Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Trying to Prove that Old Soldiers Never Die

You have to hand it to Jean Thurel, the Frenchman had stamina. As a strapping lad of 18 from Orain, Burgundy on September 17, 1716 he enlisted in the Régiment de Touraine with which he remained on active duty for more than 90 years right up until his death on March 10, 1807.  No, that isn’t a typo.
As a fusilier—an infantryman of the line—Thurel entered the service during the reign of King Louis XV and continued to serve his successor, the French Republic, and the Empire under Napoleon.  Politics be damned, he was proud to be a soldier of France.  Despite his long and distinguished service, which included becoming one of the first French common soldiers to win a decoration and having been personally honored by both Louis XVI and Napoleon, Thurel was never promoted.  Not that he did not often have the chance.  He repeatedly declined promotions preferring to remain a soldier of the line, which he considered a high honor, and the company of his comrades.
Service in the regiment was a family affair.  Three of his brothers also enlisted and were all killed in 1774 at the bloody Battle of Fonenoy against the English, Dutch, and Hanoverians during the War of the Austrian Succession.  Jean emerged from the carnage unscathed.  Still later he served in the same company with his own son, who had advanced to the rank of corporal and was himself an honored veteran.  The younger man died on board ship during a naval battle on April 12, 1782 off the coast of Dominica in the West Indies during the American Revolution.
As a soldier in the French armies of the 17th and 18th Centuries, Thurel was able to spend extended periods of time at home on half pay during peace time allowing him to establish a family and even to work at some unknown trade.  But those were turbulent times and there were plenty of wars to be fought.  In his long career the fusilier saw action in the War of the Polish Succession (1733–1738), War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748), Seven Years’ War (1754-1763), and the French participation in the American Revolution (1778-1783).  He was finally put on garrison duty during the wars against the French Republic and the Napoleonic Wars.
On active duty, Thurel was seriously wounded twice.  During the Siege of Kehl on the Rhine October of 1833 he was shot in the chest by a musket ball.  On August 1, 1759 the 59 year old soldier’s unit was overwhelmed by a Hanoverian attack at the Battle of Minden in Prussia and he was slashed seven times by a saber, six of the nearly lethal cuts to his head.

Jean Thurel was an 83 year old private and one of those French soldiers in the white uniforms at Yorktown in 1781.

During the American Revolution, Thurel fought at Yorktown and stood on parade as General Cornwallis surrendered his army to the George Washington’s Continentals.
During his career Thurel was only seriously disciplined once.  In 1747 during the Siege of Bergen after French troops occupied the citadel, he found himself outside the walls when the fortress doors were shut.  He scaled the wall to gain entry so that he would not miss muster.
Even as he aged, Thurel refused any special treatment on account of his age.  When his regiment was ordered to march to the coast to embark on an expedition aboard naval vessels in 1787 he was offered a ride in a coach in deference to his 88 years.  He refused and marched the entire distance on foot, vowing that that he had never before traveled by carriage and had no intention of doing so at that time.

The Médaillon Des Deux Épées
Back in 1771 Louis XV was eager to upgrade his army to match the rigorous professionalism of his English, Austrian, and German states, enemies whose rigorous discipline had been routing his troops.  To accomplish this, he wanted to encourage long term enlistments to build a core of experienced and battle hardened troops.  To this end the Médaillon Des Deux Épées (Medal of the Two Swords) was created by a royal decree to honor veterans with 24 years of service.  It was the first French award which common soldiers and non-commissioned officers were eligible to receive.  Scores of men were cited in the first round of awards, but only one, Thurel, was given two, having already completed two cycles of 24 years.
That was not the end of his honors.  On November 1787 Thurel was presented at Versailles to Louis XVI, who greeted him with warmth and affection as père—Father.  He offered the 88 year old soldier a rare choice—to be awarded the Ordre Royal et Militaire de Saint-Louis (Royal and Military Order of Saint Louis) which had never before been presented to an enlisted man or a third Médaillon Des Deux Épées  four months before he would complete a third 24 year enlistment cycle.  The old soldier elected the third badge on the condition that the king personally pin it on his uniform, a request with which the young, doomed king was delighted to comply.  In addition the king awarded him an annual pension of 300 livres without having to retire from the service.  The Comte d’Artois offered Thurel his sword, and the ladies of the court put a carriage at his disposal during his stay in Paris.
The same year he received an unusual salute that may have even meant more to him.  The officers of his beloved regiment pooled their money to commission a formal portrait in full uniform by Antoine Vestier, a leading court painter—a portrait fit for a general.  He was shown proudly wearing is three bright red Médaillons Des Deux Épées.
Two changes of regimes later on October 24, 1804 Napoleon himself, a man who appreciated veteran soldiers, honored 104 year old Thurel, still fit and active, newly established Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur (National Order of the Legion of Honor), the highest decoration in France and an additional pension of 1,200 francs.  The officers of his unit, which had been redesignated as the 33rd Regiment of the Line, arranged to have the new medal added to his portrait, which hung in Regimental Headquarters.
A year later he was officially decreed the oldest soldier of Europe.
On March 10, 1807 after a very brief illness and still on the active duty muster roll Private Jean Thurel slipped peacefully away at Tours.  He was a documented 108 years old.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Diez y Seis de Septiembre—El Grito de Delores

Padre Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and  El Grito de Delores.

