Where coming in second is better than nothing!
Updated on 12/31/2018
French Corporal Jules André Peugeot was 21 years old when he was shot and killed by a German patrol. Although he was the first soldier to get shot in WWI, he ended up being the second person to die. The guy who shot Peugeot, German Lieutenant Albert Mayer, was the first person to actually die in WWI, with Peugeot himself succumbing to his wounds only a short while later. It all happened during a 13-person skirmish in the little French town of Joncherey, near the Swiss and German borders.
On the morning of August 2, 1914, about 30 hours before the “official” declaration of war, a German cavalry patrol made up of 8 men led by Lieutenant Albert Mayer crossed into France around 6 AM a few miles east of Courtelevant, which was then the French/German border.* Patrols like this one were tasked with finding enemy positions, scouting terrain, and noting anything else that the invaders would find useful. Previously, the French government had pulled their army farther back into France away from the German border so as to avoid any accidental engagements. This in turn compelled the German patrols to travel farther into France to glean information about troop placements and defenses. Mayer’s patrol followed what is today the D463 road toward Joncherey, which was approximately 8 miles (13 km) from Germany. And it was there that Mayer and his men ran into a small squad of French soldiers led by Corporal Peugeot.
Jules André Peugeot was born in Etupes, France, on June 11, 1893. He had a relatively normal upbringing with little incident until the war came about and he was called up for his compulsory national military service, like most other young men at the time. Just before being called up for service, Peugeot had recently passed his schoolteacher certification exam and had been offered a teaching position at a school in Villers.
As a soldier, Peugeot did rather well for himself. His superiors could plainly see that he was a pretty smart guy, so they quickly promoted him to corporal. They then placed the Peugeot in charge of a small section of men. He was on his way toward becoming an officer cadet before being sent over to Joncherey.
Once there, Peugeot and his men holed up in a small house off the road on the very eastern edge of town. Their job was to guard the main road to the east (D463), resist any German incursion, and raise any alarms if an enemy army came marching at them. At least 11 German patrols had crossed into France elsewhere over the previous day, several of which exchanged gunfire with French customs officials and soldiers (there were no casualties). On top of that, earlier that morning, a local farm girl had run to Peugeot’s billet and informed them that, “The Prussians are coming!” She then told Peugeot and his men that she had spotted German soldiers with their horses earlier by a river not too far up the road. This put the small section of French soldiers very much on heightened alert.
Just before 10 AM, one of Peugeot’s men, a sentry who was at his post about 50 meters up the road east of their billet, saw the German patrol trotting up and raised the alarm. Peugeot and 4 of his fellow soldiers ran out of the billet and saw the patrol approach the sentry. The sentry almost met his end right there when Mayer rode up and slashed at him with a sword. Luckily for the French sentry, the blade only cut through his coat and didn’t injure him. He then managed to escape further butchering because of what occurred next.
Instead of immediately opening fire on the Germans, Peugeot moved ahead, yelled at the Germans to stop, commanded them to lay down their arms, and told them that they were under arrest. Since war had not been declared, it wasn’t an unreasonable course of action for Peugeot to not shoot the Germans on sight, since the absolute last thing they wanted to do was to escalate an already tense political situation. At the same time, they couldn’t just let this German patrol trot around the French countryside slashing at soldiers with swords and scaring the bejesus out of people.
Mayer for his part refused Peugeot’s call to disarm. As far as he was concerned, they were at war. So without further discussion, Mayer pulled out his revolver and fired several shots, one of which hit Peugeot in the side mortally wounding him.
Peugeot was able to get a shot off but missed. At the same time, his comrades also fired back and were able hit the German lieutenant in the arm and in the head, knocking him off his horse, killing him almost instantly. So Mayer for his place in history was the first person to actually shoot somebody in the Great War, was possibly the first person in the war to attack a guy with a sword, and was also the first to person to die in the war. For Peugeot, his demise took slightly longer.
The wounded Peugeot staggered a few feet before being helped by his fellow soldiers to the billet. There Peugeot collapsed on its steps and died from his wounds minutes after Mayer, thus becoming France’s first soldier to die, and the overall second person from any country to die in the Great War.
As for the rest of the German patrol, the soldiers were either wounded or scattered. Several of them were later caught and held prisoner for the rest of the war, the rest were killed.
For his actions at Joncherey and for being the first French soldier to die in the war, Peugeot was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre (literally the “Cross of War”, a medal given for bravery during wartime), which in France is a pretty huge honor.
Today there is a monument to Peugeot on the eastern edge of Joncherey almost exactly where he was killed.
* The border changed after the war, with the French regaining territories they lost during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71.