The film, “1917,” is a historical drama that tells the story of the events leading up to and including the air crash in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. The movie’s director, Sam Mendes, has said that he drew inspiration for this project from an event that occurred during World War I.

The was 1917 based on a true story is the title of the movie that was released in 2015. It’s about a WWI airplane crash that inspired director Sam Mendes.

Villers Bretonneux is located in the northeastern part of France. 3rd of May, 1918 Two young British servicemen rush across a makeshift runway to a waiting aircraft, emerging from a canvas tent. RAF Second Lieutenant Alexander Brown and Corporal Bill Sainsbury are their names. Brown, the pilot, is the first to board, sliding into the front cockpit with ease. Sainsbury, the observer and aerial gunner, crams himself even further into the back seat.

The front propeller is grabbed by a mechanic, who pulls it violently. Brown begins counting down with his eyes on the instrument panel. “Three…two…one…go!” He kicks the engine into life by turning the starting lever. He received his aviator’s license in 1913, shortly before the war, and is a seasoned pilot. Sainsbury is fresh out of the trenches, where he served with the First Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment during the Battle of the Somme, interpreting maps and operating a twin-barrel Lewis machine gun from the rear. 

Their plane is a Bristol F.2B Fighter, one of World War I’s most nimble and durable planes. (The single-engine aircraft was dubbed “the Biff” by pilots.) The biplane rolls shakily down the grassy runway before takeoff, headed east toward the German front line, amid a swirl of dust and noise.

The WWI Airplane Crash that Inspired Director Sam Mendes in ‘1917’ (Museum of Flight Foundation/Getty Images) A Bristol F.2B fighter aircraft.

Brown settles on a coasting speed of 85 miles per hour as the Bristol bobs softly over the fields of France, climbing slowly at 800 feet per minute. On the Western Front, hundreds of feet below, everything is calm. Today’s job is reconnaissance, which entails monitoring the movement of tanks, which are the war’s newest terror weapon. The German Second Army had temporarily seized Villers Bretonneux as part of its Spring Offensive the week before, breaching the Allied line with its armored A7Vs and igniting the world’s first significant tank-on-tank combat. 

Brown’s face is a concentration mask. Sainsbury, who stands behind him, alternates between ground surveillance and anxious looks for hostile aircraft. 

A British airman’s average life expectancy was three weeks by spring 1918. Flying was dangerous enough in and of itself. Combat in the air was much more lethal. Manfred von Richthofen, popularly known as “the Red Baron,” had received his comeuppance 12 days before, when his plane was shot down over Vaux-sur-Somme, a hamlet three miles to the north. 

Brown and Sainsbury are members of No. 48 Squadron, which is led by a stern New Zealander named Major Keith Park. Park would go on to become a Knight of the Realm and a crucial commander in World War II’s Battle of Britain. None of this, however, applies to Brown and Sainsbury today. They’re counting their lucky stars that the sharp–shooting New Zealander has loaned them his favorite aircraft. He is owed a rum ration. 

The WWI Airplane Crash that Inspired Director Sam Mendes in ‘1917’

Sainsbury, Bill (Photo credit: Brendan Sainsbury)

Paul Aue, an offizierstelvertreter (officer deputy) in the Imperial German Air Force, tucks in his scarf, takes down his goggles, and runs an eye over his plane’s instrument panel 60 miles to the northeast, near the France-Belgium border. The Pfalz D.IIIa, a single-seater, is ready to fly. He gets a head start from two wing wardens, one on each side. Aue feels energized and driven by adrenaline as the aircraft takes off. He’s been grounded for eight months after being severely wounded in a dogfight over Roulers, Belgium, in September. This is his first assignment after his hiatus, and he’s itching for a battle win. 

Aue is a German fighter pilot. He had five combat wins before his disability, including a British SPAD S.VII downed over Belgium in June 1917. He is a member of Jagdstaffel (Jasta) 10, a top German aviation squadron whose 13 ace pilots are feared for their combat prowess and accuracy. Today, he’ll be joined by five more aircraft as they fly southwest toward the front in a loose formation. Aue, cruising in the front, examines his possibilities via the sights of his LMG 08/15 machine gun. He considers himself fortunate.

Brown and Sainsbury are circling over the French hamlet of Proyart in their F.2B shortly after midday. Sainsbury, his face squinted, believes he sees some tank movements on the ground until he notices something more ominous on the horizon out of the corner of his eye. From the northeast, a swarm of six wasp-sized specks is coming. He taps Brown on the shoulder and points amid the noise of the Bristol’s Rolls-Royce V12 engine. The two airmen give each other a sidelong look. Brown’s dread is visible in the whites of his eyes. It’s easy to deal with one hostile aircraft; six seems insurmountable. 

The wasps quickly mature into bumblebees, then crows. Sainsbury is getting ready for a dogfight. The aircraft sways. He takes both hands on the Lewis cannon and moves it around the ring-mount like a sailor steering a keeling ship. 

Aue cracks a wry grin to himself. The other German aircraft are simply decoys; this one is his. He takes a quick look down and confirms that he is still securely above German lines. He shouts, “Bleib zurück!” (Stay back!) to no one in particular. Adjusting the controls, he lifts the Pfalz to a height of one hundred and two hundred feet before launching into an exciting dive, tailing the F.2B as the panicked British gunner fires his Lewis into the air in vain. Aue relentlessly follows the Bristol, pitching left and right, gauging his distance with his telescopic sight. Then he unleashes a barrage of shots. 

