By Nash Wills, Staff Writer
The other day, while going through my computer to delete some old documents, I was reminded of one of my favorite stories from history. The story, which is relatively unknown in the mainstream, was originally told to me by a college history professor and has always struck me because of its simplicity, and its resounding implications on the history of the world. The story is of Private Henry Tandey, who, on September 28th, 1918, had the chance to kill Adolf Hitler and chose not to.
The story begins on that fateful September day, as most World War I stories do, amongst hand-to-hand combat in between trenches during a German retreat outside of a small French village called Marcoing. During those moments, Henry Tandey, who would go on to become one of the most decorated British soldiers of the war, came face-to-face with a wounded 29 year old German Lance Corporal struggling to find his lines in the aftermath of an attack. The wounded man knew he was finished and didn’t even attempt to raise his rifle in self-defence. Tandey had the man in the sights of his gun, but as he recalled years later for a British newspaper in 1940, “I took aim but couldn’t shoot a wounded man, so I let him go.” The man, thankful for his life, allegedly nodded in thanks and walked off. Unbeknownst to Tandey at the time, that man would go on to become one of the most loathed and destructive people that the world would ever know: Adolf Hitler.
A couple of months after the incident, as Hitler was in a military hospital recovering from his injuries, he came across a British newspaper clipping of Tandey being awarded the Victoria Cross (the British equivalent to the Medal of Honor), recognized him as the man who had spared his life, and kept the clipping. After the war, as a glorification of the allied war effort, the Italian war artist Fortunino Matania copied a famous photo that depicted Tandey carrying a wounded comrade to safety at the battle at Menin Crossroads in October 1914, four years before the Marcoing action (painting is the feature photo).
Years later, in 1933, after Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany, he set his staff to poring through British Army accounts of the action at Marcoing and they soon discovered that Tandey was the private who had led the attack on Hitler’s platoon. Around that same time, a member of Hitler’s staff, Dr. Otto Schwend, who had served as a medical officer during the war, received a print of the painting from a British soldier whom he had cared for and subsequently kept in touch with after the war. Hitler was made aware of the painting and upon seeing it, recognized Tandey as the man from the newspaper clipping that he had kept for all those years. Hitler kept the painting and hung it in the Berghof, his alpine mountain retreat.
In 1938 when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain visited Hitler at the Berghof in a last ditch effort to prevent a second World War, he noticed the painting and asked him about it. Hitler allegedly replied to his question: “That man came so near to killing me that I thought I should never see Germany again; Providence saved me from such devilishly accurate fire as those English boys were aiming at us.”
As the story goes, Hitler apparently asked Chamberlain to relay his appreciation to Tandey upon his return to England, which he did via a phone call. We can only guess at what must have gone through Tandey’s head as he was enlightened to this terrible revelation—that is something that history took for herself. In the same interview from 1940 though, after recalling the incident to the British newspaper, he went on to state that “If only I’d known what he’d turn out to be. When I see all the people, women and children, he has killed and wounded here in Coventry. I’m sorry to God I let him go.”
I have always thought, and tried very hard to find and take away some sort of lesson from this story. To me, it feels as though there is something very important lying in between the lines of the story—a universal lesson—lying just out of my reach, and if I could just reach through and grasp it, I would understand something greater about this crazy world that we live in. Don’t let important opportunities to change things slip away when they are right in front of you? Don’t hesitate, just pull the trigger? No, I don’t think I like or want to believe those as universal truths. If there is any lesson at all to be taken from such a story it is this: Every day we must make little decisions that, although unknown to us at the time, may go on to have deeply resounding effects on the future. We must realize and respect this oddity of life and be intentional in making our best judgments in everything we do.
Feature Image Courtesy of www.mirror.co.uk