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Kemmelberg

Remarkable Stories: Hitler and the Kemmelberg

by W Willems, J L Putman, & M Soenen

On 10 May 1940, the German army invaded Belgium. The Belgian army capitulated on 28 May and, just a few days later, Adolf Hitler showed up at the Menin Gate in Ypres and on the same day stood on top of the Kemmelberg!

There is an entire story behind this historic visit.

During the First World War, at the end of October 1914, after a short three month training period with the Bavarian Army, a certain Adolf Hitler was transferred as an ordinary infantryman to the front at Geluwe in the Westhoek (near Menin in West Flanders). The day after his arrival, Hitler's regiment attacked the allies across the fields of Geluveld, towards Ypres. This attack was part of the First Battle of Ypres.

It was Hitler's first (and only) taste of direct military combat.

In mid-November Hitler's regiment was to be found in Wijtschate and Messines, now the smallest town in Belgium and neighbour of the municipality of Heuvelland.

Hitler was part of the regimental staff, a courier, entrusted with transferring messages and orders to the battalion commanders, a job which was not without danger.

At the end of 1914 Hitler was wounded, taking shrapnel in his leg and a bullet graze to the forehead. It is said that, to hide the scar on his forehead, he afterwards always wore his hair at a tilt over his forehead.

Until the end of February 1915 he was nursed at Bethlehem Farm in Messines where he was billeted.

During his medical rehabilitation he created several drawings and paintings of the devastation in the town, such as a watercolour of the ruins of the abbey church of Messines. Such watercolours are probably not originals, but pencil drawings by Hitler which were 'pimped up' and 'watercolourised'.

Ruins Abbey Church Messines, watercolour by Adolf Hitler, December 1914
Photo © Public Domain

Ruins of the Abbey Church of Messines, watercolour by Adolf Hitler, December 1914.

Less than one year later, during the first months of 1916 (between January and May), a certain Winston Churchill, later British prime minister, also lived nearby as a soldier.

Following his role in the 'Debacle of the Dardanelles', Churchill was temporarily demoted from 'First Lord of the Admiralty' to battalion commander with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. In January 1916 he joined the British Army at Ploegsteert (Plugstreet), barely two kilometres from Messines...

In early February, the farmhouse at which Churchill was staying was hit by a German artillery shell. The shell head penetrated the wall of his bedroom, and Churchill later sent the projectile to his wife as a souvenir.

A quarter of a century later, Hitler most definitely wanted to return to the Westhoek, where the German advance had been stopped dead in its tracks in October 1914, and where he had undergone his baptism of fire.

For example, on 1 June 1940, he visited Ypres, the German war cemetery in Langemark, and appeared on the top of the Kemmelberg and at the Belvédère watchtower, barely four days after the Belgian capitulation.

As can be seen in several photos, for the entire day Hitler was holding onto the latest topographic maps, either in his left hand or under his arm.

Hitler on the Kemmelberg
Photo © Public Domain

Hitler on the Kemmelberg.

After the French capitulated on 26 June 1940, Hitler again headed to the Westhoek, this time together with two former front fighters to search for places in which they had been billeted twenty-five years earlier.

They also visit Messines. It is reported that Hitler asked the then residents of Bethlehem Farm if they knew him...


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Text copyright © Archeo Kemmelberg. An original feature for the History Files: Kemmelberg.