History is full of urban legends... The fog of war doesn't fade when history's most notorious monster and a gallant British soldier are on both ends of the story.
When British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain visited Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938, he found the German dictator owned a reproduction of a painting by Italian artist Fortunino Matania. The painting depicts a British soldier at the Battle of Menin Crossroads in WWI carrying another to safety.
It was a bizarre acquisition for someone like Hitler, so furious at Germany's loss and humiliation at the end of World War I.
"Green Howards Soldiers at Menin Crossroads" by Fortunino Matania
Chamberlain asked Hitler – a clearly firm German nationalist – why he would choose to have a painting depicting Germany's WWI enemies in the Berghof, his mountain retreat. Hitler replied that the painting featured a soldier who spared his life in combat.
"That man came so near to killing me that I thought I should never see Germany again," Hitler is alleged to have said. "Providence saved me from such devilish accurate fire as those English boys were aiming at us."
That British soldier is believed to be Henry Tandey, a Victoria Cross recipient who remembers sparing a German soldier's life at Marcoing. At just 27 years old, Tandey led a bayonet charge at Marcoing. He and his nine fellow Tommies took out a German machine gun nest and took 37 prisoners before sending the rest of the Germans in retreat.
The village of Marcoing after the battle, 1918.
Tandey fought in the First Battle Ypres in 1914 and the Somme in 1916, where he was wounded. He was out of the hospital in time for the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917, and in 1918, was at the capture of Marcoing, where he recalls sparing a German soldier's life.
"I took aim but couldn't shoot a wounded man," Tandey remembered, "so I let him go." Tandey said the German soldier nodded in thanks, and disappeared.
Hitler, front row left, in 1917.
The accuracy of the story is disputed by historians. Though Hitler's special interest in the painting is odd, he is known to have owned it as early as 1937, acquired from Tandey's old regiment.
Historians argue that the faces of both men would likely have been unrecognizable, covered in mud and blood (and who-knows-what-else). They also argue that Hitler, even though he was a message runner, would have been up to 50 miles north of where Tandey was that day. Either that, or the future dictator was on leave.
Tandey with medals in 1973.
Later, during WWII, a Coventry-based journalist approached the British WWI vet and asked him about the alleged encounter. As Tandey stood in front of his home, which had just been bombed by the Luftwaffe, Tandey said:
"If only I had known what he would turn out to be... When I saw all the people and women and children he had killed and wounded I was sorry to God I let him go."