BURIED BENEATH A WHITE LIE
THE FINAL HOURS OF WWI AND ITS DEADLY TOLL
Augustin Trebuchon is buried beneath a white lie. His tiny plot is almost on the front line where the guns finally fell silent at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, after a four-year war that had already killed millions.
A simple white cross says: “Died for France on November 10, 1918.” Not so.
Like hundreds of others along the Western Front, Trebuchon was killed on the morning of November 11 — after the predawn armistice agreement but before it took effect.
His death at almost literally the eleventh hour only highlighted the folly of a war that had become ever more incomprehensible to many in nations drawn into the first global conflict.
Before November 11, the war had killed 14 million people, including 9 million soldiers, sailors and airmen from 28 countries. Germany came close to a quick, early victory before the war settled into hellish trench fighting. One battle, like the Somme in France, could have up to 1 million casualties. The use of poison gas came to epitomise the ruthlessness of warfare that the world had never seen.
For the French, who lost up to 1.4 million troops, it was perhaps too poignant — or too shameful — to denote that Trebuchon had been killed on the very last morning, just as victory finally prevailed.
“Indeed, on the tombs it said ‘November 10, 1918’, to somewhat ease the mourning of families,” said French military historian Nicolas Czubak.
There were many reasons why men kept falling until the call of the bugler at 11am: fear that the enemy would not abide by the armistice, a sheer hatred after four years of unprecedented slaughter, the ambition of commanders craving a last victory, bad communications, the inane joy of killing.
As the hours ticked down, villages were taken, attacks were thwarted with heavy losses and rivers were crossed under enemy John Parr, on August 21, 1914.
Price decided to check out homes along the canals while civilians in the center of Mons had already broken out the wine and whiskey they had hidden for years from the Germans to celebrate with the Canadians.
Suddenly, a shot rang out and Price collapsed.
“It really was one man, here and there, who was driven by vengeance, by a need to kill one last time,” said Belgian historian Corentin Rousman.
The final minutes counted not just for the casualties but also for the killers. “There are rules in war,” Rousman said. “There is always the possibility to kill two minutes before a cease-fire. Two minutes after, the German would have had to stand before a judge.”
At the St Symphorien cemetery just outside Mons, Price, the last Commonwealth soldier killed in the war, lies a stone’s throw from Parr, the first.
“He is not forgotten,” Rousman said of Price. “It’s a soldier whose tomb is often draped in flowers.”
A great patriotic momentum Trebuchon’s grave stands out because of the date, underscoring the random fortunes of war.
He was a shepherd from France’s Massif Central and could have avoided the war as a family breadwinner at age 36.
“But he was part of this great patriotic momentum,” said JeanChristophe Chanot, the mayor of Vrigne-Meuse, where he died.
Trebuchon knew misery as part of France’s most brutal battles — Marne, Somme, Verdun. He survived right up to his last order — to tell soldiers where to gather after the armistice.
Instead, his body was found with a bullet wound to the head. He was recognised as “the last French soldier killed during the last French attack against the Germans,” Chanot said.
The date on his grave — November 10, 1918 — remains controversial, even if it was meant to soothe a family’s sorrow. “It was a lie, without a question,” said Czubak, the French historian.