Statement by M Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France in tribute to the soldiers of the First World War following the death of the last ‘Poilu', Lazare Ponticelli, (Paris, March 17, 2008)
The last survivor just joined the first death of the most terrible of wars,but who remembers the first death?
He was a corporal. On August 2, 1914, stationed in the village of Joncherey southeast of Belfort, he opposed a German patrol who violated the border. He made the customary warnings. In response, the officer commanding the patrol pulled out his revolver and fired. He was mortally wounded. Before he died he has time to respond and in turn mortally wounding the one who came to take his life. We put the two bodies in a barn side by side on a bed of straw. The Frenchman was 21 years of age. He was a teacher. His name was Jules Andre Peugeot. The German was an Alsatian, a native of the region of Mulhouse. Il a tout juste 20 ans. He was just 20 years. His name was Camille Mayer.
They loved life as we love life to 20 years. They had no revenge, they had no hatreds to gratify.
They were 20 years old, dreams of love, the same ardour, the same courage.
They were 20 years and felt that the world was theirs.
They had 20 years and they believed in happiness.
They had scarcely emerged from childhood and they did not want to die. They both died on a fine summer morning: one with a bullet in the shoulder, the other with a bullet in the stomach. They were the first players, unaware of the tragedy whose fates and the folly of blind men had long been secretly woven in a fabric of disaster that would take a sacrifice of heroic youth.
Both, dead at 20 years - they did not see the fearful results of what they had begun. Millions of dead fallen with faces to the ground, mown down by machine guns, drowned in the muddy trenches, shredded by shrapnel. They saw not the immense crowd of the millions of wounded, crippled, disfigured and gassed, who lived with the nightmare of war etched into their flesh.
They did not see their parents crying, widows weeping for their husbands, children crying their fathers. They experienced no pain of a soldier who smokes one cigarette "to overcome the smell of dead", lost by their families who have not even had time to throw over them a few lumps of clay, so that do not see them rot.
These two young twenty year olds did not experience the nights of rain, winter in the trenches and "the silent waiting and shivering - the minutes seeming like hours". They crossed not the columns returning fire "with their wounds, their blood, their mask of suffering" and their eyes that seemed to say to those of the next generation: "Do not go, hell no!" They did not fight tirelessly against the mud, against rats, lices, against the cold, against fear.
They did not have to spend years living with the memory of so much pain with the thought of so many lives blasted beside them and never had to step over the body to mount an attack. ...
... We will never forget.
Caporal Jules Andre Peugeot, 1893-1914
Born at Etupes (Doubs) on 11 June 1893, Jules , from an early age, wanted to be a teacher. After studying hard and passing the necessary exams at his teacher-training establishment at Besançon, he finally succeeded in his dreams and he was offered a position at a school at Villers le Lac in October 1912.
Etupes circa 1900
On 26 November 1913, however, Jules' dreams had to be put on hold as he was called up for his compulsory military service. After presenting himself at his military district headquarters at Belfort, he was assigned to the 2e Bataillon of the 44e Régiment d'Infanterie (27th Infantry Brigade, 14th Infantry Division) at Montbéliard to begin his service. To a man with Jules' education and background, military life didn't appear to be too much trouble and, on 1 April 1914, he was promoted to Corporal and placed in command of a section. By the end of July 1914, he was also under consideration to become an élève officier (officer cadet) and had already passed exams that would have enabled him to undertake this role when he would have passed into the reserve (in 1916, if war had not broken out).
44e Régiment d'Infanterie grouping circa 1914
Jules was based at Lons-le-Saunier for much of his service. However, a move to the depot at Montbéliard was made in July 1914 in preparation to be put on a ‘war footing', prior to moving to positions on the German border in Alsace. Following the order to withdraw to a point about 10km from the border, the 44e RI found itself located at Delle, Grandvillers and, by 3:00am on 2 August, at the village of Joncherey with Jules Peugeot's section (part of the 6e Companie) manning a point just to the east of this latterly mentioned village. Jules' billet for the remainder of the night and for 2 August 1914 was to be the house of Monsieur Docourt...
