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Adolf Hitler and the Newfoundland Regiment


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Ed Roberts

One of the most enduring folk-memories of those who are interested in Newfoundland's military history is that the Newfoundland Regiment - awarded the honour of becoming the "Royal Newfoundland Regiment" by King George V in December 1917 - encountered Adolf Hitler during the First World War.

But nobody knew for certain whether he did. As with most such beliefs, its origins are unknown and impossible to trace. Recent historical scholarship has now provided a definitive answer.

Adolf Hitler, then living in Austria, joined the German Army on Aug. 5, 1914, the day that Germany declared war on England. (The war actually began a day earlier, when England declared war on Germany, which had invaded Belgium).

By the beginning of September, Hitler was at a training depot in Munich, in southern Germany, together with his comrades in the newly-formed Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment 16. The unit was commonly known as "The List Regiment," using the name of its first commanding officer.

Ian Kershaw, a noted British military historian, has written a much-acclaimed biography of Hitler, in two volumes. The culmination of many years of research in the original papers and wide reading about the years when Hitler bestrode the world stage, Kershaw's biography, since its publication in 1998, has become accepted as authoritative.

Dr. David Parsons, whose father served with the Newfoundland Regiment during the 1914-18 war, has written an equally well-regarded account of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment's service in the First World War.

His work, Pilgrimage, tells us where the regiment spent every day between Aug. 21, 1914 - the day the first of the Blue Puttees enlisted - and June 1, 1919, when the RMS Corsican brought 956 officers and men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment home to St. John's. It is an indispensable guide for anyone who wants to know the story of our regiment during the Great War.

The regiment was formed in August 1914, when the Blue Puttees enlisted at the CLB Armoury in St. John's. Those men became the "First 500," although actually there were 537 of them, who sailed to England in October 1914 aboard the SS Florizel.

They trained in England and Scotland throughout the rest of 1914 and the first months of 1915. In September, together with their comrades in the 88th Brigade of the famed 29th Division, they landed in Gallipoli to support the Allied troops who had been fighting there since the first landings in April.

The List Regiment spent the first months of the war as part of the German army that attempted to outflank the British army in the "race for the sea," which ended with the stalemate that became trench warfare.

Hitler was promoted to corporal in November 1914, and a month later was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class for gallantry in action.

The Newfoundlanders left Gallipoli, finally, early in January 1916. By March, after a period of rest and recuperation, they and the entire 29th Division were in France, in the front lines on the Western Front. They were to be part of the Big Push, the attack eastward along the River Somme against the German Army. It can be said definitively, then, that they did not encounter Hitler or the RIR 16 before April 22, 1916, their first night in the British Front Line.

The German army kept meticulous records, which have survived. We now know that the unit opposite the Newfoundlanders at Beaumont Hamel was the 119th Reserve Regiment, part of the 26th Wurttemberg Reserve Division. The List Regiment, and Corporal Hitler, was far away, near Fromelles, west of Lille and some 50 or 60 kilometers north-east of Beaumont Hamel.

Kershaw reports that they were there until Sept. 27, when they moved south to the Somme battlefront.

The Battle of the Somme began on the July 1, when 150 British battalions - 120,000 soldiers - went over the top.

The 1st Newfoundland, to give them their official name, gave their comrades, their country, the Empire and the world a matchless example of courage and gallantry at Beaumont Hamel that morning. But their attack was a military folly. Only 68 of the 801 soldiers who went forward with them were able to answer the roll call the next day.

The Regiment regrouped and was reinforced. By October, they were at Gueudecourt, another engagement in the five-month struggle that history knows as the Battle of the Somme.

On Oct. 12, they once again attacked. As at Beaumont Hamel, they took heavy casualties. But Gueudecourt was a victory.

The Bavarian RIR 16, Hitler's unit, also fought at Gueudecourt. The German army records reveal that it was there between Oct. 3-4, heavily engaged with units of the British army.

In all likelihood, that circumstance gave rise to the tale that Newfoundlanders had fought against Hitler. It's a grand story, but unfortunately it simply is not true.

The Bavarians did not fight against the Newfoundlanders at Gueudecourt. They were three to four kilometres northwest of it, while our soldiers were eastward from the town itself. The two units never fired a shot at each other.

But even if they did, the Newfoundlanders didn't encounter Hitler. Kershaw, using the official German records, reports that Hitler was wounded in the first week of October 1916.

David Parsons' chronology tells us that the Newfoundlanders went into the line at Gueudecourt for the first time late on the evening of Oct. 9. By then, Kershaw reports, Hitler was in a German Red Cross hospital near Berlin.

Hitler returned to his unit in March 1917, and served with it in northern France until Oct. 13 or 14, when he was again wounded. The Newfoundlanders, too, spent the rest of the war in northern France and in Flanders, but were never again close to the List Regiment.

The belief that Hitler fought the Newfoundlanders, and that our boys fought him, is a folk-tale. But it is one of the intriguing questions of history. If Hitler had encountered the Newfoundlanders, a son of Terra Nova might have changed the course of history with a well-aimed bullet.

Edward Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the province's lieutenant-governor from 2002 to 2008.

 

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