The story of Augustin Trébuchon has been recalled every year, for 99 years, in the tiny French Ardennes village of Vrigne-Meuse. At 11 o’clock on November 11, 2018, he will not only be remembered, but will also become the symbol of the tragedy of the First World War.
Partly, because he was involved in an offensive on November 11, 1918, which resulted in him being hit in the head by a German bullet. But mostly, because he was the last French soldier to be officially killed in action during the four-year conflict – falling less than fifteen minutes before his friend and solider-in-arms Octave Delalucque had the honour of sounding his bugle in The French Ardennes to mark the end of hostilities.
Trébuchon arrived in The French Ardennes, together with the 700 men in his regiment, on November 8, 1918. At this stage of the war, the Germans were in a slow retreat following their failed August offensive, but were still doggedly defending their positions from the French.
Fifteen minutes before the ceasefire scheduled for the 11th hour on the 11th month, Trébuchon – as liaison to the 415th RI – ran to the front edge of the River Meuse at Charles Wood, with a message in his hand which read “Rassemblement à 11h 30 pour le ravitaillement” (“Muster at 11.30 for food”).
He died before he was able to deliver it.
Augustin Joseph Louis Victorin Trébuchon was born on May 30, 1878, in Malzieu-Forain Lozère, in France. He was the eldest son in a family of six children, whose parents were 35-years-old farmer Jean-Baptiste Trébuchon and Rosalie a 32-years-old housewife.
Before the outbreak of the war, Augustin was a “pastre” (a communal shepherd) in Saint-Privat-du-Fau. Often seen with his trusty accordion, he also hosted the popular dances of the region
He became the breadwinner for the family when both of his parents died and – as such – was eligible to be exempted from army service. He nevertheless enlisted on August 4, 1914, and went on to fight in Marne, Verdun, Artois and The Somme.
Wounded twice, he became a Private First Class, and received a citation on October 23, 1917 as: “A good soldier who always accomplished his duty, and was wounded twice during the campaign”. He then received the Order of the 73rd Brigade for being: “A soldier of remarkable calm – giving his young comrades the best example of a brilliant attitude in fighting between July 15 and 18, 1918”.
Unmarried, he was courting the daughter of Liconesse Hortense Brown, and returned home on leave in 1917, saying that he was not keen to return to the front.
On November 10, 1918, rain was falling, the River Meuse was flooding, and the temperature was well below freezing. The bridges across the river had already been destroyed, so French sappers worked by night and in fog to build a plank footbridge across a lock. There had been no reconnaissance of the other bank because bad weather had kept the spotter plane on the ground.
At 08.00 on November 11, around 700 French soldiers started to advance. Some of the first deaths were caused by drowning.
The fog cleared at 10.30 and the French could now see the Germans in position a few hundred metres away. The French were spread over three kilometres between the River Meuse and a railway line. While the French now sent-up a spotter plane so that artillery on the other bank could open fire without fear of killing their own soldiers, the Germans opened fire with their machine guns.
Trébuchon’s death was recorded as being “with a red hole in his right side”. Probably a figure of speech, it was also an amazing twist of fate, given that one of the most famous of all French poets, Arthur Rimbaud (who was himself born in The French Ardennes) had written that line in one of his best-known poems Le Dormeur du Val (The Sleeper in the Valley). The poem describes what the reader first believes is a soldier sleeping peacefully in “a small green valley where a slow stream runs” but who later turns out to be: “At peace. In his side there are two red holes”.
Officially, the last of the 91 French soldiers to die on November 11, 1918, Trébuchon’s war grave in the village of Vrigne-Meuse in The French Ardennes, however, still records (incorrectly) that he was killed on November 10, 1918.
Optimists believe the reason for this discrepancy in the date of his death was because that – by stating that these men had died well before the end of the war – their families would be guaranteed a war pension. Realists, however, believe that the government wanted to avoid any political scandal if it ever became known that so many soldiers had died so pointlessly on the last day of the conflict.
Officially, there were no French casualties on the last day of the war. If you visit the churchyard you will find that Augustin Trébuchon and his comrades are all still recorded as having been killed the day before.
As a result, the soldiers in this battle, including Trébuchon, were largely forgotten beyond the boundaries of Vrigne-Meuse after the end of the war; and it wasn’t until 82 years later, in 2000, that events of that day were begun to be seen in a different light. Alain Fauveau sets the record straight in his book Le vagabond de la Grande Guerre, souvenirs de la guerre 1914-1918, where he describes it as “la bataille de trop” (a useless battle).
