Much has been written and broadcast recently about the start of the First World War, when Germany declared war on France on 3 August 1914. But there were two soldiers, one French and one German, who became victims of the conflict even before the war began.
General mobilisation was due to begin at midday on 2 August. Earlier in the day, at their farmhouse billet 700 m to the east of the village of Joncherey in Alsace-Lorraine, Caporal Jules-André Peugeot was having breakfast with four soldiers of his section. The corporal had been charged with surveillance of the road between Joncherey and the nearest village to the east, Faverois, and had placed a sentry 50 metres away, at the entrance to the village. Caporal Peugeot had just written two letters, one to his parents reassuring them that all was well, and one to a repairer of fountain pens to whom he’d sent his own pen. He gave the letters to the postman, Joseph Maître, who was just passing, and invited him into the kitchen for a glass of wine. Suddenly the nine-year old daughter of the owner of the farm, who had gone to fetch water from the spring, came running back calling out, “The Prussians! The Prussians are coming!”
Jules-André Peugeot was 21; he came from the village of Etupes in the Doubs, and had dreamed from a young age of becoming a teacher. He had trained at Besançon and had taken up his first teaching post in October 1912. But then he was conscripted in 1913. He had been promoted to corporal in April 1914, and was now in charge of a section of the 6th company of the 2nd battalion of the prestigious 44th infantry regiment, and had passed the necessary examinations in readiness for the selection process in order to become a reserve officer.
Alsace-Lorraine had long been the subject of dispute. The French regarded the region as being within their natural geographical area, bordered to the north-east by the Rhine, although the great majority of the population spoke German dialects.
At 6 a.m. on the morning of 2 August, Leutnant Albert Mayer, aged 22, based at Mulhouse, led a small cavalry patrol of six men across the French border, one of at least eleven German armed reconnaissance patrols that had been instructed to cross into France that morning. Mayer and his men met with no resistance; following the orders of Président Poincaré and the military chiefs, the French had moved their troops back ten kilometres, creating a neutral zone in order to avoid provoking the Germans and to show good faith in their attempts to avoid war. Twice during the morning, however, the Germans exchanged shots with small groups of French infantry, and they were observed watering their horses at a stream west of Faverois. When they reached the outskirts of Joncherey, Lieutnant Mayer slashed with his sabre at the French sentry placed there by Caporal Peugeot, but without injuring him; the sentry was able to sound the alarm.
But upon receiving the child’s warning, Caporal Peugeot and his soldiers had already set out to meet the Germans. When they encountered Leutnant Mayer, Peugeot shouted at the Germans to stop as they were under arrest. But in response, Mayer fired three shots at the corporal, one of which passed diagonally through his shoulder, touching his aorta. Peugeot promptly returned fire, but stumbled from his injury and the shot missed; his companions then opened fire with their pistols. Mayer was shot in the stomach, and then killed by a shot to the head.
Corporal Peugeot was helped back to the billet, where he died on the steps of the farmhouse, in the arms of Joseph Maître, at 10.37 a.m. Thirty hours before the war was officially declared, it had taken its first two victims.
Peugeot was buried with military honours in his home village on 4 August. Mayer was buried on 3 August; his funeral was arranged by the French with respect for a fellow combatant, a gesture of chivalry which – according to one article recounting these events – marked the swansong of a world which would soon disappear.
There is an interesting presentation of these events (in French but with photographs and animated diagrams) at
Corporal Peugeot’s death is remembered every year at Joncherey, but this year a special commemorative event took place on 2 August, attended by two hundred people including members of both men’s families.
Postscript Reading the various accounts of these events, I have noticed various inconsistencies in the details. The farmer’s daughter may have been called Nicolet, or she may have been Adrienne… Mayer may have died while confronting Peugeot’s soldiers, but one account reports that he continued along the road to Joncherey, very injured and slumped in his saddle, until he was killed by a soldier on the road.
Of Mayer’s companions, three fled into the woods, from where two managed to make their way back to Germany and one headed south towards Switzerland; he was arrested and interned for the duration of the war. The other three men made their way around the woods and to the north, where they met a French patrol; two of their horses were killed and one injured. They fled into the woods, but two were arrested when they emerged and were imprisoned until the end of the war. The third left the woods later but met a French patrol and was shot in the lung; he survived, but was also imprisoned for the duration of the war.