It would have been easy for Private Tandey to shoot; after all he had been killing Germans all day. However, as the enemy solider limped from the smoke into his gun sights, the British infantry man held his fire. The German was clearly wounded and though Tandey took aim, he was unable to shoot. The wounded man nodded his thanks and disappeared back into the gloom.
The incident was over in a flash and though the German would never forget the kindness, Henry Tandey would not recall the events for another twenty years.
The fighting of the 28 September 1918, around the French village of Marcoing, had been exceptionally heavy. Henry Tandey had single-handedly destroyed a German machine gun nest, braved enemy gunfire to bridge a huge hole that was halting British attacks and led a bayonet charge against a far larger force. He was by all accounts a hero.
Tandey was later awarded the VC for his exploits and immortalised in a painting by the Italian artist Fortunio Matania. He left the army in 1926 and lived out a quite life in Leamington, England.
In 1938 war was brewing in Europe. In a last ditch effort to avoid conflict, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, visited Adolf Hitler in Germany. During the talks Hitler invited Chamberlain to his retreat in Berchtesgaden in Bavaria. The hideout was lavishly decorated with many German works of art. However, one painting stood out, a copy of Fortunio Matania’s depiction of Private Tandey.
When Chamberlain questioned Hitler over the painting of the British soldiers, the dictator pointed at the picture and explained:
‘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.’
Hitler then asked Chamberlain to pass on his thanks to Private Tandey.
On returning to England, Chamberlain contacted Tandey and recounted his conversation with Hitler. At the time Tandey was nonchalant about his wartime restraint. However, as the Second World War sparked into life across the globe his feeling changed. He twice narrowly escaped death during German bombing raids in Coventry and London, and would later tell a journalist:
‘If only I had known what he would turn out to be. When I saw all the people and woman and children he had killed and wounded I was sorry to God I let him go.’
It appears that our hero was haunted for the remainder of his life by his failure to kill Hitler. At the age of 49 he unsuccessfully tried to rejoin this old regiment, telling everyone that Hitler wouldn’t escape a second time.
Private Henry Tandey outlived Hitler, dieing in 1977. His ashes were scattered at Marcoing with his fallen comrades.
However, the story doesn’t end there. A debate still exists as to the validity of Hitler’s claim.
Destruction of military records makes it impossible to clarify the exact location of Hitler on 28 September 1918, though Hitler’s regiment was in the region of Marcoing at the time. However, there is no doubt that Hitler owned the painting. British records clearly show that in 1937, the German Leader personally requested a copy of the painting from Tandey’s Old regiment (the Green Howards).
However, one mystery remains. The painting by Fortunio Matania does depict Henry Tandey, but not at Marcoing in 1918. Instead, it shows our hero at the earlier battle of Ypres in 1914.
So was Hitler mistaken?
After the war, Henry Tandey told journalists that he made a habit of not shooting wounded soldiers, though this is not collaborated elsewhere. Yet, we know for certain that Hitler fought in the battle of Ypres in 1914 and was wounded. This leaves the chance that Hitler simply mixed up the dates.
However, personally I feel there may be a simpler explanation. At the time the painting was the only one in existence showing Private Tandey. During his meeting with Chamberlain, Hitler had pointed at the reproduction and said ‘that’s the man who nearly shot me.’ It may be that Hitler was aware that the picture was of 1914, but wished to have a remainder of the man who had not killed him.