Michael Morpurgo explores ‘The Moment that could have Saved the World from War’ in his guest post for the FCBG, as part of the Children’s Book Award. An Eagle in the Snow has been shortlisted in the Books for Younger Readers category.
I really had not intended to write another book set in the First World War. I had done quite enough of that, I thought, with War Horse and Private Peaceful, I needed to move on, find other times and landscapes to explore.
But then I heard a story that would not leave me. I really tried not to write it, but it insisted. It is nothing new for me to take historical truth and make my fiction from it. I need to have my stories grounded in truth, to grow them, dream them up that way. But in no story I have written have I ever needed to stray so little from historical truth as in An Eagle in The Snow.
A friend of mine who works as a history producer at the BBC, Dominic Crossley-Holland, phoned me one day, and said he had come across something that he was very excited about. Over a cup of tea a few weeks later he told me about what he had discovered. It was the life story, he said, of Henry Tandy VC, the most decorated Private soldier of the First World War.
Henry Tandy was born in 1891, an orphan boy, grew up in London, and joined the army at the age of 14. In 1914, at the outbreak of the war, his regiment was ordered back to France, and Henry Tandy found himself in action for the first time. It soon became clear to all his comrades that there was something very special about him: he was remarkably brave. He was also modest and quiet, unassuming, and unwilling to be promoted. He was at one time promoted to Lance Corporal, but didn’t care for it, so demanded to be a Private again. He was awarded medal after medal for his courage in the face of enemy fire.
At the Battle of Mercoing in September of 1918 (a battle in which he was to win his Victoria Cross), he knocked out German machine gun posts, killing many enemy soldiers and capturing several others, and saved the lives of many of his comrades. But after the battle was over, a lone German soldier appeared out of the smoke. They were about to shoot him, when Tandy stopped them. He simply waved the German away and told him to go home. He spared his life, having no doubt had enough of the killing.
After the war, Tandy went to Buckingham Palace to receive his VC. He found himself a job in the Standard Car factory in Coventry, and went back to a normal life. He married but had no children. And that should have been the end of the story. But in 1934 the now Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, began talking about how his life had been spared by a British soldier at the Battle of Mercoing.
The soldier concerned was Private Henry Tandy. Henry Tandy was told about this claim at the time and said he would have shot him if he’d known. A couple of years later came a request from the German Embassy in London. The Fuhrer would very much like a copy of an oil painting hanging in the Officers’ Mess of The Green Howards, depicting Henry Tandy carrying wounded men into a Field Dressing Station after the Battle of Mercoing. A copy was made. Then in 1938, Neville Chamberlain famously went off to try to negotiate a peace with Hitler in Munich. He was taken to Berchtesgarten, Hitler’s home in the mountains, and was shown this picture of Henry Tandy on the wall.
When war was finally declared, Henry Tandy, now in his forties, tried to join up, but the army wouldn’t have him, no matter how many medals he had. He was too old.
Here in the story of Henry Tandy, I thought, I might explore the nature of courage, why it is that some people will risk all to save the life of another, will fight on against impossible odds. And here too was a man who for the best of reasons makes the fine and noble decision to spare the life of an enemy, only to discover later that this was the worst decision he could possibly have made.
Illustrations: Michael Foreman
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