Two infantrymen in the First World War, one British, one German. In the dying weeks of the war, one chance encounter in a French village — which may not even have happened — linked their names for the rest of history.
The first was Henry Tandey, at 27 already a veteran of the British army and the most decorated British private to serve in the war.
The second was Adolf Hitler.
As the story goes, Tandey’s platoon was outside the village of Marcoing, southwest of Cambrai, on Sept. 28, 1918. Facing heavy fire, Tandey spotted and knocked out a German machine gun. The Brits were hopelessly outnumbered, but Tandey led a bayonet charge. He was wounded twice but refused to give up. Tandey and his platoon of nine men took 37 German prisoners.
As the remaining Germans fled, one of them caught Tandey’s attention. “I was going to pick him off, but he was wounded, and I didn’t like to shoot a wounded man,” he said, according to a 1940 Canadian Press story that ran on the Star’s front page. Tandey didn’t know it at the time, he said, but the wounded German he had in his sights was Hitler, then a 29-year-old dispatch runner with the Bavarian army.
Tandey’s “most conspicuous bravery and initiative” at Marcoing earned him the empire’s highest military honour, the Victoria Cross. But did he let the much bigger prize slip away?
“If I’d known who he’d turned out to be I’m darned he’d have got off,” Tandey said in 1940, after German bombers under Hitler’s command flattened his Coventry home. “I’d give 10 years now to have had five minutes of clairvoyance then.”
It’s one of the most tantalizing what-ifs in history: What would have happened if Tandey had killed Hitler in World War I when he had the chance?
The only problem, historians say, is that the incident probably never happened.
Henry Tandey was born in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, in 1891. As a teen he found work stoking the boilers at a hotel in his hometown; then he joined the British army with the Green Howards regiment (officially the Alexandra Princess of Wales’ Own Yorkshire Regiment) in 1910. He served in South Africa and Guernsey before the First World War broke out in 1914 and his regiment was called into action.
In Munich, meanwhile, Adolf Hitler was a disaffected 25-year-old who jumped at the chance to serve with the Bavarian army. An unsuccessful artist with limited job prospects, he volunteered for service in the opening days of the war — even though he was an Austrian citizen who had moved from Vienna to Munich the year before in an apparent effort to avoid the Austrian draft, according to historian Thomas Weber’s book, Hitler’s First War. He ended up with the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment.
Both Hitler and Tandey saw their first action of the war at the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914. (The devastating Ypres battle that killed thousands of Canadians was the Second Battle, about six months later.) Tandey’s role at Ypres was immortalized in a painting by war artist Fortunino Matania. Someone had sketched Green Howards soldiers, including Tandey, helping their wounded comrades evacuate a makeshift hospital off the nearby Menin Rd. In 1923, the regiment commissioned Matania to make a painting of the scene, featuring Tandey in the foreground carrying an injured soldier on his shoulders.
World War I was a formative time in Hitler’s life. According to Weber, the army had provided a powerful sense of belonging for the young Hitler, who had a strained relationship with his father and lost both parents at a young age. But as he rose to power in Germany, he also saw his war experience as a potential propaganda tool.
Even as a soldier, Weber said, Hitler exaggerated his role in the fighting in letters home to his landlord. In later years, this embellishment continued.
For instance, not long after First Ypres, Hitler was attached to the regimental headquarters as a dispatch carrier, a role he held for the rest of the war. Early Nazi propaganda played up the dangers of this job — whereas front-line soldiers could take shelter in trenches, schoolchildren were told, runners like Hitler had no choice but to stay above ground to deliver important messages. In reality, Hitler’s job was most often to carry dispatches from the regimental headquarters — sometimes 10 kilometres behind the front lines — to battalion headquarters, which were closer to the action but still removed from the heat of battle. He didn’t normally face the same risks as battalion runners, who had to take dispatches to commanders on the front lines.
“It’s still a job neither of us would want to do because of the artillery fire,” Weber said in a phone interview. But unlike most German infantry soldiers, Hitler slept in a comfortable bed in the headquarters buildings, ate regular meals and largely stayed out of the line of fire.
The ordinary soldiers on the front lines had a name for soldiers like Hitler: “etappenschweine,” or “rear-area pigs.”
“That’s why his war experience was different, why Hitler was not a typical product of his regiment,” Weber said. “And that’s why Hitler felt the urge to tell a story different from what really happened.”