The tiny village of Vrigne-Meuse, meanwhile, honoured the last official French soldier to fall in the First World War on November 11, 2008, with the inauguration of “Rue Augustin Trébuchon”.
The French Ministry of Defence duly corrected the place of death. But it has yet to correct the date on Augustin Trébuchon’s death certificate, or gravestone, even though it is now known that he died so close to the ceasefire, on November 11.
Today, Vrigne-Meuse – situated between Charleville-Mézières and Sedan on the banks of the Meuse river – can be reached from A34 Autoroute at Sortie 6 (Exit 6), and by then following the D105 south towards the village. On entering the village, there is a right turn onto the Chemin de Mézières when the road starts to climb uphill to what was known as the Signal de l’Epine Cote 249 (Hill 249).
Here, a stark monument marks the last battle fought by the French Army on the last day of the war. It pays homage to the entire Division – despite the fact that most of the heavy fighting was carried out by the one regiment: 415e RI, after whom the main street in the village is named.
The upper part of the column reads: “À la 163e Division et à ses glorieux morts” (“To the 163rd Division and its glorious dead”).
It is followed by a quote from Jean Cocteau: “Le vrai tombeau des morts c’est le coeur des vivants” (“The real tomb of the dead is in the hearts of the living”).
Another reason why Augustin Trébuchon never become a household name in the UK, of course, may be due to the fact that he was a Frenchman and that here, in Britain, we’re much more likely to know the name George Edwin Ellison (the last British soldier to be killed during the First World War).
Henry Nicholas John Gunther isn’t world-famous either. Yet. But chances are that we’ll all hear his name in 2018. Finding himself stationed in the Argonne region of France on November 11th 1918, US soldier Henry Gunther was involved in a final charge against German troops who had been told that the Armistice would take place at 11.00. The Baltimore Private – ironically of German descent – was shot at 10.59 and is now recognised as the last soldier to be killed in action in the First World War.
Posthumously restored to rank of Sergeant, awarded a Distinguished Service Cross and a Divisional Citation for Gallantry in Action, and remembered with a memorial constructed near the place where he died, Gunther was one of 11,000 casualties on that final, fateful day of the war. This is all recalled in a book written by Roger Faindt: 10h59: Henry Gunther, le dernier soldat americain mort en 1918.
Trébuchon’s turn to finally becomes a symbol of the First World War will also occur in 2018 – not only in France, but also much further afield.
Standing close to the Belgian border, where the Germans invaded France at the start of the conflict, the entire region was occupied for much of the war, with the local population suffering badly from imprisonments, severe food shortages and deportations.
French soldiers hid themselves deep within the forests and, despite the fear of reprisals, were often helped by the local Ardennes population.
The German HQ in France was located in Charléville, within The French Ardennes, and their army staged a rearguard action in the villages and countryside nearby as the end of the war drew close.
Trebuchon’s story, according to some locals, has hung over The French Ardennes ever since his untimely death. Commemorative events have always been held in the village to honour him and his colleagues but, nationally, this battle was largely overlooked. A friend of Trebuchon from the World War One trenches, Marcel G. Chambaz, would always arrive in town a night or two before November 11 and re-tell the story: a tradition that continued right up to his own death in in 1985.
In 1968, the locals commemorated the 50th anniversary of the battle…and, incredibly, 50,000 people attended.
No-one really knows for sure whether the generals passed an order for this final battle, or whether it was made as a suggestion that a battle could take place at Vrigne-Meuse to help ensure the Germans adhered to the ceasefire on November 11. But as word passed down the chain of command line of command it did, indeed, become an order. And in the battle which ensued, Trebuchon became the last French solider to be killed in action in a war that had lasted four long years,
Plans are now well under way to commemorate the 100th anniversary on a grand scale, with Trebuchon at its heart.
After four years of commemorative events throughout France to mark the impact of the First World War on a nation, this promised to be the full stop at the end of the final sentence, in the last chapter of the story of WWI.
A new sculpture commemorating the last French solider to be killed in action during The Great War will be unveiled close to where he fell. This has been hewn from the famous blue stone found near to another French Ardennes town, Givet. It will depict Marianne, a national symbol of the French Republic – a personification of liberty and reason, and a portrayal of the Goddess of Liberty – holding the head of Trebuchon.
A new memorial trail will also be launched – one that can be followed by boat, bicycle, and on foot.
Stamps, bottles of champagne and beer will also feature Trebuchon’s image during 2018. And at a what promises to be a very grand ceremony at Vrigne-Meuse on November 11, 2018, there are plans in place to stage a fly-past of planes from both the French and German airforces.
Invitations are also being sent to leading officials and politicians, to attend.