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Webmatters : Armistice 1918: The final casualties

Armistice

France’s last casualty

Following the initial approach by the Germans on the 7th November 1918 Maréchal Foch felt that the Germans were dragging their heels and ordered Général Pétain to continue his advance across the Meuse.

On 10th November the 163e Division d’Infanterie under the command of Général Boichet fought a bloody battle with the Germans at Vrigne-Meuse.

At 0700 hours on the following day the order was given to advance again. Although the Germans had already signed the Armistice it was taking time for the news to filter down through the system. The front line units would only hear about the armistice around 1000 hours when the order would be rescinded.


Augustin Trébuchon

Augustin Trébuchon

Augustin Trébuchon

At 1045 hours a liaison officer in the Division, Augustin Trébuchon of the 415e RI was passing along the lines with a dispatch concerning the assembly of the troops for ration supply at 1100 hours. He was a veteran of such missions but this time as he carried out his last duty of the war he was struck by a bullet and died.

Fifteen minutes later Divisional Bugler Delaluque sounded the end of hostilities.

France’s final fatality is buried in the cemetery at Vrigne-Meuse (Grave : 13). He had been born at Malzieu Forain in the Département of Lozère in the hamlet of Montchabrier on the 30th May 1878. He was 40 years old when he died.

It will be noticed that officially he died on the 10th November 1918 (Mort Pour la France le…).

The decision was taken at higher echelons that NO French soldier was killed on the 11th and thus casualties for that date were added to those of the 10th.

The mention Mort Pour la France (Died for France) is an important one. Without it the family had no entitlement to a pension. It is not therefore just a figure of speech but an indicator of legal status.

 

The British Empire’s last casualty

The British had returned to Mons in Belgium where they had started the war, and the day marked the fourth anniversary of the 1st Battle of Ypres, when (the then) General Haig had halted the Germans in the Race to the Sea.

Crossing the canal between Havré and Ville-sur-Haine to the east of Mons the 28th (Saskatchewan) Battalion of the Canadian Army was still in action at 1058 hours. Whilst reconnoitring the far side of the canal Private George Price was shot dead by a sniper — the last Canadian to be killed in the war, and also considered to be the last Commonwealth casualty.

He is buried at St Symphorien Military Cemetery alongside other notable soldiers:

  • Private John Parr the first British casualty of the war.
  • Private George Ellison the last British casualty of the war.
  • Lieutenant Maurice Dease the first Victoria Cross of the war

 

The Machine Gunner

There is a famous story of a German machine gunner opposite the South African Brigade who having fired off his last belt of ammunition, stood up, took a bow and then walked away towards the rear.

 

Henry Gunther

Henry Gunther was a German-American soldier in the 313th US Infantry Regiment. He had arrived in France in July 1918 and although a sergeant wrote to a friend telling him not to volunteer. This pronouncement was caught by the censors and Gunther was demoted back to the rank of Private.

On the morning of the 11th November 1918 the 313th Regiment was approaching the village of Chaumont-devant-Damvillers to the north-east of Verdun. They found that two German machine gun crews were guarding the crossroads.

Both sides were aware that the Armistice would be coming into effect within the next few minutes. Suddenly and for whatever reason, Gunther got up and despite being told to get back down again by his sergeant and being waved away by the German soldiers, fixed bayonet and charged the German position.

As soon as he got too close to the German position they brought him down.

For this act of irrational stupidity he was posthumously promoted to Sergeant and honoured with the Distinguished Service Cross. He is buried in Baltimore. He was 24 years old.

 

France’s Unknown Soldier

The idea of having a single unknown soldier to act as a focal point for all those wishing to pay homage to the sacrifice by so many soldiers Mort pour la France was first put forward in 1916.


The Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe

France’s Unknown Soldier

In 1918 the idea was formalised and at first it was decided in 1919 that the resting place would be in the Pantheon in Paris. A public campaign was mounted and in 1920 legislation was passed unanimously that:

The honours of the Pantheon will be rendered to the remains of one of the unknown soldiers who fell on the field of honour during the 1914-1918 war. The transfer of the remains will be solemnly made on 11th November 1920.

The same day, the remains of the Unknown Soldier will be buried under the Arc de Triomphe.

On 10th November 1920 Soldat Auguste Thien of the 123è Régiment d’Infanterie, made his choice from eight coffins in the Citadel of Verdun.

Thien chose coffin number six, as his Regiment’s number (1+2+3) added up to six, as well as it being the number of his division.

Soldat Thien (Thin is another spelling I have seen – each would be pronounced like tan without the n) was a native of Normandy and had joined up in January 1918 at the age of 19.

For the ceremony The Minister for War: André Maginot, had demanded a young soldier, a simple private who had been one of the valiant.

It was harder than expected to find such a soldier still serving and as things turned out the chosen soldier fell ill and a replacement had to be found that morning. Ordered to find a Number One Uniform with only a few hours notice the name of Auguste Thien has entered into history. Three months later he finished his service and was discharged.

The seven remaining coffins were buried in the Military Cemetery at Verdun.

The chosen soldier was taken to Paris and originally lay in a chapel on the first floor of the Arc de Triomphe before finally being placed in its current position on 28th January 1921.

On 22nd October 1922 the French Parliament declared 11th November a national holiday and on 11th November 1923 the Minister for War: André Maginot lit the Flame of Remembrance under the Arc.

Twenty-one years later found Winston Churchill standing at the side of General Charles de Gaulle on the first Armistice day for France after the occupation. In 1945 General de Gaulle had received fifteen coffins from combatants of the second war. They are now buried at the memorial at Mont-Valerien.

Other French unknown soldiers are buried in the ossuary under the lantern tower at Notre Dame de Lorette near Arras.

 

London

Whilst Paris was paying homage to its Unknown Warrior, across the water HM King George V was unveiling the new Cenotaph before attending the burial service of an unknown British Warrior at Westminster Abbey.

Whilst in common parlance we generally say Unknown Soldier the correct term is Warrior as there was always the possibility that the unidentified remains were those of either an airman or a sailor (The Royal Naval Division fought on land).