Then took the other, as just as fair,
And both that morning equally lay
I shall be telling this with a sigh
There are two opinions about whether it really happened: the fact that the story told by one participant was largely accepted by the other is not absolutely conclusive because human memory can play strange tricks even in less stressful circumstances than on the battlefield. I know from experience that someone who is told that he has done something and tries to remember it may "find" (in reality, manufacture) that memory and come to sincerely think that the story is true.
According to the tale, the eyes of two decorated soldiers met on the battlefield on 28th September 1918. One served in the Green Howards and had been awarded the Victoria Cross: the other served in the 16th Bavarian infantry regiment and was a holder of the Iron Cross.
If it is true, Private Henry Tandy of the Green Howards could easily have shot the German corporal. But he saw that the man had been badly wounded and was withdrawing, and spared his life. It is beyond dispute that he said later that
“I didn’t like to shoot at a wounded man but if only I’d known who he would turn out to be… I’d give 10 years now to have five minutes of clairvoyance then.”
The German soldier was, of course, Adolf Hitler who, after he had become chancellor of Germany, ordered his staff to trace the man who he said had spared his life, and in 1938 he asked the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, to convey his thanks to Henry Tandy.
Tandy's old regiment, the Green Howards were convinced that the incident really happened: Tandy's biographer David Johnson thought it more likely that the Nazis had concocted the story for propaganda reasons. We will never know, although I don't see why the Nazis would want to manufacture a story which shows a soldier from the nation they were by 1938 preparing to fight in a good light, and their own Fuhrer in a light which could be seen as martial weakness. Which suggests to me that Hitler himself is more to have genuinely wanted to say thank you because a British soldier really did spare his life, whether it was Henry Tandy or someone else.
If so, did he do the right thing? We can never know what would have happened. Obviously Hitler used the extra 27 years he was given to do great evil.
But there was no way that Tandy, or any other soldier who decided not to add one more life to the millions wasted in that terrible way. For all he knew, the man he spared might have made a valuable contribution to rebuilding a peaceful, better Europe. If there had been a valid military reason to pull the trigger I am sure he would have done so, but his judgement was that there was not - correctly as Hitler spent the rest of the war recovering from his injuries. And it cannot be right to kill someone just because of crimes you think they might commit in the future.
I have a particular reason to hold that view. On almost the same day that Hitler was wounded, so was another solder - a Fusilier in the Lancashire Fusiliers.
My grandfather and his younger brother both served in the First World War. Grandad was one of the fortunate ones who came back. His younger brother was one of no fewer than 1,200 people from the Darwin area of Lancashire who didn't. He died of his wounds at the age of 18, six weeks before the end of the war - e.g. within a couple of days of the alleged incident when Tandy spared Hitler.
Millions of young men like my great uncle never got the chance to show what they could do with the rest of their lives. If the story had any basis in reality, then the outcome that Hitler used his extra years for evil rather than good does not mean that the British soldier who showed mercy was wrong to do so.