One of the German medical officers at First Ypres, a Dr. Schwend, went on to join Hitler’s staff. According to Tandey biographer David Johnson, Schwend stayed in touch with one of the British soldiers he treated, and in December 1936, the soldier sent him a copy of the Matania painting featuring Tandey. Hitler had his staff order a large photograph of the painting from the Green Howards. His aide sent a note thanking them for the artwork that captured a scene from Hitler’s first battle: “The Fuehrer is naturally very interested in things connected with his own war experiences. He was obviously moved when I showed him the picture. He has directed me to send you his best thanks for your friendly gift which is so rich in memories.”
Hitler hung the photo in the study of his Bavarian retreat. It was here in September 1938, the story goes, that it was spotted by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had come to Germany in his famed attempt to secure “peace in our time.”
According to the 1940 Canadian Press story, Chamberlain asked his host about this unusual artistic choice.
“That man came so near to killing me that I thought I should never see Germany again,” Hitler told him, pointing to Tandey. “Providence saved me from such devilish accurate fire as those English boys were aiming at us.”
On his return to England, Chamberlain telephoned Tandey at home to relay the story.
To biographer Johnson, this is where the story starts to fall apart — starting with the fact that Tandey didn’t have a home telephone. In a thorough analysis of the incident in his latest book, The Man Who Didn’t Shoot Hitler, Johnson points out that the Tandey in the painting looked very little like Tandey in real life. And if Hitler did get a look at Tandey during the battle, both would have been “dirty and dishevelled” after a long day of fighting, neither of them resembling their spiffed-up military photos.
The 1940 Canadian Press story, and similar ones that ran in the British press around the same time, confused the matter further. They described the September 1918 battle of Marcoing, for which Tandey won his Victoria Cross, but put the scene in Menin, where the painting was set.
The Green Howards looked into the matter in the 1990s, Johnson wrote, contacting the Bavarian State Archives for more information on Hitler’s whereabouts on Sept. 28, 1918. They learned that his unit had been transferred to Wytschaete, about 80 kilometres north of Marcoing, on Sept. 17. And Hitler was on leave from Sept. 25 to 27.
“This means that Hitler was either on leave or returning from leave at the time (of the Marcoing battle), or with his regiment 50 miles north of Marcoing,” Johnson wrote. “Therefore, he and Henry could not have crossed paths on 28 September.”
A more likely possibility, according to Weber, is that Hitler — ever the embellisher — used the Tandey story to win political points with Chamberlain, who had come looking for assurances of peace.
“I think it was just a good tool for Hitler to tell Chamberlain the story of an amicable Anglo-German encounter that he had,” Weber said in a phone interview. “Hitler had an incredible talent to tell people he met exactly what they wanted to hear.”
And if he was going to have his life spared by a British soldier, who better than a famous war hero who had won a Victoria Cross, Military Medal and Distinguished Conduct Medal in a matter of weeks? In other words, Tandey.
So if the story is a myth, why has it persisted?
The idea that Hitler could have been killed before rising to power poses fascinating questions about how the course of history might have changed, Weber said. But more than that, it launches an ethical debate.
“The normal human response is, a great soldier like Tandey had the strength and humanity not to shoot an enemy soldier who was wounded,” he said. “Which competes immediately with the knowledge that we shouldn’t celebrate that Hitler was not shot.”
It’s not clear how seriously Tandey himself took the story. According to Johnson, rumours started appearing in the press in 1939 and he didn’t seem to give them much credence at first. “According to them, I’ve met Adolf Hitler,” he said in an August 1939 article in the Coventry Herald. “Maybe they’re right but I can’t remember him.”
That’s a far cry from the detailed recollections published by the Sunday Graphic, the Canadian Press and other media in December 1940, in the aftermath of a German Blitz that destroyed Tandey’s home and much of Coventry.
“It must be remembered, though, that this was a low point for the country and for Coventry, and Henry can be excused for feeling a little sorry for himself and emotional after the sights he had witnessed,” Johnson writes. “It might be equally true that the journalist concerned took Henry’s comments out of context, which might go some way to explaining his distrust of the press.”
Tandey never spoke publicly about the matter after 1940. He died in 1977 at the age of 86 and had his ashes buried in Marcoing, near the scene of the battle that helped frame his legacy for better or worse.