Quick, what’s Mexican Independence Day?  If you answered Cinco de Mayo, you’d be wrong.  That is a minor provincial holiday in Mexico that has become a celebration of Mexican pride in the United States.  It celebrates the victory of the Mexican Army over the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, during the French invasion of Mexico.  The correct answer is Diez y Seis de Septiembre—September 16—which commemorates El Grito de Delores, the rallying cry which set off a Mexican revolution against Spanish colonial rule and the cast of native born Spaniards who ran roughshod over the people in 1810. 

Early in the morning of that fateful day Padre Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a respected priest and champion of the Mestizo, mixed Spanish and Indian blood, and Indios.  Both classes were in virtual serfdom by a system in which native born Spaniards—Gachupines—held ruthless sway.  Hidalgo had for sometime been part of a plot by Criollos to stage a coup d’état by Mexican born Spaniards who were the middling level officers and administers of the system. 
The Criollo plot was to take advantage of resentment of the imposition of Joseph Bonaparte on the Spanish throne by Napoleon to declare Mexican independence within a Spanish Empire under Ferdinand VII, considered by the Spanish people as the legitimate heir to the throne.  But Ferdinand was held in France by the Emperor, so if it had succeeded the plot would have created a de-facto republic.  The Gachupines, who had accepted Bonaparte, would be driven out of Mexico. 
Plotters decided on a date in December to stage their coup.  In the meantime they were quietly trying to line up the support of Criollo officers and by extension the Army.  But the plot was betrayed and orders were sent out to arrest the leaders, including Hidalgo.
The wife of Miguel Domínguez, Corregidor of Queretaro (chief administrative official of the city of Queretaro) and a leader of the plot, learned of the pending arrests and sent a warning to Hidalgo in the village of Delores near the city of Guanajuato, about 230 miles northwest of the capital of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, Mexico City. The late in the evening of September 15, Hidalgo asked Ignacio Allende, Criollo officer who had brought the warning, to arrest all of the Gachupines in the city.
It was apparent to Hidalgo and Allende that the Criollos had not had time to solidify their support in the army, and indeed that many Criollo officers refused to join.  The revolution would inevitably be crushed.  Sometime in the early morning hours of September 16, Hidalgo made a fateful decision—he would call on the mestizo and Indio masses to rise up. 
At about 6 A.M.  Hidalgo assembled the people of the pueblo by tolling the church bell.  When they were together he made this appeal, which he had hastily drafted:
My children: a new dispensation comes to us today. Will you receive it? Will you free yourselves? Will you recover the lands stolen by three hundred years ago from your forefathers by the hated Spaniards? We must act at once… Will you defend your religion and your rights as true patriots? Long live our Lady of Guadalupe! Death to bad government! Death to the Gachupines!
This is the famous Grito de Delores which sparked the revolt.  Runners went out to nearby towns carrying the message.  The long oppressed people flocked to the cause armed with knives, machetes, homemade spears, farm implements, and what few fire arms that they could take from the Gachupines.  With Hidalgo and Allende at their head, the peasants began the march to Mexico City.  Along the way they acquired an icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe—Mary depicted as a dark skinned Indian—which became the banner of the revolt.
Along the way a regular Army regiment under the command of Criollos joined the march, but the swelling ranks of peasants—soon to number up to 50,000, was out of control by any authority. 
The first major battle of the war began at Guanajuato, a substantial provincial town, on September 28.  Local officials rounded up the Gachupines and loyal Criollos and their families and made a stand in the town’s fortified granary.  Hundreds of peasants were killed in wild frontal assaults on the position until rocks thrown from above caused the collapse of the granary roof, injuring many.  When a civil official ran up a white flag of surrender, the garrison commander countermanded the order and opened fire on the native forces coming forward to accept it.  Scores were killed.  After that there was no quarter.  With the exception of a few women and children, the 400 occupants of the granary were massacred.  Then the town was pillaged and looted, with Criollo homes faring no better than the native Spaniards.
Of course Hidalgo had unleashed an unmanageable and ferocious anger among the people.  Along the march any Gachupines unfortunate enough to fall into the hands of the rebels were brutally killed, as were any Criollos who sided with them—or were simply assumed to be European born.  The revolt was not just a national one—it was a virtual slave revolt with all of the attendant horror that implied.
Word of the fate of Guanajuato mobilized forces in Mexico City and caused most wealthy Criollos to side with the government or try to remain neutral.
Hidalgo and his closest supporters later abandoned the army and returned to Delores.  He was frightened and disillusioned by what he had brought about.  A year later he was captured by Gachupine forces and hanged.
It took 11 years of war to finally oust the Spaniards. A triumphant revolutionary army finally entered Mexico City on September 28, 1821, issued an official Declaration of the Independence of Mexican Empire, and established a government of imperial regency under Agustín de Iturbide.
But Mexicans mark the beginning of the struggle—the Grito de Delores—as the true anniversary of independence.
Fireworks erupt annually over the Plaza de la Constitución in Mexico City after the President reads El Grito de Delores.
Eventually the church bell from Delores was brought to the capital.  Each year on the night of September 15, the President of Mexico rings the bell at the National Palace and repeats a Grito Mexicano based upon the Grito de Dolores from the balcony of the palace to the hundreds of thousands assembled in the Plaza de la Constitución.  At dawn on September 16 a military parade starts in the Plaza passes the Hidalgo Memorial and proceeds down the Paseo de la Reforma, the city’s main boulevard.  Similar celebrations are held in cities and towns across Mexico.