In the final hours of World War I, a terrible toll

Augustin Trebuchon is buried beneath a white lie.

His tiny plot is almost on the front line where the guns finally fell silent at 11 a.m. 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 Nov. 10, 1918."

Not so.

Like hundreds of others along the Western Front, Trebuchon was killed in combat on the morning of Nov. 11 — after the pre-dawn agreement between the Allies and Germany but before the armistice took effect six hours later.

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.

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.

"It was a lie, without a question," said historian Nicolas Chubak, even if he acknowledged it was meant "to somewhat ease the mourning of families."

There were many reasons why men kept falling until the call of the bugler at 11 a.m.: 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.

The reasons trumped the lives of soldiers, many of whom were convinced they were on the brink of survival.

Historian Joseph Persico estimated the total dead, wounded and missing on all sides on the final day was 10,900.

U.S. Gen. John J. Pershing, who had been bent on continuing the fighting, even had to explain to Congress the high number of last-day losses.

Before Nov. 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 epitomize the ruthlessness of warfare that the world had never seen.

Death on the final morning added another twist to the cruelty.

In northeastern France's Meuse-Argonne, a 23-year-old American, Henry Gunther, was killed by German machine-gun fire one minute before the armistice.

"His time of death was 10:59 A.M. which is just so haunting," U.S. historian Alec Bennett said. Gunther still charged a German machine gun nest, when keeping his head down for a few dozen more seconds could have saved him. It remains a mystery why he did it.

"Gunther's act is seen as almost a symbol of the futility of the larger war," Bennett said.

Other nations also were not spared such casualties.

With two minutes to go, Canadian Private George Lawrence Price was shot by a German sniper close to Mons in southern Belgium, some 250 kilometers (150 miles) from where Gunther died. It served no apparent purpose but another life was shattered in its prime at 25.

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

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

The three are considered their nations' last men to fall in active combat.


Photojournalist Virginia Mayo and videojournalist Mark Carlson contributed reporting.


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