On October 15th, 1918, Adolf Hitler, a Meldeganger or Company runner with the 16th List Regiment, was stationed in the war devastated Belgium town of Wervicq-Sud on the River Lys.
The ruins of Wervicq-Sud,on the River Lys, in 1918
As the German army fell back in disarray, under a British assault, Hitler’s final hours of battle involved carrying urgent messages to and from its beleaguered commanders.
Hitler as a Meldeganger (Company runner) with the 16th List Regiment
The Day Hitler’s World Went Dark
Early on the morning of October 15th , Hitler was among other soldiers gathering around the smoky stoves of a hastily set-up field-kitchen, in an abandoned gun emplacement, where company cooks were serving exhausted troops their first hot meal of the day.
Ignaz Westenkirchner, one of Hitler’s fellow Company runners, described what happened next.
‘Not long after they had started eating, artillery fire began and before the men fully realised what was happening blasting grenades mixed with gas grenades were raining down, one gas grenade detonated with the well-known dull thump immediately in front of the army kitchen and the old gun-emplacement respectively.
The cook screamed ‘gas alert’ but it was too late. Most of the comrades had already inhaled the devilish mixture of the Yellow Cross grenades (Gelbkreuzgranate) and stumbled away coughing and panting.
They hardly made it back to the bombed-out house, in whose cellar they had been living, when they began to lose their eyesight and the mucous membranes in their mouths and throats became so inflamed that they were unable to speak.
Their eyes were terribly painful; it was as if red-hot needles had been stuck into them. On top of that, their eyes would no longer open, they had to lift their eyelids by hand only to discover that all they could make out were the outlines of large objects.
Six of them, among whom was Adolf Hitler, scrambled to the assembly point for casualties, where they lost contact with one another due to their blindness… Hitler ended up in Pasewalk in Pomerania. The war had ended for all of them.’
How Hitler Remembered the Attack
His account, recorded in the early ‘thirties, closely echoes Hitler own version of events in his autobiography Mein Kampf (My Struggle).
‘On the night of October 13, the English gas attack on the southern front before Ypres burst loose.
They used Yellow-Cross gas, whose effects were still unknown to us as far as personal experience was concerned. In this same night, I myself was to become acquainted with it.
On a hill, south of Wervick [sic], we came on the evening of October 13 into several hours of drumfire with gas shells which continued all night more or less violently. As early as midnight, a number of us passed out, a few of our comrades forever. Towards morning I, too, was seized with pain which grew worse with every quarter hour, and at seven in the morning I stumbled and tottered back with burning eyes; taking with me my last report of the War. A few hours later, my eyes had turned into glowing coals; it had grown dark around me.’
German infantry under a gas attack in 1918
Errors in Hitler’s Story
Hitler’s account is inaccurate in two respects: the first trivial, the other of considerably greater significance.
First the minor error.
Hitler got the date wrong. The attack occurred on the morning of the 15th October, not the 13th as he states.
Given the frenetic conditions under which he had lived during his last few days on the front line, his physical and mental exhaustion prior to the attack and his parlous health immediately after it, such minor confusion is hardly surprising.
When dictating his memoirs to Rudolph Hess, while in Landsberg Prison, he had no access to military or medical records and had to rely solely on his memory.
What Type of Gas Was Used?
The more crucial error lies in his description of the gas used.
He claims it was ‘Yellow-Cross’, or mustard gas. Yet Hitler’s medical notes make no mention of a specific gas.
The doctors who examined him, at the Oudenaarde hospital in Belgium, described his condition simply as due to ‘gasvergiftet‘ (gas poisoned).
When he arrived at the clinic where he was to be treated, at Pasewalk in Pomerania, the doctors recorded it as ‘Gasvergiftung’ l[eicht] Verwundet-Gasvergiftung (lightly wounded, gas poisoning) a description repeated on the 16th Regiment’s casualty list and on numerous other contemporary documents.
Westenkirchner’s Second Version
In a 1934 interview, with the pro-Nazi journalist Heinz A. Heinz, Westenkirchner, gave a slightly, but importantly, different version of events.
‘We were in the neighbourhood of Commines; dazed and bewildered with the ceaseless flash and thunder of explosives…On the night of October 13th-14th the crashing and howling and roaring of the guns was (sic) accompanied by something still more deadly than usual.
Our Company lay on a little hill near Werwick, (sic) a bit to the south of Ypres. All of a sudden, the bombardment slackened off and in place of shells came a queer pungent smell.
Word flew through the trenches that the English were attacking with chlorine gas. Hitherto [we] hadn’t experienced this sort of gas, but now we got a thorough dose of it.