Born at Magdeburg, Saxony-Anhalt on 24 April 1892, Albert's family had moved to the area of Mulhouse, Alsace (less than 30 miles from the home town of Jules Andre Peugeot) while he was a boy. Enlisting into the German army in 1912, he was, by 1914, a Leutnant in his local cavalry unit - the Jäger Regt-zu-Pferd Nr 5 - which, as part of the 29th Cavalry Brigade of the 29th Infantry Division, was garrisoned in Mulhouse.
Magdeburg circa 1900
Mulhouse circa 1900
On 1 August 1914, following the French General Mobilisation Order, the 29th Division was ordered to the French-German border between Thann and Switzerland . The 29th Cavalry Brigade (3 Badisches Dragoner-Regiment ‘Prinz Karl' Nr 22 and Albert's Jäger-Regiment zu Pferde Nr 5) was ordered to conduct armed reconnaissance patrols in this area. Noting the lack of French military presence in the immediate border area, orders were given to push these patrols slightly further over the border, in order to gain further information, on the following day.
Jägers zu Pferde on patrol, 1914
At least eleven German patrols entered French territory in the vicinity of Belfort on the morning of 2 August (other incursions also occurred around Longwy and Luneville). Lt Albert Mayer, by now of the 3rd Squadron, was in command of just one of these patrols.
Leaving Sepois-le-Bas in the early morning of 2 August, Mayer's patrol (consisting of himself and seven Jaegers: Heinze, Grigio, Platt, Peters, Martin, Hillbring and one other) crossed the French border to the east of Courtelevant and cautiously advanced towards Faverois. Here, the patrol dismounted at the small stream to the west of the village in order to water their horses.
Sunday, 2 August 1914
At approximately 6:00am on this beautiful summer's morning, German troops - many transported in motor-cars - entered the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg crossing the River Moselle at two points, over the bridges of Remich and Wasserbillig. Shortly afterwards German armoured trains packed with troops entered the country at Wasserbillig. The invasion had begun. (12 hours previously, however, German troops had moved into Luxembourg near Troisvierges where they had torn up the railway line and destroyed some telegraph cables before being ordered back into Germany. Apparently, they hadn't yet received the order to delay the invasion until the following day!)
Although the Luxembourg invasion was, at this point, a relatively quiet affair (and quite comical in some instances, such as in the case of the German officer threatening to shoot a customs official if he didn't stop shouting and the group of Germans asking a gendarme for directions to France!), a couple of hours later (at approximately 8:50am) the first shot on what was to become the Western Front was fired by a party of Germans near the French frontier village of Petit Croix (east of Belfort).
This German group was located just inside German territory, at the edge of a little wood called "Le Breuleux" near the Belfort-Mulhouse railway line and their target was three armed French Customs officers who were on duty on the railway inside their own frontier. When the Germans suddenly began shooting at them - firing about 15 shots in all - the Frenchmen withdrew without replying. After turning out the other seven members of the customs staff on duty in the vicinity, they moved forward towards the frontier, coming under fire once more. Capitaine Dentz, who was in command of the Customs House of Petit Croix, returned fire (thus becoming the first Frenchman to fire a shot in anger during the Great War). The French Customs officers fired a total of nineteen shots before the Germans then withdrew. In total, about 49 rounds had been expended in this engagement. None hit its target.
Six miles to the south, as this was happening, Cpl Peugeot's squad of the 6e Companie, 2e Bataillon of the 44e Régiment d'Infanterie was preparing for duty. The squad was under instruction to keep watch over the Joncherey - Faverois road, with Peugeot's command post located in the Docourt Farm (approximately 500m east of the village) with an advanced sentry position being set up some 50m further eastwards towards Faverois. A short while before 10:00am, just as Cpl Peugeot was washing his hands before settling down for breakfast, Docourt's nine year old daughter, Nicolet, rushed in shouting that ‘the Prussians' had been seen near Faverois fetching water for their horses.
By the time the alarm had been raised, Albert Mayer's patrol had moved up the road from Faverois and was approaching the advanced sentry position. The sentry on duty, upon seeing the approaching Germans immediately sounded the alarm, calling the remainder of the section ‘to arms'. Peugeot and the section arrived just in time to witness the sentry being cut down by a sabre stroke delivered by Mayer (luckily for the sentry, the sabre just cut into his coat and equipment, leaving him relatively uninjured).
