I just read about two cases in the early twentieth century where Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini narrowly escaped with their lives. What a moral dilemma; would not pulling the trigger have been a better choice than pulling the trigger? Needless to say, they will get footnotes in Chapter 14 of my European history, once I decide where to put them. Here they are:
1. Here is a great “What if?” situation, for those who like to speculate on how history could have been different. On September 29, 1918, the British liberated Marcoing, a small French town. The hero of that battle was Private Henry Tandey, a veteran of several other World War I battles, including Ypres in 1914, the Somme and Passchendaele. Twenty-seven-year-old Tandey saved the day for the British by taking out a German machine gun nest, and then he repaired a bridge so that his buddies could use it. While doing this he was still under fire from the Germans, and took a couple of hits himself. Nevertheless, he continued marching to Marcoing, and on the way, a wounded German soldier with a big mustache came into view. Tandey raised his rifle at the German, who seemed to know his time was up. Suddenly, Tandey decided there had been enough killing, and couldn’t bring himself to shoot a wounded man; he put the rifle down, and the German nodded in thanks and got out of there.
King George V awarded Tandey the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest medal for valor, but in the long run, sparing an enemy soldier undid all his other achievements, for the German he let go was Adolf Hitler. After that, Hitler often talked about how “providence” had saved him to do great things, and eventually he acquired a copy of a painting of Tandey at Ypres, carrying a wounded soldier. When Neville Chamberlain met Hitler in 1938, Hitler showed him the painting, said that was the man who almost shot him, and asked the prime minister to take a kind message to Tandey. Chamberlain did, giving Tandey a phone call after he returned to London. Of course Tandey wasn’t happy to learn that his act of kindness had led to all the unpleasantness of the late 1930s and 40s, but by then he was too old and had too many injuries to re-enlist in the army. What would you have done, if the decision not to shoot someone would cause terrible things to happen in the future?
2. One person who definitely did not approve of Mussolini was Violet Gibson, the Anglo-Irish daughter of the First Lord Ashbourne. Ireland’s struggle for independence had made Gibson an Irish nationalist, so she took a liberal stand on other issues as well, meaning that she saw Mussolini’s dictatorship as moving in the wrong direction. One day in 1926, while Mussolini was the star of a parade in Rome, Gibson fired three shots at him, but he only suffered a minor wound to the nose. The police took her away before the angry mob tore her to pieces, and because Mussolini was very popular at that point, everyone decided that she must be insane, and worked alone. Gibson was never charged with a crime, put on trial, or imprisoned, but the result was the same; she was confined to a mental asylum in England until she died in 1956.