About seven next morning Hitler was dispatched with an order to our rear. Dropping with exhaustion, he staggered off…His eyes were burning, sore, and smarting – gas – he supposed, or dog weariness. Anyhow, they rapidly got worse. The pain was hideous; presently he could see nothing but a fog.
Stumbling, and falling over and over again, he made what feeble progress he could…The last time, all his failing strength was exhausted in freeing himself from the mask…he could struggle up no more…his eyes were searing coals…Hitler collapsed. Goodness only knows how long it was before the stretcher bearers found him. They brought him in, though, at last, and took him to the dressing-station. This was on the morning of October 14th (sic) 1918 – just before the end. Two days later Hitler arrived in hospital at Pasewalk, Pomerania.’
One Event – Three Versions
In the account given to Heinz A. Heinz, Westenkirchner is mistaken both about the date of the gassing (night of October 13th -14th) and the time (two days) taken to travel between Flanders and Pasewalk. Hitler actually had to travel for five days, reaching Pasewalk on the 21st October.
The more important question is whether he was correct in identifying the gas used as chorine rather than Yellow-Cross.
This is crucial because, when it comes to determining the true cause of Hitler’s blindness the gas involved is of the utmost significance.
Had Hitler been exposed to mustard gas, there could well have been physical damage to his eyes that would have required several weeks of hospital treatment.
An analysis of three hundred patients, with moderately severe sight loss due to mustard gas, British doctors found that 72 per cent had regained their sight at the end of a month.
Which means that the interval of approximately one month, between the British attack on October 15th and Hitler’s complete recovery by November 19th, is more or less what would be expected in such a case.
If, however, Hitler had been blinded by some other type of gas then, depending on the extent of his exposure, the effects might have been expected to disappear within either a few hours at best and a few days at worst.
Gas Exposure Was Slight
What seems clear, is that Hitler’s exposure to the gas was brief and injuries to his eyes minimal. According to historian Thomas Weber: ‘The quantity of gas was so small that it would not even had necessitated an extended stay in an army-hospital.’
That was certainly the conclusion of the doctors who examined him at the Oudenaarde hospital, following his transfer from the Front-Line aid station.
Hitler’s medical chit from the Oudenaarde doctors on 16th October, 1918. It gives the diagnosis as gasvergiftet’ (gas poisoned).
Hitler’s medical chit from the Pasewalk ‘nerve clinic’. Noting his admission, on the 21 October 1918, it confirms the original diagnosis and notes he was discharged on the 19 November
After twenty-four hours observation, they made their diagnosis and sent him for treatment.
Not, he must have been bewildered to discover, with the rest of his gassed comrades to the Army’s well-equipped hospital in Brussels, but to a remote Lazarette (clinic) in the town of Pasewalk, six hundred miles away.
The Diagnosis was Hysterical Blindness
The reason for their decision, and for Hitler’s long journey from the Western front to the far North of Germany, was simple.
Under Prussian military law, doctors were prohibited from treating mentally and physically injured soldiers on the same ward, or even in the same hospital. Authorities feared that to allow, what they termed, ‘hysterical’ patients to lie next to those wounded by shot and shell, would be bad for morale.
That it would, like a virus, spread throughout the entire hospital. Infecting the mentally sound and discouraging them from returning to the battle front.
The Pasewalk ‘Nerve Clinic’
The Oudenaarde doctors gave Hitler no explanation for why he was being separated from the soldiers he had fought alongside for four years. Nor was he told the clinic’s true purpose.
It was not a hospital where doctors healed broken bodies but a mental hospital where neurologists and psychiatrists sought to mend shattered minds.
The Hitler’s blindness had been diagnosed as due, not to physical damage to his eyes, but to mental breakdown.
What, in those days, they called ‘hysteria’ and what present day psychiatrists would attribute to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
A Secret of the Nazi State
While PTSD was, and is, nothing to be ashamed. And while the pain and suffering it produced is no less distressing and debilitating than a physical wound, any form of mental illness as then, and still is today, not something a politician would ever wish to disclose.
Once Hitler achieve political prominence, it became essential for the future of his leadership and of the Nazi Party, that he be seen as a man of almost superhuman mental and physical stress.
A Führer whose ‘will’ had always, and would always, reigned supreme.
Not as a soldier who had suffered a mental breakdown, become hysterically blind and been treated by psychiatrists in a ‘nerve hospital’.
As a result, the true cause of Hitler’s blindness, and the treatment he had received at Pasewalk became State Secrets.
Secrets the Nazi’s would resort to murder to safeguard.
Yet, as I argue in my book Triumph of the Will? it was his successful treatment, at the hands of Dr Edmund Forster, one of Germany’s most eminent nerve doctors, that convinced Hitler he had been singled out by a divine power to lead Germany back to glory.
In my next blog I shall explain what Forster’s treatment involved and why it led to such unintended and disastrous consequences.