In the last hours of WWI, a terrible toll

Augustin Trebuchon is buried under a white lie.

His tiny plot is almost in the front line where the guns finally stopped at 11 am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, after a four-year war that had already killed millions.

A simple white cross says: "Die for France on November 10, 1918.

Not so.

Like hundreds of others along the western front, Trebuchon was killed in the battle on the morning of November 11 – after the agreement before the dawn between the Allied Forces and Germany, but before the truce came into effect six hours later.

His death at almost literally the eleventh hour only emphasized the foolishness of a war that had become increasingly incomprehensible to many in nations involved in the first global conflict.

Before 11 November, 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 in hell trenches. One fight, like the Somme in France, could have up to 1 million victims. The use of poison gas embodied the ruthlessness of warfare that the world had never seen before.

For the French, who lost 1.4 million soldiers, it was perhaps too gripping – or too shameful – to indicate that Trebuchon had been killed on the very last morning, just as the victory ultimately prevailed.

"Indeed, on the graves" November 10, 1918 "was said," to ease the grief of families somewhat, "said the French military historian Nicolas Czubak.

There were many reasons why people fell into the bugler's call at 11 am: afraid that the enemy would not accept the truce, a pure hatred after four years of unprecedented slaughter, the ambition of commanders crave a final victory, bad communication , the senseless joy of killing.

As the hours progressed, villages were occupied, attacks were thwarted with heavy losses, and rivers were traversed under enemy fire. Questions remain whether the profits were worth all human losses.

Historian Joseph Persico estimated that the total number of deaths, injuries and missing persons on all sides on the last day was 10,900.

The American general John J. Pershing, who wanted to continue the fight, even had to explain the large number of losses to Congress on the last day.

Other nations were not spared such losses either.

With two minutes to go, 25-year-old Canadian Pvt. George Lawrence Price was killed by a German sniper.

About 250 kilometers away in France, a 23-year-old American, Henry Gunther, was killed by German machine gun fire, one minute before the armistice.

Trebuchon, 40, was also shot minutes before the cease-fire. He ran to tell his comrades where and when they would have a meal after the Armistice.

All three are considered the last men of their nations to fall into active battles.

"The futility of the bigger war"

The 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 much of German origin was facing 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 drew up. He got the rank of sergeant, but he was later demoted when he wrote a letter that criticized the circumstances in the war.

Shortly thereafter, he was thrown into the biggest American battle for the war, the offensive of the Meuse-Argonne in the northeast of France.

There were reports that he was still worrying about his relegation on 11 November. When he emerged from a dense fog in the valley around Chaumont-devant-Damvillers, he and his comrades stood opposite a German machine gun nest on the hill.

Indications are that the Germans as a warning shot a volley over his head, knowing that the war was almost over. But he still counted.

"His time of death was 10:59, which is just as frightening," Bennett said. Gunther was recognized by Pershing as the last American to die on the battlefield.

Questions remain about whether it was a suicide attempt, an attempt at redemption or an act of true devotion.

"It's just as enigmatic now as 100 years ago," Bennett said, adding that one thing is clear: "Gunther's act is seen as an almost symbol of the uselessness of the greater war."

But there was another cruel turn for his family: they did not know he had been killed.

On his expected return "they went to the train station to meet Henry – not there!" said Bruce Malone, overseer of Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, the final resting place for 100 Americans who died on 11 November.

"A need to kill one last time"

There was no mystery surrounding the death of Price, the Canadian. It was a completely meaningless loss of life.

He was a farm laborer in Saskatchewan when the whirl of history drew him from the country in October 1917 when the Allied forces sought manpower for the western front.

The summer after he was summoned, he was part of the wave of victories that took villages and towns until November 11th. By that time the Canadians recaptured Bergen in the south of Belgium, where soldiers from the British Commonwealth had their first battle with the Germans in August 1914.

It was very nice for the Commonwealth commanders to conquer the city again, so the war reached a full circle where they lost their first soldier, English Pvt. John Parr, on August 21, 1914.

The price decided to view houses along the canals while citizens in the center of Bergen had already blown out the wine and whiskey they had kept hidden for years for the Germans to celebrate with the Canadians.

Suddenly there was a shot and Price collapsed.

"It was really one man, here and there, who was driven by revenge, by the need to kill one last time," said Belgian historian Corentin Rousman.

The last minutes counted not only for the victims, but also for the murderers.

"There are rules at war," Rousman said. "There is always the possibility to kill two minutes before a ceasefire, two minutes later the German should have appeared before a judge, that's the difference."

On the St. Symphorien cemetery just outside Bergen is Price, the last Commonwealth soldier who died in the war, a stone's throw from Parr, the first.

"He has not forgotten," Rousman said about Price. "It is a soldier whose grave is often draped in flowers."

"Part of this great patriotic momentum"

The grave of Trebuchon stands out because of the date and underlines the random fate of the war.

He was a shepherd of the French Massif Central and could have avoided the war as the breadwinner of the family at the age of 36.

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

Trebuchon had misery as part of the most brutal battles of France – Marne, Somme, Verdun. He survived until his last order – to tell soldiers where to gather after the armistice.

Instead, his body was found with a bullet wound on the head. He was recognized as "the last French soldier to be 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 appease the grief of a family.

"It was a lie, without a question," said Czubak, the French historian.

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