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.

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