Alfred Mendes: Hope amid the horror of 1917

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Alfred Mendes, grandfather of filmmaker Sam Mendes

Despite its title, the new award-winning epic film 1917 directed by Sam Mendes is a war film about the Western front rather than the Russian Revolution. But the life of Mendes’s socialist grandfather, Alfred Mendes (1897-1991), whose war stories inspired the film, reveals something of the influence of the Russian Revolution on colonial subjects of the British Empire.

Alfred Mendes was born into a Portuguese creole merchant family in colonial Trinidad and was educated at elite local schools and then from 1912 in England, at Hitchin Grammar School in Hertfordshire.

After the First World War broke out in 1914, Mendes was called home to Trinidad by his father, but out of “insatiable curiosity” rather than patriotism, in 1915 he decided to join the Merchants’ Contingents of Trinidad, a scheme financed by colonial merchants and designed for young men of the upper middle classes to join English regiments.

Mendes found himself in the First Battalion of the Rifle Brigade and from 1916 saw action in Flanders on the Belgian Front, being awarded a Military Medal for his bravery while acting as a Company runner in October 1917 at Poelcappelle. In 1918 he was hospitalised after inhaling poison gas, and the experience of the horrors of imperialist war proved a radicalising one for a colonial subject like Mendes.

In his posthumously published autobiography, he describes how the war had “begun to shatter a whole body of beliefs in the western world…those of us who had fought in the war were so changed in outlook and attitude that our memories of our past selves were dead and buried, never to be resurrected. Church, Royalty, Nobility, Government, Empire, Law, all of these sacred cows found themselves in grave danger of either extinction or change so drastic as to alchemise them into new and strange substances.”

Yet Mendes, who had returned to Trinidad in 1919, also recalls like many other colonial subjects being inspired by the Russian Revolution. “New ideas were in full spate everywhere, the Caribbean receiving their backwash…that the Russian Revolution excited us is an understatement. We were all, without exception, socialists standing on the brink of sympathising with, if not indeed joining the Communist Party, which was winning as adherents influential men and women in the western democratic countries and large numbers of the bright young men in the universities…that the brand new power laboriously coming to birth in eastern Europe would one day destroy all the European empires: that was the very heart of our hope.”

Alongside other young aspiring writers like Albert Gomes, Ralph de Boissière and CLR James, Mendes now helped form what became “the Beacon Group”, discussing literature, politics and music and then writing and publishing realist short stories about the lives of those dwellers in the impoverished “barrackyards” of Trinidad’s capital, Port of Spain, by way of implicit anti-colonial critique.

Mendes’s two novels Pitch Lake (1934) and Black Fauns (1935) alongside CLR James’s Minty Alley (1936) were pioneering West Indian novels when they were published in Britain. They laid the ground for later writers such as VS Naipaul, George Lamming and Sam Selvon.

After a spell trying to make it as a writer in depression-hit New York during the 1930s, Mendes subsequently abandoned his hopes of a literary career. Though he didn’t follow his friend CLR James into revolutionary politics, Mendes remained a socialist and after the Second World War he helped form a new socialist party, the United Front, to fight the 1946 general elections in Trinidad, “the first time, I believe, that the socialist creed was ever brought to the rural districts”.