In the late afternoon of the 28th September 1918, in the final weeks of WW1, Private Henry Tandey of the Yorkshire Regiment had an encounter which might otherwise have changed the course of human history.
This was the end-game of four years of poisonous, vicious warfare that had slaughtered millions, upended the lives of many more and laid waste to thousands of square miles of Europe. In August, the Allies had begun the 100 Days Offensive – a massive assault that aimed to punch a hole through German defences and end the stalemate. By the 27th of September Tandey’s unit had reached the Hindenberg line and seized the strategically important village of Marcoing that straddled the Canal du Nord.
But the following morning as the Yorkshire Regiment were securing their positions, the Prussian Guard launched a counter attack.
Soon, Tandey found himself in the midst of a major engagement that was to define his life. During a day of close quarters combat and despite being seriously wounded in the head, he personally led an attack on an enemy machine gun post, secured one of the vital bridges across the canal and commanded a bayonet charge that forced the enemy back – turning the course of the battle.
His gallantry under fire was to win him an immediate Victoria Cross, but it was a separate event late in the afternoon, that secured Henry Tandey’s place in posterity; for as he rounded a corner on the outskirts of Marcoing, he came face to face with a wounded and disorientated Austrian born corporal by the name of Adolf Hitler.
Now of course in October 1918 nobody had yet heard of Adolf Hitler. That afternoon, he was just another man, in battlefield grey, fleeing across the Canal du Nord in fear for his life. But in that moment, all of that was to follow – spun on the decision of a 27 year old boiler engineer, from Leamington Spa.
Tandey raised his rifle, took aim – and paused. He had killed a lot of men that day and maybe all the death he had witnessed and meted out stopped him pulling the trigger once more.
Whatever his motive, Tandey lowered his gun and gestured to the corporal to flee.
Hitler mouthed ‘thank you’ and ran.
“That man came so near to killing me that I thought I should never see Germany again,” the indebted veteran was to recall in September 1938, as he pointed Tandey out to Neville Chamberlain in a painting that hung in his study in the Berghof in the Bavarian Alps – “providence saved me.”
The art-work was a copy of a piece by Italian artist Fortunino Matania depicting British soldiers at the Menin crossroads in 1914. In the bottom right hand corner Tandey can be seen carrying a wounded comrade on his back. The original still hangs in the Green Howard’s museum in Richmond, North Yorkshire and the tale of how the print came to be on the wall of Hitler’s Bavarian retreat is serendipitous.
At some point in the 1930s a postcard of it was sent to a member of Hitler’s Staff, Dr Otto Schwend, by a British soldier he had befriended at the end of the war. Schwend had shown it to his leader who immediately recognised Tandey as the man who had chosen not to kill him in 1918.
So a copy was commissioned and hung in pride of place as a reminder that Hitler’s life had once been spared – by the most highly decorated soldier in the British army no less.
“When you return home, please convey my thanks to Mr Tandey!” Hitler begged of the British Prime Minister. And Chamberlain was as good as his word. Having flapped the Munich agreement in front of the cameras and declared “Peace in Our Time” the British Prime Minister phoned Tandey to pass on the thanks of the most hated man in the world for sparing his life in the late summer of 1918. Unfortunately Tandey was out – and his nephew took the call.
It’s a great story. It has inspired books, newspaper articles and a whole industry of alternative history. Michael Morpurgo’s novel ‘An Eagle in the Snow’ is based on the event. The History Channel made a documentary about it. There are plays, articles, biopics and a thousand ‘what if’ threads on the internet dedicated to it.
There’s just one problem. It never happened.
The two men never met.
For while Tandey was fighting at Marcoing, Hitler most definitely was not; nor was he anywhere near. German state archives reveal that on the 27th of September 1918 his unit, the 16th Bavarian Reserve regiment, was 50 miles north – and Hitler himself was on leave.
Hitler had seen the postcard, had claimed to recognise Tandey, had commissioned the painting – but the encounter itself was entirely fabricated. And the person who made up the story was most probably Hitler himself.
So why did he do that?
