In the beginning of September, 1914, Adolf Hitler began his training as a rifleman in the Bavarian Army – first in Munich and then in Lechfeld near Augsburg. The training lasted until the 20th of October. In the early hours of the next morning, the Hitler and his unit left for the battlefields of Flanders (Belgium) where they arrived three days later.
Six more days later, on the 29th of October, Adolf Hitler got his “baptism of fire”. And quite a baptism it was. In just four days of intense fighting with the British troops, the 16th Regiment lost about 80% of its men. Four out of five.
It was a carnage which undoubtedly influenced the subsequent development of the concept of blitzkrieg – the “lightning war” (to which Adolf Hitler made a significant contribution). One of the fundamental objectives of blitzkrieg was precisely to avoid such horrendous losses of German lives on a battlefield.
Even simply to survive that bloodbath was no small feat but it seems that Adolf Hitler managed to distinguish himself in his first major battle because right after the end of it – on November 3rd (effective from November 1st), he was promoted to Gefreiter (corporal).
No other promotion followed though, although his comrades and immediate superiors expected him to advance further (and he was, indeed, nominated for promotion to Unteroffizier – sergeant).
According to some sources, he himself refused this promotion because it meant transfer from the regiment that became his ersatz home and his quasi-family. However, it does not seem likely given how happy he was when he received his Iron Cross Second Class and how he craved recognition.
More likely, his promotion was blocked (as other sources claim) by someone higher in the food chain who thought that Hitler did not possess the necessary leadership qualities (believe it or not).
On the 9th of November the newly minted corporal got a new assignment. He became one of the eight dispatch runners, the couriers whose responsibility was to deliver orders (mostly on foot and sometimes by bicycle) from regimental HQ to battalion and company commanders in the trenches about three kilometers away.
It was a dangerous assignment because even when “all was [seemingly] quiet on the Western front”, enemy snipers hunted the couriers to prevent them from delivering the message in time (which often determined who will win a particular skirmish or even a full-scale engagement). Because of that, normally two runners were sent to deliver the same message to ensure that it would get through if one happened to be killed or seriously wounded.
Not surprisingly, the dispatch unit suffered serious losses. Three out of four couriers were killed in action and one was seriously wounded. Consequently, it required a lot of courage to be one.
And some considerable physical abilities – to develop the message in time, successfully avoiding the enemy fire. Which meant that in reality Adolf Hitler was in a pretty good physical shape (and so mist likely bribed his way out of the Austrian army).
On November 15th, a miracle happened. A French shell exploded in the regimental HQ minutes after Hitler had left it, killing or severely wounding almost the entire staff there. Later he saw it as one more sign (one of many) that he was protected by the Almighty Providence.
Two weeks later, Hitler received the Iron Cross, Second Class for protecting the commander’s life under fire a few days earlier. Starving from the lack of recognition, he later called it the happiest day of his life.
On 4 August 1918, Hitler received the Iron Cross, First Class – a rare and highly unusual achievement for a lowly corporal. In order to receive this award, the corporal had to do something really outstanding – well above and beyond the call of duty.
Which Adolf Hitler did – under a heavy enemy fire he delivered a vitally important dispatch (telephone line was destroyed by the enemy artillery so a courier had to be sent) from the regimental HQ to the front lines saving hundreds of German lives from a friendly fire. Ironically, he was nominated for this award by Leutnant Hugo Gutmann – his commanding officer – who was Jewish.
Hitler did not forget it. In 1935, after the passing of the Nuremberg Laws, Gutmann lost his German citizenship and was formally discharged from the veteran rolls of the German Army, but still continued to receive a pension, most likely due to Hitler’s influence.
In 1938, Gutmann was arrested by the Gestapo, but soon released (again most likely due to Hitler’s intervention). In 1939, he and his family were allowed to emigrate to Belgium (ditto). In 1940 he immigrated to the United States just prior to the invasion of the Low Countries (and subsequently changed his name to Henry Grant). It is possible that he was somehow forewarned about this invasion.
He died in Philadelphia in 1962, having lived to the ripe old age of 82 and far outliving his subordinate.
Ian Kershaw in his biography of Hitler, concluded:
“From all indications, Hitler was a committed, rather than simply conscientious and dutiful, soldier, and did not lack physical courage. His superiors held him in high regard. His immediate comrades… respected him and, it seems, even quite liked him”
Despite occasional minor clashes, relations with his immediate comrades were generally good. Years later, when he obtained the absolute power in Germany, he took good care of his comrades-in-arms, making sure they receive lucrative (albeit minor) positions in Nazi hierarchy and were well provided for financially. Not surprisingly, almost all of them joined his party – the NSDAP.
He was absolutely fanatical about the war itself. In his opinion, no humanitarian feelings, values or principles could be allowed to interfere with the ruthless pursuit of victory. For him victory obviously was not everything – it was the only thing. Nothing else matter.
Later he will apply the same attitude to the Second World War when he was the Commander-in-Chief of all German Armed Forces. Which in many cases resulted in horrible war crimes and crimes against humanity.