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

The Sun Herald (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY RAF CASERT

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 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 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 as many as 1 mil­lion ca­su­al­ties. The use of poi­son gas came to epit­o­mize the ruth­less­ness of war­fare that the world had never seen.

For the French, who lost as many as 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 ‘Nov. 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 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.

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 that 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.

Other na­tions also were not spared such ca­su­al­ties.

With two min­utes to go, Cana­dian Pvt. Ge­orge Lawrence Price, 25, was slain by a Ger­man sniper.

About 150 miles away in France, an Amer­i­can, Henry Gun­ther, 23, 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 U.S. bat­tle of the war, the Meuse-Ar­gonne of­fen­sive in northeastern France.

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

In­di­ca­tions are that 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 10:59 a.m., which is just so haunting,” Ben­nett said. Gun­ther was rec­og­nized by Per­sh­ing 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 true 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.”

But there was one more cruel twist for his fam­ily: They were un­aware he had been killed.

Upon his ex­pected re­turn “they went to the train sta­tion to meet Henry – not there!” said Bruce Malone, su­per­in­ten­dent of Meuse-Ar­gonne Amer­i­can Ceme­tery, the fi­nal rest­ing place for 100 Amer­i­cans who died Nov. 11.

‘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 la­borer in Saskatchewan when the swirl of his­tory plucked him off the land in Oc­to­ber 1917 as the Al­lies sought ever 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 Nov. 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 the Com­mon­wealth com­man­ders to re­take the city, bring­ing the war full cir­cle where they lost their first sol­dier, English Pvt. John Parr, on Aug. 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 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. That’s the dif­fer­ence.”

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.”

‘PART OF THIS GREAT PA­TRI­OTIC MO­MEN­TUM’

Tre­bu­chon’s grave stands out be­cause of the date, un­der­scor­ing the ran­dom for­tunes of war.

He was 36, a shep­herd from France’s Mas­sif Cen­tral, and could have avoided the war as a fam­ily bread­win­ner.

“But he was part of this great pa­tri­otic mo­men­tum,” said Jean-Christophe Chanot, the mayor of Vrigne-Meuse, where he died.

Tre­bu­chon was 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 rec­og­nized as “the last French sol­dier killed dur­ing the last French at­tack against the Ger­mans,” Chanot said.

The date on his grave – Nov. 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.

VIR­GINIA MAYO AP

The grave marker of French World War I sol­dier Au­gustin Tre­bu­chon in Vrigne-Meuse, France. His tiny plot is al­most on the front line.

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