People remembered (and rewarded) for their wartime deeds are often elite snipers, fighter pilots, even dictators — all in all, the most successful gravediggers. But one easily forgets the names of those who spared lives instead of taking them.
Perhaps the reason behind Henry Tandey’s joining of the British Army was his unhappy childhood at the local orphanage. Wishing to travel around, the 19-year old enlisted in 1910 and his unit was immediately dispatched to South Africa. However, the boys’ tropical adventures came to a sudden end; when WW1 broke out, Henry and his brothers in arms were ordered back and sent to the French ‘tranchées’ frontlines.
Feats of arms
Like 6 millions of his fellow countrymen, Henry experienced the horror of the trenches, trudging through a heavy blood-and-mud mixture where boots relentlessly sink. This, remember, marked the beginning of the ‘war to end all wars’. In October 1914, Henry took part in the Battle of Ypres (Belgium), making it through his baptism by fire without a scratch. He wasn’t that lucky at the Somme Offensive — which caused no less than a million casuaties — but was back on the battlefield by 1917. Wounded again at Passchendaele, he came out the military hospital in early 1918. Should one consider Henry unlucky or a miracle survivor?
His bravery on the battlefield earned him numerous medals and awards. Considered by his superiors ‘an example of daring courage throughout the whole of the operations’, Henry received the Distinguished Conduct Medal in the summer of 1918, and the prestigious Victoria Cross one month later. The latter he earned for his role in the defence of Marcoing, northern France, on September 28, 1918. Just a few weeks before the armistice, Henry had become a hero. But another of his deeds, that day, was to make his name famous and remembered.
The 28th of September was a rough day, all right. Suffering heavy gunfire from German artillery, Henry managed nevertheless to break enemy lines. Twice wounded, he refused to leave the battlefield and victory was secured. Some time later, Henry told war reporters that he had come across an injured and unarmed German soldier during the battle, and had let him go. ‘I took aim but couldn’t shoot a wounded man’ he said magnanimously. But who was the man he spared? A corporal of the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division who nodded at him to say thanks. A man who fled the battlefield and eventually survived the war. A man, it is rumored, going by the name of Adolf Hitler.
Sure enough, Henry Tandey a war hero, as well as the most decorated soldier to survive WW1; but this was nothing compared to the ‘fame’ awaiting him as the man who (supposedly) spared Hitler. Upon hearing the story, many commentators now argue Henry could have prevented WW2 with a single bullet. An obvious conclusion. But did he really spare Adold Hitler? The story, it appears, is a bit more complicated than that.
The man in the painting
Let’s jump some twenty years forward in time. In September 1938, British PM Neville Chamberlain was invited to Hitler’s Berghof to negotiate with the Führer. To his surprise, the politician was shown a curious painting depicting the 1914 Battle of Ypres. ‘That man came so near to killing me that I thought I should never see Germany again’, Hitler said, pointing at a British soldier on the painting. On the latter, drawn from a 1914 press report, Führer had recognized the man who had spared him: Henry Tandey. According to legend, Chamberlain called Tandey upon his return in Great Britain to send him the Führer’s best wishes…
Hitler himself, then, identified Tandey as his ‘savior’: that should prove good enough for historians, right? Think again: actually, it is hard to believe Corporal Hitler was even in Marcoing on the day the events took place. According to the Bavarian State Archives, he was on leave until the 27th, so he probably did not reach northern France on time to fight the following day.
Why did the story emerge in the first place, then? It is likely that Hitler, wishing to reinforce his reputation of a man guided by Providence, came up with it to appear all the more invulnerable. As a matter of fact, he had selected a British war hero as his savior — not an obscure Allied private no one ever heard about. It is clear that his propaganda efforts paid off, as people keep repeating the story to this day.
With all due respect to the (worryingly numerous) authors and journalists blaiming Tandey for the outbreak of WW2, it is clear that the British private never had Hitler in his crosshairs. This appears to be another historical misconception that needs some more debunking. What’s more, even though the story were true, who could reasonably assert that Hitler’s premature death would have prevented WW2? German nationalism emerged from the ashes of the First World War, and it would certainly have sown the same seeds of hatred, with or without him.
One thing is for sure: we must remember private Henry Tandey, for he indisputably spared a man’s life on September 28, 1918. Thanks to him, a German soldier possibly survived seven more weeks to see WW1 through. Remember that, for this gesture, perhaps the braver of all, Tandey did not receive any medal.
- David Johnson, The Man Who Didn’t Shoot Hitler (2014), The History Press.
- Jean-Jacques Becker, La Grande Guerre. Une histoire franco-allemande (2012), Tallandier.
- Thomas Weber, Hitler’s First War: Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment, and the First World War (2010), Oxford University Press.
- “British soldier allegedly spares the life of an injured Adolf Hitler”, History.com, 28/10/2019.
- Bethan Bell, “World War 1: The British hero who did not shoot Hitler”, BBC News, 04/08/2014.
- Timothy W. Ryback, “History Without Hitler?”, The New York Times, 26/10/2014.