Halloween 1914 was a horrible time. Military historians call it The First Battle of Ypres, but that dry name does little to convey the horrors that were taking place in Flanders. The German name for the battle, Kindermord bei Ypern ("The Massacre of the Innocents") speaks much more eloquently. However if events had taken a very slightly different turn that Samhain the world may have been spared worse horrors to come.
The First World War was fought with offensive weapons from the nineteenth century - the bayonet and the cavalry sword, and defensive weapons from the twentieth - quick-firing artillery and machine guns. It was fought between industrial nations who, with steam technology and miles of railways, could support armies of millions in the field all year round. The result were battles longer and bloodier than before or since.
In October 1914 no trenches had yet been dug, and at the northern edge of the line British and German soldiers fought each other in the open in what became known as the Race To The Sea. As each side tried to outflank the other, a series of bloody and confused battles took place.
On 31st October the Germans attacked and destroyed the 1st Battalion of the South Wales Borders guarding the town of Gheluvelt. By a twist of fate this was the same infantry battalion that had been wiped out nearly 36 years earlier by the Zulus at the battle of Isandhlwana.
The victorious Germans, consisting of the 16th, 244th and 245th Bavarian Regiments had broken through the British line and could have turned the battle. Instead they settled down for a rest in the grounds of the Chateau and a bit of looting in the village.
British Generals of the Great War don't have a terrific reputation, but one who definitely wasn't a Colonel Bogey was Brigadier General Charles FitzClarence. He'd already won a Victoria Cross serving with Baden-Powell in Mafeking and he was about to make a valiant attempt to win another one.
Rounding up the only men he could find, the 2nd Battalion of the Worcester Regiment, he launched a counter attack. He was outnumbered, and German artillery killed or injured a quarter of his men before the attack started, but surprise and pluck carried the day and the Bavarians were routed. The gap was plugged and the day saved.
The Germans had had their chance and blown it. It was to be four long and bloody years before they got another. Fitzclarence though was not there then. Eleven days after the Battle of Gheluvelt he was shot dead whilst leading another counterattack.
The victory restored the status quo, allowed a fixed front line to form and paved the way to four years of murderous and intransigent trench warfare. Perhaps it might have been better if Fitzclarence had been a coward and a duffer, as the war might well have ended up being over by Christmas. But the what ifs of the battle extend well beyond this, and concern the fate of a certain private in the 16th Bavarian Regiment.
On 8th October 1914 Adolf Hitler (seated rather appropriately on the extreme right in the picture) took his oath to the King of Bavaria and went straight off to the front. His job was as a messenger, carrying messages to and from headquarters. Tradition has him braving shell fire at the front, but new research suggests that most of the time he was several miles back with the top brass. He probably also used the telephone as often as his own feet.
Never-the-less the 16th was his regiment and, unless he had been posted somewhere else, we would expect him to be with it. Historians can't definitely place him on the battlefield (the Wikipedia entry is tellingly blank) but he wasn't wounded and there's no record of him being anywhere else. I suspect Hitler's own silence on the matter is revealing. A vain man, if he'd had an excuse not to be associated with the defeat, he'd surely have told someone.
19,530 German's died in the First Battle of Ypres. That one of them wasn't Hitler is surely one of fate's bitterest ironies. Fitzclarence not only saved the First World War for Britain, he also came close to preventing the Second.
But if Hitler was present when his regiment turned tail and ran for their lives, what effect did it have on him? "Who knows?" is probably the best answer, but as this is a blog and not a text book, I'll have a punt.
First this was a act of omission not commission. The Panzers had arrived at the edge of the town with no infantry support. To advance further before they arrived would have been to risk heavy casualties and Field Marshal von Rundstedt's decision, which Hitler endorsed, was tactically a sensible one.
Strategically though, it was a major blunder. Destroying the BEF, Britain's only serious soldiers, would have been worth any losses. Von Rundstudt should have been ordered to press the attack.
The most likely explanation is that the Germans didn't think the Brits were going anywhere. They had their minds on other things and were happy to let the Luftwaffe bomb the Tommies into submission.
A week before the Dunkirk evacuation began, a British armoured counter attack at Arras had unsettled General Rommel, smashing much of his Division and almost breaking through.
Did this incident bring back bad memories for the Fuhrer?
Did Hitler fear what might happen if he pressed the BEF too hard?
Did he perhaps see the ghosts of his former comrades fleeing from Chateau at Gheluvelt?