They’ve been successful. From underneath the cockpit, smoke is pouring out. “Lieutenant! Lieutenant!” exclaimed the crowd. Sainsbury’s is yelling. They’re losing height. Brown is slumped down in the cockpit, his face deathly white yet resolute. The earth is speeding up to catch up with them. A muddy area, heavy bombardment, craters, and bodies are all visible to Sainsbury.

He yells as he braces himself for the hit. 

The crowd gives out an audible gasp as an aircraft explodes into flames. As two British troops on the big screen race to the aircraft and take out the pilot, barely alive, the scent of popcorn wafts across from the row of seats in front.

It’s January 2023, and I’m sitting in a Canadian theater with my 14-year-old son, seeing Sam Mendes’ film 1917. It’s a gripping story of two British troops, Will Scofield and Tom Blake, who go on a perilous mission during World War I. The shooting down of a German aircraft in a dogfight is one of the most memorable moments. Scofield and Blake, who are resting after a hazardous sprint through no man’s territory, rush over to assist the wounded pilot as the plane crashes in a field near an abandoned farmhouse. Their acts have deadly consequences.

The WWI Airplane Crash that Inspired Director Sam Mendes in ‘1917’ In 1918, German troops gather around a Pfalz D.IIIa. (Getty Images/Print Collector) )

In the movie, the scene is terrifying and gory. I can’t help but think about my grandpa when I watch it. I knew he was engaged in a similar aircraft accident during World War One because of ancient family tales, but I didn’t know the specifics. Was that how it felt for him? 

Mendes based the film on his grandfather’s military experiences. As a result, he put me on a journey to learn more about my own. 

When I was four months old, my grandpa, Arthur William “Bill” Sainsbury, died at the age of 74. I had just a hazy recollection of his military adventures as a kid. When I inquired about my grandfather’s service in the RAF, my father would snarl, “He didn’t speak about it.” “No one!” exclaims the speaker.

I stopped asking and relegated my grandpa to the back of my memory, save for two minutes at church on Remembrance Day. Then there was the movie, which had a terrifying aircraft sequence. My curiosity got the best of me during the next several weeks. I began researching my grandfather’s military record online and was astounded by how much I could learn with only a few mouse clicks. 

As the weeks passed, I became more immersed in the narrative, spending hours on end on forums and websites crammed with endless lists of combat records. Within a month, I’d mastered the topography of northeastern France (thank you, Google Maps! ), the history of the German Spring Offensive, and the Vickers machine gun’s forward fire.

Apart from the familial link, the courage of the utterly untrained pilots battling to the death in the primitive, rickety aircraft that carried them into combat fascinated me the most throughout my World War I schooling.

I started to put together a narrative in the same way Mendes did, embellishing the facts with elements of fiction to cover up the parts I didn’t know. Brown and Sainsbury’s flight from Villers Bretonneux on May 3, the specifications of their Bristol Fighter, and the following assault by Aue’s Pfalz were all accessible in military archives. Despite the fact that I didn’t have a Hollywood budget or an army of military experts on my side, it became apparent that my grandfather’s mission was just as hazardous and dramatic as Corporals Will Scofield and Tom Blake’s in the movie. 

It, too, came to a terrible end. 

Colonel Paul Aue shot down Alexander Brown and Bill Sainsbury in their Bristol F.2B Fighter, serial number C814, over German-occupied Proyart, France, at 12:15 p.m. on May 3, 1918. After 95 minutes in the air, the Bristol landed safely. The horror and anguish of the crash landing can only be imagined. Both airmen have been reported missing. Brown died three days later as a result of his injuries.

My grandpa was taken prisoner after being injured and probably dragged off the aircraft by German troops. He was sent to a POW camp at Guben, Germany, near the Polish border, after being moved three miles southeast to Herleville. He didn’t find out about Brown’s death for many weeks. In Guben, he spent the last six months of the war in a camp inhabited mainly by Russian captives, in the midst of the terrible Spanish flu epidemic. In February 1919, three months after the war ended, a local newspaper reported his return to England.

My grandpa returned home a different person. According to family accounts, he grew up to be a distant and reclusive guy who worked as a postmaster at a tiny corner store and seldom visited his village. It’s a far cry from the brave airman he must have been in the past. 

I wasn’t able to ascertain the degree of his wartime injuries, but the mental scars are likely to have lasted longer than the physical ones. He was still receiving a military disability pension when he died in 1966.

Paul Aue, on the opposite side of the English Channel, completed the war with ten combat wins. He became a flight instructor for the Luftwaffe in the 1930s and fought on the Eastern Front during World War II. In the spring of 1945, he was arrested by the Soviet army and died in a POW camp a few weeks before V-E day, at the age of 53.

A monument on the wall of the 12th century St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church in the tiny hamlet of Mottistone on the Isle of Wight in southern England is dedicated to Alexander Claud Garden Brown, who died on May 6, 1918, at Herleville, France, “of wounds sustained in aerial action.” “Though severely wounded, he made a landing, thereby saving the life of his observer,” it adds. He was 27 years old at the time.

Brown’s story epitomizes war’s terrible lottery—an horrible combination of courage and tragedy, young sacrifice, and survivor’s remorse. The courageous lieutenant, who died before he could have children, saved my grandfather’s life and, in doing so, ensured my own. When Winston Churchill emerged from Keith Park’s 11 RAF Group headquarters on the eve of the Battle of Britain, uttering the immortal words: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” it would take another 20 years and another war for society to fully comprehend the costly sacrifices made by the brave airmen of World War I. MHQ

Brendan Sainsbury is a freelance travel writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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