BURIED BE­NEATH A WHITE LIE

THE FI­NAL HOURS OF WWI AND ITS DEADLY TOLL

Bay of Plenty Times - - World - 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 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.

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