An attempt was made to arrest the patrol but, following Peugeot's warning shouts of ‘Halte-là!', Mayer drew his revolver and fired three shots. The first and third bullets missed their mark, but the second bullet hit Peugeot in the left shoulder and exitted near his right shoulder blade. Peugeot managed to loose off one shot in response, but it would seem that this missed. Fire was immediately returned by Peugeot's comrades, and Mayer was hit in the stomach before receiving the shot to the head that was immediately fatal. The remainder of the patrol scattered under the gunfire before a patrol of 11th Dragoons (also billeted in Joncherey and alerted by the sound of gunfire) could reach the action. The time was now 9:59am.
Along with Mayer, two horses were killed (plus one injured) and one rider (Peters) was severely wounded. As a point of interest, Peters hid in the nearby woods for a couple of days before realising how severely injured he actually was and giving himself up on 4 August (he then revelled in his ‘quasi-celebrity' status while a PoW in hospital!). Grigio and Platt - who had lost their horses in the action - were also taken prisoner later in the day (one by the villagers of Joncherey and the other by the 11th Dragoons). Martin disappeared without trace but Heinze and Hillbring, using the cover afforded by the terrain in the area (and their local knowledge) made it safely back to Germany. (Heinze later published a very whimsical account of his escapades following this event).
Meanwhile, Jules Andre Peugeot, although mortally injured, was not quite dead. After attempting to stand and stagger a few paces, he was helped back to the Docourt house where, at 10:37am on 2 August 1914, he died on the steps of the house where he had been billeted. It was to be another 30 hours before war was to be officially declared between the major powers of Germany and France, but the blood of their children was already being spilt.
The bodies of Peugeot and Mayer were brought to the barn of the Docourt farm and laid out next to each other in the straw. After being claimed by his family on 3 August, Peugeot was returned home and buried, with full military honours in the cemetery at Etupes at 2pm the following day. Mayer was also buried with full military honours (and at the expense of the officers of the 44th RI) in Joncherey on 3 August. His body was later moved to the German military cemetery at Illfurth near Mulhouse where he lies today in a specially-marked grave commemorating ‘1st German Casualty of the World War 1914-18'.
Peugeot is commemorated on war memorials at Etupes, Joncherey, Villers le Lac and at Les Invalides, Paris. There are also special monuments to him at Joncherey (site of Docourt house), along with a separate plaque nearby. Several streets throughout France and a small square in Paris are also named after him. Mayer is commemorated on a regimental memorial at Mulheim and his helmet, picked up off the site of the action on 2 August 1914, is in the Army Museum in Paris.
On 3 December 1915, Corporal Peugeot was regimentally cited and granted a posthumous, retrospective Croix de Guerre with Bronze Star, followed in 1920, with the award of a posthumous Medaille Militaire.
Casualty card for Cpl Peugeot
Witness statement (note the signature of Docourt also)
2e Bn 44e R I War Diary extract, 2nd August 1914:
At 3am in the morning, the 3 companies received the order to cover the line Grandvillars-Jonchery-Delle for the defence of those localities.
6th company - Joncherey
7th Company - the farm to the north east of Granvillars
8th company - at Delle
The mission of the companies is to man the barricades and guard the approaches from the east in these localities.
Just before 10 o'clock in the morning, four men of the 6th Company under command of Corporal Peugeot set up a post along the route from Joncherey to Faverois. At about 800 m. east from this location the unit was attacked by a German patrol of Jäger-Regiment zu Pferde Nr. 5 from Mulhouse, consisting of one Second Lieutenant (Second Lieutenant Mayer) and 7 men.
Corporal Peugeot was killed by a revolver shot by the patrol leader, upon whom he fired, but missed. The (men of the) post and also the neighbouring post heard the rifle shots, and started to shoot at the horsemen, who attempted to disperse, killing the Lieutenant and 2 horses. One horseman was wounded and two others were made prisoner. The post, which was set up at a barricade at the east exit of the village of Joncherey along the route to Faverois, alarmed by the rifle shots at this post, also opened fire at the enemy patrol, which disappeared....
44RI (HQ) War Diary for 2nd August 1914 and notes attached
New York Times Article 16th March 1916
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Contributed by David O'Mara
(this article expands on the references to Mayer and Peugeot in the Remember On This Day section for the date in question.