In the fi­nal hours of World War I, a ter­ri­ble toll

Thou­sands died af­ter ar­mistice was signed

The Commercial Appeal - - Business - Raf Casert AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TOS BY VIR­GINIA MAYO/AP

VRIGNE-MEUSE, France – Au­gustin Tre­bu­chon is buried be­neath a white lie.

His tiny plot is al­most on the front line where the guns fi­nally fell silent at 11 a.m. 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 Nov. 10, 1918.” Not so. Like hun­dreds of oth­ers along the West­ern Front, Tre­bu­chon was killed in com­bat on the morn­ing of Nov. 11 – af­ter the predawn agree­ment be­tween the Al­lies and Ger­many but be­fore the ar­mistice took ef­fect six hours later.

His death at al­most lit­er­ally the 11th hour only high­lighted the folly of a war that had be­come ever more in­com­pre­hen­si­ble to many in na­tions drawn into the first global con­flict.

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.

“It was a lie, with­out a ques­tion,” said his­to­rian Ni­co­las Chubak, even if he ac­knowl­edged it was meant “to some­what ease the mourn­ing of fam­i­lies.”

There were many rea­sons why men kept fall­ing un­til the call of the bu­gler at 11 a.m.: 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.

The rea­sons trumped the lives of sol­diers, many of whom were con­vinced they were on the brink of sur­vival.

His­to­rian Joseph Per­sico es­ti­mated the to­tal dead, wounded and miss­ing on all sides on the fi­nal day was 10,900.

U.S. Gen. John J. Per­sh­ing, who had been bent on con­tin­u­ing the fight­ing, even had to ex­plain to Congress the high num­ber of last-day losses.

Be­fore Nov. 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 epit­o­mize the ruth­less­ness of war­fare that the world had never seen.

Death on the fi­nal morn­ing added an­other twist to the cru­elty.

In north­east­ern France’s Meuse-Ar­gonne, a 23-year-old Amer­i­can, Henry Gun­ther, was killed by Ger­man ma­chine-gun fire one minute be­fore the ar­mistice.

“His time of death was 10:59 a.m., which is just so haunt­ing,” U.S. his­to­rian Alec Ben­nett said. Gun­ther still charged a Ger­man ma­chine gun nest, when keep­ing his head down for a few dozen more sec­onds could have saved him. It re­mains a mys­tery why he did it.

“Gun­ther’s act is seen as al­most a sym­bol of the fu­til­ity of the larger war,” Ben­nett said.

Other na­tions also were not spared such ca­su­al­ties.

With two min­utes to go, Cana­dian Pvt. Ge­orge Lawrence Price was shot by a Ger­man sniper close to Mons in south­ern Bel­gium, 150 miles from where Gun­ther died. It served no ap­par­ent pur­pose, but an­other life was shat­tered in its prime at 25.

“It re­ally was one man, here and there, who was driven by vengeance, by a need to kill one last time,” Bel­gian his­to­rian Corentin Rous­man said.

And 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.

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

A photo of French WWI sol­dier Au­gustin Tre­bu­chon hangs on a wall out­side a ceme­tery in Vrigne-Meuse, France. Tre­bu­chon is recorded as the last French sol­dier to die.

Au­gustin Tre­bu­chon’s tiny grave plot is al­most on the front line where the guns fi­nally fell silent at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.

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