BURIED BE­NEATH A WHITE LIE

Hawke's Bay Today - - World | World Feature - Raf Caser

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

fire. Ques­tions re­main whether the gains were worth all the hu­man losses. His­to­rian Joseph Per­sico es­ti­mated the to­tal dead, wounded and miss­ing on all sides on the fi­nal day was 10,900.

Other na­tions also were not spared such ca­su­al­ties. With two min­utes to go, 25-year-old Cana­dian Pri­vate Ge­orge Lawrence Price was slain by a Ger­man sniper.

About 250km away in France, a 23-year-old Amer­i­can, Henry Gun­ther, was killed by Ger­man ma­chine-gun fire one minute be­fore the ar­mistice.

Tre­bu­chon, 40, also was shot min­utes be­fore the cease-fire. He was run­ning to tell his com­rades where and when they would have

a meal af­ter the ar­mistice.

All three are con­sid­ered their na­tions’ last men to fall in ac­tive com­bat.

The fu­til­ity of the larger war

Anti-Ger­man sen­ti­ment ran high af­ter the United States de­clared war in April 1917, and Gun­ther and his fam­ily in Bal­ti­more were sub­jected to the kind of prej­u­dice and sus­pi­cion that many of Ger­man de­scent faced at the time.

“It was not a good time to be Ger­man in the United States,” said his­to­rian Alec Ben­nett.

Gun­ther had lit­tle choice when he got drafted. He was given the rank of sergeant, but he later was de­moted when he wrote a let­ter

home crit­i­cal of the con­di­tions in the war. Soon af­ter, he was thrown into the big­gest US bat­tle of the war, the Meuse-Ar­gonne of­fen­sive in north­east­ern France.

There were re­ports he was still brood­ing over his de­mo­tion on No­vem­ber 11. When he emerged from a thick fog in the val­ley around Chau­mont-de­vant-Damvillers, he and his com­rades faced a Ger­man ma­chine-gun nest on the hill­side.

In­di­ca­tions are the Ger­mans fired one salvo over his head as a warn­ing, know­ing the war was al­most over. But he still charged on­ward.

“His time of death was 10.59am, which is just so haunt­ing,” Ben­nett said. Gun­ther was

recog­nised as the last Amer­i­can to die on the bat­tle­field.

Ques­tions re­main whether it was a sui­cide run, an at­tempt at re­demp­tion or an act of de­vo­tion.

“It is just as puz­zling now as it was 100 years ago,” Ben­nett said, adding that one thing is clear: “Gun­ther’s act is seen as al­most a sym­bol of the fu­til­ity of the larger war.”

A need to kill one last time

There was no mys­tery sur­round­ing the death of Price, the Cana­dian. It was an ut­terly sense­less loss of life.

He was a farm labourer in Saskatchewan

when his­tory plucked him off the land in Oc­to­ber 1917 as the Al­lies sought more man­power for the West­ern Front. The sum­mer af­ter he was drafted, he was part of the surge of vic­to­ries that seized vil­lages and ci­ties right up to No­vem­ber 11. By that time, Cana­di­ans were re­tak­ing Mons in south­ern Bel­gium, where sol­diers from the Bri­tish Com­mon­wealth had their very first bat­tle with the Ger­mans in Au­gust 1914. It was es­pe­cially sweet for Com­mon­wealth commanders to re­take the city, bring­ing the war full cir­cle where they lost their first sol­dier, English Pri­vate 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.

The 28th In­fantry Reg­i­ment of the First Divi­sion, A.E.F. goes over the top of a trench dur­ing an Amer­i­can of­fen­sive of World War I in the Bat­tle of Cantigny, France.

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