were killed over 300 yards of land; sometimes there was 150 yards between the two lines.'
The film's narrative was unlocked for him, he explained, when he found out about a time in 1917 where the Germans had retreated to the Hindenburg Line.
Starting in February 1917, the Germans began their move to a different defensive position called the Hindenburg Line, leaving destruction, landmines and booby traps in their wake. Their withdrawal was completed in March. 'Neither French nor British intelligence had warned of the withdrawal,' David Stevenson, a historian, wrote in his book, 1917: War, Peace & Revolution. French army high command 'did not believe the Germans would abandon ground that they had fought for so tenaciously.'
It was unclear what was going on. Mendes said: 'There was no communication. Everybody was in disagreement. So you have a dramatically wonderful situation, where you have a general say, they've gone, they've abandoned their position. Trust me, go across No Man's Land. And 200 yards later, you will meet someone else saying, that's absolute nonsense. You're going to die if you go over the top.'
Alfred H Mendes, who died in 1991 after writing many short stories and publishing two novels, started working on his autobiography in the 1970s. Like most writers, he worried about finding a publisher for his work. He wrote: 'My other worry – and a much more serious one – was this: Could a book of my life be justified?'
'I think I know why I wanted to go to war: my insatiable curiosity. History had proved war to be a fact of life, therefore I must savour it,' Alfred H Mendes wrote in his autobiography. 'And always at the back of my mind lurked the suspicion that in order to write novels one must live. I could not then know that such talent as I had would fall far short of my aspirations and my dreams.' He served as a rifleman for Britain from 1916 until May 1918 when he was gassed. Above, the morning after a battle at Ypres in Belgium in October 1917