In the spring of 1943, the U.S. Office of Strategic Studies, fore-runner of the CIA, commissioned psychoanalyst Walter Langer, to create a ‘psychological profile’ of the German leader. With a team of researchers, over a period of eight months, Langer threw himself into the task. He studied everything Hitler had written along with every available interview the Nazi leader had ever given. In the resulting ground-breaking summary, Langer concluded that from 1924 onwards: “It became clearer that he (Hitler) was thinking of himself as the Messiah and that it was he who was destined to lead Germany to glory.”
The Nazi leader believed he had been sent to the German people to deliver them from the humiliation of Versailles and lead them on to their destiny. Nazism was a cult and cults need doctrine, prophesy and creed. The events in Marcoing created a perfect narrative. Hitler bewildered, broken and beaten, like Germany itself – had faced down the greatest warrior in the British army and been delivered from the battlefield to save his people and lead them to greatness.
The painting was a ‘momento vivere’ and Henry Tandey VC was the angel of deliverance.
Truth played second fiddle to the propaganda – and quite quickly, the same story came to suit the British too.
Approached by the Coventry Herald in 1939, Tandey was at first wary and dismissive of the story – quoted as saying: “According to them, I’ve met Hitler. Maybe they’re right, but I can’t remember him.” A year later however and having been bombed out of his own home, Tandey had miraculously come to recall the events of September 1918 saying:
“When I saw all the people and women and children he had killed and wounded I was sorry to God I let him go.”
Tandey’s earlier caution had gone – and with good reason. The bombing of Coventry in November 1940 had claimed 600 lives and destroyed thousands of homes. It didn’t matter that Tandey was now recalling something that had never happened. The story arc of an honest British Tommy showing mercy to the German dictator, only to be repaid by having his home town reduced to rubble – neatly demonstrated the contrast between the two sides. This ‘happy breed’ of straightforward British folk – played by the rules, believed in fair-play – showed honour in the field of battle and spared the lives of wounded men. The German ‘volk’ had returned the favour, by murdering innocent civilians in their homes.
By embracing Hitler’s lie, Henry Tandey unwittingly turned Nazi propaganda into a parallel reality and one that would unfortunately come to eclipse his own heroic deeds. It didn’t matter that the story had been concocted by one of the most diabolical individuals of the 20th century, to serve his agenda. It had value of its own. Indeed, it resonated so strongly that it persists to this day.
Take a 2014 episode of BBC local magazine show Inside Out broadcast in the Midlands. An item on the life of Tandey focusing solely on his fictitious ‘encounter’ includes a historian, David Johnson, roundly debunking the myth. But despite that the piece concludes with the journalist saying:
“True or not it’s a fantastic story and one that people are happy to continue debating.”
Really? Debate something that didn’t happen.
An encounter that never happened and a phone call that was never made have become an alternative truth.
Tandey’s fate might seem almost trivial in the wider context of the slaughter of the 20th century – but it neatly illustrates a wider crisis facing us in the 21st – and one that becomes ever more prevalent in the digital and mass information era.
The advent of the web opened up the potential for a brave new meritocratic age of information. For the first time in history, most people have a device in their pockets capable of accessing resources that could match those of the world’s great libraries. This still has the potential to be the most democratising moment in the modern age. Here is a chance for anyone with a smart-phone to fact-check, enquire, improve and to make the world a more transparent place.
And yet, for the most part, people have instead chosen to use this incredible tool to share pictures of cats or their private parts. Why waste half a day reading up on the life of a long dead Private in the Yorkshire regiment when you can like a video of a man falling over? Why bother to check how much nations pay to the European Union when you can swipe left or right on somebody’s face?
Instead of embracing truth many continue to fall back on the comforts of prejudice and fake news. This has left societies prey to the curse of populist politics and the mendacious interest groups that increasingly run merry. For whether it be ‘taking back control’ or ‘making America Great again’ or the perpetuation of the dangerous lie that individuals who share geographical spits of land have a shared past, shared values or a common destiny.
If we are going to progress towards a better future and avoid a repeat of the horrors of the two terrible wars we must first be liberated from the false narratives of our past – and present.