Ian Weightman

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Augustin Trebuchon - Private First Class

Why is it that Augustin Joseph Trébuchon has never become a household name?

Part of the answer may be due to the fact that he was a Frenchman and that here, in Britain, we’re much more likely to know the name George Edwin Ellison (the last British soldier to be killed during the First World War).  But a much larger large part of the explanation is probably due to a cover-up that was only detected as recently as 2000.

Henry Nicholas John Gunther isn’t world-famous either.  Yet.

But chances are that we’ll all know his name by 2014.  Finding himself stationed in the Argonne region of France on November 11th 1918, US soldier Henry Gunther was involved in a final charge against German troops who had been told that the Armistice would occur at 11.00.  The Baltimore Private - of German descent - was shot at 10.59 and is now recognised as the last soldier to be killed in action in the First World War.

Posthumously restored to rank of Sergeant, awarded a Distinguished Service Cross and a Divisional Citation for Gallantry in Action, and remembered with a memorial constructed near the place where he died, Gunther was one of 11,000 casualties on that final, fateful day of the war.

This is all recalled in a book written by Roger Faindt: 10h59: Henry Gunther, le dernier soldat americain mort en 1918.  And, perhaps more significantly still, is now being adapted into a €12-million English language film entitled 10:59.

But just compare Gunther’s story to that of Augustin Joseph Trébuchon’s, who is buried in the cemetery of Vrigne-Meuse, in The French Ardennes, where 18 white crosses surround a memorial in a small, in honour of the men of the 415th Infantry Regiment who died on November 11th, 1918, while attempting to cross the River Meuse.

Trébuchon - unmarried and childless, and mobilized at the outbreak of the war, on August 4th, 1914 - fought on all fronts and was wounded twice before being killed at 10:45 on November 11th, just fifteen minutes before his friend and solider-in-arms Delaluque had the honour of sounding his bugle in The French Ardennes to mark the end of hostilities.

He was the last French soldier to fall in the First World War

A communal shepherd and an occasional accordion player at marriages prior to the outbreak of war, Augustin had four younger brothers and sisters, but had been an orphan for most of his life.  He joined the 415th Infantry Regiment aged 36 as a messenger, and served in the second battle of The Marne and at Verdun, Artois and The Somme before arriving in The Ardennes towards the end of the war.

He had twice been wounded - once very severely in his left arm by a shell; and on his promotion to the rank of Soldat de Première Classe (Private First Class) in September 1918, it was recorded that he was "a good soldier having always achieved his duty, of remarkable calm, setting the best example to his young comrades”.

At Vrigne-Meuse, in the Ardennes, the 163rd Infantry Division was ordered to attack an elite German unit, the Hannetons.  General Henri Gourard told his men to cross the Meuse and to attack "as fast as possible, by whatever means and regardless of cost".  It is now believed that the attack was to end any possible hesitation by the Germans negotiating the terms of surrender in the forest at Compiègne.  Marshal Foch believed the Germans were reluctant to sign, so ordered General Pétain to cross the Meuse.

Rain was falling and the Meuse was flooding, and the temperature was well below freezing.  The bridges across the river had already been destroyed, so French sappers worked by night and in fog to build a plank footbridge across a lock.  There had been no reconnaissance of the other bank because bad weather had kept the spotter plane on the ground.  And at around 08.00, around 700 French soldiers started to advance.  Some of the first deaths were caused by drowning.

The fog cleared at 10.30 and the French could now see the Germans in position a few hundred metres away.  The French were spread over three kilometres between the Meuse and a railway line.  While the French sent-up a spotter plane so that artillery on the other bank could open fire without fear of killing their own soldiers, the Germans opened fire with their machine guns.

The last of the 91 French soldiers to die that day was Augustin Trébuchon.  He fell near the railway line with his message still in his hand, which read "Rassemblement à 11h 30 pour le ravitaillement” ("Muster at 11.30 for food”).

His death was recorded as being "with a red hole in his right side".  Most probably a figure of speech, it was also an amazing twist of fate, given that one of the best known of all French poets, Arthur Rimbaud (who hailed from The French Ardennes himself) had written that line in one of his best known poems Le Dormeur du Val (The Sleeper in the Valley).  The poem describes what the reader first believes is a soldier sleeping peacefully in “a small green valley where a slow stream runs” but who later turns out to be “At peace.  In his side there are two red holes”.

The French withdrew without honouring their dead, and after the war France was so ashamed that soldiers had fallen on the final day that all graves were backdated - falsifying death certificates of the soldiers who died on November 11th, to November 10th.  At the same time, the French command put Donchery, rather than Vrigne-Meuse, as the place of death on Augustin’s death certificate.

As a result, the soldiers in this battle, including Trébuchon, were simply forgotten after the end of the war; and it wasn’t until a full 82 years later, in 2000, that events of that day were seen in a different light.  Alain Fauveau sets the record straight in his book Le vagabond de la Grande Guerre, souvenirs de la guerre 1914-1918, where he describes it as “la bataille de trop” (a useless battle).  He also details how he looked in vain for the names of those who decided to change the dates on the death certificates.

The tiny village of Vrigne-Meuse was finally able to honour the last French soldier to fall in the First World War on November 11th, 2008, with the inauguration of “Rue Augustin Trébuchon”.

The French Ministry of Defence duly corrected the place of death.  But it has yet to correct the date on Augustin Trébuchon’s death certificate, even though it is now known that he died within 15 minutes of the ceasefire, on November 11th.

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