On November 11, 1918, Augustin Trébuchon fell in a hail of German fire minutes before the armistice. He was the last French soldier killed on home soil in World War I. Trébuchon’s story inspired “Augustin”, a new novel in French by Alexandre Duyck.
It was around 10:50am, on November 11, a century ago. The rat-a-tat of machine gun fire splinters the air at Vrigne-Meuse, in the French Ardennes. “Augustin collapses,” journalist Alexandre Duyck writes. “With 10 minutes to go after more than 1,560 days of fighting, Augustin would miss the rejoicing, the armistice, the singing of the Marseillaise, the embraces, the joy of the victors, the hero’s welcome in [his native] Lozère, Occitanie.”
With his first novel, soberly entitled “Augustin”, Duyck lends new life to one “Poilu” – as France’s WWI infantrymen are affectionately known — a century after his death. Trébuchon is officially the last soldier to die in combat on French soil, just moments before the guns fell silent to end the Great War.
Duyck first learned of Trébuchon’s tragic fate on the 90th anniversary of the armistice. “I had done a reportage in the village where he died and where he was buried in the Ardennes,” the special correspondent explains. “I kept the documentation, which I don’t usually do. I always kept Augustin in mind. I must have been particularly moved by his death. He was killed last, at the last moment for an absurd purpose.”
A private in the 415th infantry regiment, Trébuchon, 40, had fought the entire war. The shepherd from the mountainous Lozère department in southern France had volunteered to join the fight in 1914 when he could have been exempted on the grounds that he had a family to support. At Verdun and the Chemin des Dames, he would witness some of the war’s worst battles. With the end of hostilities just moments away, Trébuchon, a dispatch rider, was given one last mission: To deliver a message to his captain’s position near the railway line, two kilometres from the command post. But Trébuchon was cut down before he could accomplish it.
“Imagine this shepherd going off to war at 36! He is told it will only last a few months and he winds up staying on until the very end, only to die in the last quarter of an hour,” remarks Duyck. In a sort of supreme proof of the absurdity of it all, Trébuchon’s tomb in the military section of the Vrigne-Meuse cemetery – and indeed those of his unfortunate comrades who died on the same day – all bear the date of November 10, 1918. Military authorities backdated their deaths. It was out of the question for a soldier to die on the day of the Armistice.
Duyck chose to tell Trébuchon’s story in the first person. He walked a mile in Trébuchon’s boots, intimately inhabiting the spirit of a shepherd who won fame against his will, in death. “I wanted him to represent the universal figure of the 1914 peasant soldier, a profile that made up the majority of the infantry. Many people tell me that he reminds them of their great-grandfathers or great-great-uncles,” the novelist says.
Trébuchon himself left no written traces. Only a photo and some military archival material, including his enrollment card, remain. Without a larger trove of documents, Duyck had to imagine Trébuchon’s sentiments and fictionalise his life. “He finds himself involved in a story that completely overwhelms him and amid a violence unknown to him, but he holds on,” says Duyck. “He is an antihero, very brave, very humble and very modest. He is emblematic of the soldiers who are caught up in this war that lasts for such a long time, but who obeyed to the end because that was their mission.”
As France commemorates the centenary of Trébuchon’s death, some say it isn’t clear that he was really the last “poilu” to fall in battle. There is indeed no eyewitness account of his death, estimated between 10:45 and 10:55 on that fateful morning. A Breton man, Auguste Joseph Renault, was also killed before the clock struck eleven, at 10:58am, but on Belgian soil, in the sector of Robechies. Other French soldiers, still mobilised on the Eastern Front, died in the months that followed. Others succumbed to their wartime wounds well after the Armistice.
But for Duyck, such morbid rankings are beside the point. “In a sense, everyone has their own last-killed. To me, Augustin’s death is a symbol, not a claim to glory. I don’t think he would have found pride in it post mortem,” says the novelist. “The hell of the trenches has been told many times: Life in the mud, among the rats, the disgusting food and the lack of privacy. But through this book, I especially wanted to lay bare a more personal voice among the millions of soldiers.”