In the months before the outbreak of World War I, 25-year-old Adolf Hitler was living the starving artist’s life in the Bavarian city of Munich, selling his paintings door-to-door and in the city’s numerous beer halls. Hitler had fled to Munich from Vienna in 1913 to avoid being drafted into the Austrian Army, which he felt allowed too many mixed bloods and different cultures into the ranks. Austrian authorities caught up with him six months before the start of the war and forced him to take a physical exam to see if he was fit to serve. Ironically, Hitler was deemed “too weak for armed or auxiliary service, unfit to bear arms.”
Hitler Enlists for the First World War
Hitler learned of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand when his landlady, Frau Popp, burst into his room in hysterics and shouted, “The Austrian heir to the throne has just been murdered!” According to Hitler, he dropped to his knees and thanked heaven for letting him be there during a time when Germany would be fighting to save itself. He then rushed out into the street to blend into the quickly gathering crowd in the Odeonsplatz. A photograph taken at the time shows a jubilant, sallow-faced Hitler in the crowd celebrating the coming war. Hitler’s life of loneliness and insignificance was about to end.
Hitler tried to enlist in the 1st Bavarian Infantry on August 5, but he was sent away because the Army had more volunteers than it needed. A fortnight later he was summoned to report to Recruiting Depot VI in Munich and enlisted as private No. 148 in the 1st Company, 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment. Also enlisted in the regiment was Lieutenant Rudolf Hess, later to become deputy führer of Nazi Germany, and Sgt. Maj. Max Amann, later in charge of the Nazi press.
Between August 16 and October 8, Hitler and his comrades were stationed at Oberweisenfeld Barracks for training in weapons and marching. A comrade named Hans Mend later wrote that when Hitler was issued his rifle “he looked at it with delight, as a woman looks at her jewelry, which made me laugh.” The regiment had heart and spunk, but not much more. Lieutenant Fritz Weidemann, a professional soldier, noted that the regimental commander had not been on active service in years and that most of the company commanders were former reservists without any combat experience. Weidemann also noted that the training was quick and inadequate, that the regiment had few machine guns, and that none of the soldiers had an iron helmet; instead they wore oilcloth caps in 19th-century Napoleonic style.
On October 9, the regiment marched out of Munich for the trip to Camp Lechfeld, 70 miles to the west. In full combat gear, the men marched in a continuous rain for 11 hours. In a letter to Frau Popp, Hitler reported that his company was put up in a barn for the night, but that no one could sleep because they were soaked through and shivering from the cold. Late the next day the regiment arrived at its destination. On October 21, the regiment boarded railcars for transport to the front. The men sang “The Watch on the Rhine” and broke into cheers when they finally saw the great river—the first time that most of them (including Hitler) had ever seen the Rhine.
The next day the men disembarked from the train and, after reorganizing, marched to Lille, Belgium, which had been recaptured by the Germans from the British. On the 23rd, the regiment marched through the desolate town. Hitler became nervous when British shells began to land, since the town was full of ammunition carts and soldiers. The shelling did not last long, and the men bedded down on the wet and cold flagstones of the town’s streets.
Hitler’s First Battle: The Battle of Ypres
On October 25, at 3 am, the regiment entered its first battle, arriving just in time to join the German assault during the first phase of the Battle of Ypres. The regiment’s objective was to take a farmhouse and the edge of the woods beyond the house, about half a mile from the German lines. A heavy fog had risen, forcing a delay in the attack timetable while others rounded up the lost battalions. At dawn the attack began, but a few steps out the regiment came under intense fire from the right. In the fog and confusion, the regimental hats that Weidemann had complained about brought trouble. A regiment of Württemburg troops on the regiment’s right thought the Bavarians were British and opened fire, inflicting heavy casualities. Hitler and his friend Ernst Schmidt threw their caps away instantly and ran to the rear headquarters to report the situation and stop the slaughter. The first hour the regiment spent in combat, it lost many valuable men, including the regimental commander, to friendly fire.
After this incident the attack proper began, with the British dropping artillery shells into the assaulting columns. The men crawled into shallow dugouts and shell holes to escape the flying shrapnel, before racing to a small farmhouse in the middle of the field and crawling into a ditch. During this assault, Hitler’s platoon leader was killed, as were most of the noncommissioned officers. In all, it took five bloody assaults to take the edge of the forest. The final assault ended in hand-to-hand combat, and Hitler was surprised when he jumped into the British trench and made a soft landing—he had landed on a British corpse.
A Decorated Soldier
This was the only battle in which Hitler fought as a true frontline soldier. For his bravery and soldierly conduct, the new regimental commander, Lt. Col. Philipp Engelhardt, recommended Hitler as a dispatch runner (Meldegänger) to serve at regimental headquarters. Someone also recommended Hitler and Schmidt for the Iron Cross, although neither received the decoration. Of the 3,600 men who marched out of camp with the regiment, 373 men were killed in the first three weeks of fighting. Hitler’s uncanny luck began in his first battle. At one point, a shell exploded near him; it killed another soldier, but Hitler only had a sleeve ripped away.
On November 3, Hitler and his friends Ernst Schmidt and Ignaz Westenkirchner were officially assigned as dispatch runners (eight runners were needed per regiment). This was not a cushy job but a highly dangerous responsibility. Early in the war, dispatch runners traveled in pairs, armed only with pistols and carrying a leather wallet attached to their belts marked XXX for urgent, XX for quick, and X for “in your own time.” A runner ran hunched forward through trenches and dived into shell holes, then sprang up between artillery salvos and sprinted to the next trench, all the while hoping he had properly calculated the timing between shells. On Hitler’s first run during the Battle of Messines, six miles southwest of Ypres, three runners were killed and one wounded of the eight on staff. On the second day, the regimental commander was wounded near Hitler and Schmidt; under heavy fire, Hitler and Westenkirchner carried their wounded commander to an aid station. Hitler was promoted to corporal for bravery.
A few days later, Engelhardt went to inspect the British position and took Hitler and Hitler’s friend Balthasar Brandymayer with him. At the edge of a wood, Engelhardt stepped out to see the British trenches better and instantly drew fire. Hitler and Brandymayer stepped in front to protect Englehardt from harm, before dragging their commander to a nearby ditch. The next day, Hitler and several others were called to headquarters and told that they had been recommended for the Iron Cross. It was Hitler’s second nomination in two months. When four more company commanders arrived, Hitler and the others left to give the officers room. Five minutes later a British shell hit the tent, killing most of the men inside and severely wounding Engelhardt.
On December 2, Hitler was decorated with the Iron Cross 2nd Class. Later, he called it “the happiest day of my life.” His self-esteem had received its first real boost. The regiment was pulled back from the front for rest and refitting just after Christmas. It was during this pause that men began to notice Hitler’s eccentric behavior. During lulls in combat, he was either reading philosophical works or sketching and painting with a box of watercolors he always carried. Hitler was considered odd because he never drank, smoked, or showed any interest in women. When others talked of the French women, Hitler would leave the group in disgust. If he saw a soldier flirting with a French woman, he would reprimand the soldier for hours about the sins of the flesh. At the same time, comrades noted Hitler for being kind to enemy captives and civilians, even attending funeral services for downed enemy airmen to pay his respects.
Life in the Regiment
Hitler rarely received mail or wrote any letters himself. During a lull in the fighting and for refitting from the front in late 1914, Hitler received a parcel filled with treats and breads from a baker he knew in Munich. He quickly wrote the baker to thank him, but instructed him never to write him again. When comrades asked Hitler about his home, his response was always the same, that the regiment was his home.