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Explained: Operation Alberich, on which the movie 1917 is based

The operation is regarded as a tactical success for the Germans, but is criticised for the disproportionate destruction it caused.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: January 26, 2020 8:28:59 pm
1917 movie, what is 1917 movie about, 1917 movie review, Operation Alberich, what was Operation Alberich, world war 1, Treaty of Versailles, indian express indian express explained The film tells the story of two British soldiers given the mission of going through dangerous territory to deliver a message. (Photo: YouTube/screengrab)

The Oscar-nominated World War I drama ‘1917’ released in India on January 17. The Sam Mendes directorial features Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch.

The film tells the story of two British soldiers during the war, given the mission of going through dangerous territory to deliver a message. The message is — call off an attack doomed to fail.

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The two are sent on the task soon after the Central Powers implement Operation Alberich, the strategic retreat in which their troops were taken back to the Hindenburg Line in 1917.

What was Operation Alberich?

In World War I (1914-18), the Allied Powers — principally France, the British Empire, Russia, Italy, Japan, and the United States (after 1917) — fought and defeated the Central Powers — mainly Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. The war caused destruction and suffering on unprecedented levels, and only led to a bigger conflict, World War II, two decades later in 1939.

Operation Alberich is considered among Germany’s most important operations on the Western Front in 1917, as well as one of its most extreme due to the ‘scorched earth’ policy employed.

According to 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, the war manoeuvre involved the systematic destruction of 1,500 square kilometres of French territory by the German army after it decided to retreat to a newly constructed defence line.

The German army leadership had decided that the war must shift temporarily to the shorter and more easily defensible Hindenburg Line.

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The Operation took place in February and March 1917.

The shortening of the war front was drastic, and is considered the war’s biggest military construction project. The planning for the approximately 130-km Hindenburg Line (called the “Siegfried Line” by the Germans) began in September 1916, and much of it was completed in four months from October — using 5,00,000 tonnes of rocks and gravel, over 1,00,000 tonnes of cement, and 12,500 tonnes of barbed wire.

The scorched earth policy, which laid to waste entire villages, roads, and bridges, was meant to destroy anything that the Allies could find useful. The Operation saw the complete evacuation of the area’s civilian population.


The move is regarded as a tactical success for the Germans, as it took the Allies by surprise and delayed their advance, but is criticised for the disproportionate destruction that it caused, and had long-term consequences.

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It is considered a propaganda disaster for Germany, and was presented by the Allies as an example of “Hun barbarism”. At the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed after the war, the Allies used Alberich to legitimise their claims for punitive reparations from Germany.

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