Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Frost's "The Road Not Taken" and a story about World War One

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
(Robert Frost)
I have been thinking of Frost's poem since coming across this account of an incident towards the end of World War One, which I found by chance a few days ago.

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.  


Jim said...

It poses a very interesting question. If you could go back in time and kill Hitler during ww1 would you?

At first it may seem like you are preventing WW2, but of course that may not be the case. An alternate time line may result in a Nazi war machine, under a more competent and less revenge driven leadership. Which of course may lead the WW2 outcome in a very different direction.

Jim said...

Hitler was all about vengeance. For example after the allies had hit Berlin he switched his air raids to London and other cities, had he continued hitting military targets for example the RAFs airfields, then the battle of Britain would have ended differently. Hurricanes and spirited are not much use with no airfield to fly from.

Jim said...

*Spitfires. Blooming kindle autocorrect

Chris Whiteside said...

You are certainly right that under a war leader without certain of Hitler's limitations - he did indeed have a thirst for revenge, did not understand naval warfare, and often did not listen to subordinates when he should have - WWII could have been even tougher to win.

Equally it is very possible that had the NSDAP not had Hitler as leader it is unlikely that they would have found a leader of equivalent charisma and thus they would probably not to have come to power. With one exception I don't think any other likely German government would have risked starting World War II so a huge evil would probably have been averted.

However the one possible exception would have been if Ludendorf, who had links to Hitler and the Nazis, had become the leader of the German far-right. He had been a far more competent opponent in WW1 than Hitler wasWWII.

However, whether Ludendorf;s health and mental capacities would still have been as dangerous by the time German armed forces could have been brought up to enough strength to challenge the West again is another matter. He died in 1937 and had gone fairly bonkers for a few years before that, so I suspect not.

Jim said...

An interesting point, but look at his generals. Rommell could have done it. A very good leader

Chris Whiteside said...

Yes, if there had still been a World War II but with one of the more able German commanders controlling their war effort - Rommel as you say, or Guderian or Manstein for instance - I shudder to think how much more damage they might have done.

But any German government which trusted one of those leaders enough to give him control of the war effort would presumably also trust him enough to take his advice about whether to start a war in the first place.

And I can't see Rommel, or any of the other generals who were smart enough to have had an outside chance of winning WWII, not also being smart enough to realise aware that even if they did everything right their or probability of winning was still not very high. In real history Hitler had to over-rule his generals who were not at all happy about taking on Britain and France in 1939 and there is a famous quote from a British General - I think it was Wavell -who argued that because Germany's opponents controlled the oceans and the vast majority of the world's oil supplies, Germany was bound to eventually lose the war.

My basic argument is that if there had been no Hitler there probably would not have been a World War II and that any German leadership smart enough to have a chance of winning it would probably also have been smart enough not to start it.

Jim said...

Yes, I can understand and appreciate your argument. But mine is that although it may not have been the Nazi regime as as such, WW2 could have happened any way.

Germany is a proud nation and following WW1 then the restrictions enforced did not bode well. Especially with returning soldiers who never felt they had just lost a war. The restrictions in place leading to the worst case of hyperinflation in history. It was pretty much on the cards. Hitler moved the focus granted, but, what could have been done instead?

That's just it, alternate history is always a risky business. You never know what you are trading for.

Chris Whiteside said...

I absolutely agree that you cannot be certain what would have happened - that's why I started the article by quoting Frost's "The road not taken."

I don't, however, agree that most German soldiers thought they were winning the war in late 1918.

In early 1918, yes, having knocked Russia out of the war with the help of the revolution, and in the early stages of their summer offensive when they pushed the Allies back and Haig had to issue a "backs to the wall" order.

But after the British victory at Amiens, which Ludendorf described as a "Black Day for the German army" the morale of German forces almost entirely collapsed. It wasn't just that their big attack failed and they were being pushed back. It was the combination of that with the fact that when German soldiers, who had been hungry for months and knew that their families were worse fed still, captured Allied trenches at the start of their offensive they discovered enough food and supplies to realise that, wretched as conditions were for the soldiers of both sides, the allied armies were at least well-fed.

Ludendorf knew perfectly well after Amiens that Germany had lost the war, and he advised the government to make peace while the German armies were still on foreign soil. He told the civilian government which was hastily put in place to sue for peace that they should try to get the best terms available while Germany still held foreign territory. They he created a row with them which ended in his resignation.

I am personally convinced that as soon as he recovered from a fit of depression which hit him after Amiens, Ludendorf started not just planning but preparing for the post-war political struggles and deliberately created the situation which would enable him to fabricate the myth that victorious German armies had been betrayed by politicians. (It later became known as the "Stab in the back theory" after Ludendorf adopted a phrase coined by a British general who asked him "Are you saying that the German army was stabbed in the back?")

Then after creating the circumstances which would give a thin veneer of plausibility to the myth that Germany had been winning the war when craven politicians (especially Jews and Freemasons) surrendered, Ludendorf spent the rest of his life proselytising for that myth

Ludendorf and the Nazis may have eventually come to believe their own lies but initially I think they knew damn well that the "stab in the back theory" was a myth which happened to be extremely useful.

Any general who was clear-minded and able enough to have a chance of winning any putative alternative World War II would have to realise that Germany really did lose World War I and why, whatever he was forced to say in public. That's why none of them liked the odds in 1939 and would have preferred to fight the war several years later when Germany was more prepared.

But after 1938 Britain and France were rearming too. I don't believe that a German leadership which was competent enough to be a greater threat than the Nazis would ever have thought the time was right.

Of course, as you infer and I agreed at the start of this comment, we will never know.

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