Valor Friday

| July 31, 2020 | 13 Comments

Fusilier Jean Thurel (circa 1788)

While doing my research on America’s earliest military awards and decorations I came upon something that really fascinated me. I hope it does you all as well.

The American Badge of Military Merit was the first non-commemorative award or decoration issued by the Continental Army (forebearer to the US Army). It was only awarded a handful of times and only to enlisted and non-commissioned officers. This is a sharp break with European traditions where only high ranking officers (usually noblemen) received recognition.

There was one award that predated the Badge of Military Merit in being awarded to enlisted men. In France in 1771 they established the Médaillon Des Deux Épées (Medal of the Two Swords), commonly known as “The Medal of Veterancy.” This is the first modern record of a medal specifically for the common soldier.

The Medal of the Two Swords was awarded solely to enlisted and non-commissioned men to encourage re-enlistment for the most senior veteran servicemen. Knighthoods in the Order of St Louis and the Order of Military Merit existed to reward long, exceptional service for officers, Catholics for the former and non-Catholics for the latter, but this was to be an enlisted-only decoration.

The Medal of the Two Swords would be awarded to enlisted and non-commissioned men after 24 years of faithful service. Recipients would be required to take an oath of loyalty to the King of France. In return, they received this prestigious medal, got extra pay, and would be exempted from routine chores and common lodging.

The Medal of the Two Swords was such a popular and respected award that it was the only medal worn by soldiers who participated in the French Revolution, despite the oath of loyalty incurred with it. Soldiers who had served for 48 years would receive a second Medal of the Two Swords. One man, Jean Thurel, received three (i.e. exceeded 72 years in the Army).

Thurel was born at the tail end of the 17th Century, in 1698, in Burgundy, France to a humble farmer. Enlisting at the age of 18, he would serve with the Régiment de Touraine for his exceptionally long military career.

A fusilier, the French Army’s term for a light infantryman, Thurel would see combat several times including during the War of Polish Succession (1733-1735), the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), and the American Revolution (1775-1783). For those doing the math, he was decidedly old for warfare. At a time that life expectancy in Europe was about 35 years, Thurel would serve until 1792, finally retiring at the age of 94.

During the Siege of Kehl, October 14-28, 1733 he took a shot to his chest from a musket. Recovering and returning to duty, he was again seriously wounded on August 1, 1759 at the Battle of Minden, a major battle of the Seven Years’ War, when he received seven slashes from an enemy sword. Six of those slashes were to his head.

Thurel lost three brothers in the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745, part of the War of the Austrian Succession. The fusilier served for a time with his son, a corporal in Thurel’s company. Unfortunately his son died in combat at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782. Part of the American Revolution, this battle was a large naval battle fought between the French and British, with the French fighting on behalf of the Americans as they struggled to throw off British rule.

Refusing promotion, Thurel remained a private for his entire career. Exceptionally well disciplined, he was only reprimanded once in his more than 75 years of service. In 1747 during the Siege of Bergen, the French occupied the citadel. Finding himself outside the closed gates he scaled the walls so he wouldn’t be late for muster, drawing the ire of his superiors.

In 1787 when his unit was ordered to march to the coast to embark on French Navy ships, they offered the 88 year old Thurel a carriage to ride in. Refusing, he said that he’d never before travelled by car and he had no intention of doing so now. He made the entire march on foot with the rest of his regiment.

French Medal of the Two Swords

At the creation of the Medal of the Two Swords in 1771, Thurel was one of the first recipients, receiving not one, but two medals in honor of his 55 years of service to date. In 1787, nearing the end of his third 24 year term of service, Thurel was summoned to the court of King Louis XVI at the Palace of Versailles.

King Louis XVI, 33 years old, addressed the 88 year old private with deference, calling him “father”. He asked the fusilier if instead of a third award of the Medal of the Two Swords would he prefer an award of the Order of St Louis. This was an unheard of honor, as this was a military chivalric order restricted to officers of more than 10 years service. Thurel declined on the condition that the king pin the third Medal of the Two Swords on him personally. The king obliged the octogenarian soldier’s request and also bequeathed him an annual pension.

During his visit to Paris, the Count of Artois (who would, much later, be King Charles X of France) offered Thurel his sword and several ladies of the king’s court put a carriage at his disposal. The next year, the officers of Thurel’s regiment collectively paid to have a portrait commissioned of the “oldest soldier in Europe.” This was an exceptionally high honor as having your portrait painted was an expensive and time-consuming process usually reserved for the nobility. This portrait is the one at the top of the article and captures the distinguished visage of the man for history.

After the French Revolution, Emperor Napoleon I honored Thurel. In 1804, the 106 year old former soldier was called to the recently enthroned emperor’s court. There he became one of the first recipients of the Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honor). The Legion of Honor was, and remains to this day, the highest decoration bestowed by the government of France. Napoleon also awarded Thurel a larger pension. The Legion of Honor was added to Thurel’s portrait after he received it.

Légion d’honneur

Thurel remained healthy and sharp in both mind and body until he died in 1807 after a short illness at the age of 108. Jean exceeded the life expectancy of a peasant farmer more than three fold. He lived during three centuries, through the entire 18th century, was the only triple recipient of the Medal of the Two Swords, lived through the reign of three Kings of France (serving under two of them), through the American Revolution (in which he’d served), the French Revolution, and into the reign of the incomparable Napoleon Bonaparte, to whom he was personally presented.

Thurel, being perhaps the Forrest Gump of his time, also served under famed general La Fayette, is said to have seen General Washington while serving in our revolution, and met with Count Mirabeau (an early French Revolutionary leader). These are incredible accomplishments for a lowly foot soldier private.

After his death, Thurel’s funeral was attended by many generals and politicians. Most notably his friend General Paul Thiébault.

Category: Valor

Comments (13)

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  1. 5th/77th FA says:

    DAMN!!!!! The Original Old Soldier that “Never Die”… or fade away…or retire. If he’d a had just a few more years, maybe that little fight at Waterloo mighta turned out different.

    Amazing story of when French Soldiers were…well…Soldiers. Thanks Mason!

  2. ninja says:

    Dave Hardin posted an outstanding article on Thursday about taking risks.

    Jean Thurel definitely took risks while serving more than 75 years of Military Service in the Touraine Regiment.

    Not only was he wounded, but also had to most likely go thru the emotional pain of losing his three Brothers and Son in battles.

    As Mason shared, am still in awe that Thurel lived in three different centuries and passed away at the young age of 108.

    Talk about a Hard-Core Trooper. Marching on foot with the rest of his regiment instead of taking a carriage..at the young age of 88.

    Thank You, Mason, for sharing this story of a remarkable Soldier as well as the history of The Medal of Two Swords and the French Legion of Honor.

    A solemn Salute to Jean Thurel.

  3. Green Thumb says:

    Looks like the German Proficiency Badge.

    Reading the article above, I could see how there might be a similarity in design based on the history and people.

  4. AW1Ed says:

    Nicely done Mason, once again.
    AW1

  5. 26Limabeans says:

    “after 24 years of faithful service”

    people did not live very long lives back then.

    “Soldiers who had served for 48 years would receive a second Medal of the Two Swords”

    people did not live very long lives back then.

    “One man, Jean Thurel, received three (i.e. exceeded 72 years in the Army)”

    OK I give up. People lived long lives back then.

  6. OWB says:

    Incredible. Maybe we should consider naming some great ship after this man?

  7. Jay says:

    Seventy…two….YEARS….as a GRUNT PRIVATE. We may give the French shit NOW but WOW, that is a MAN.

    Hand salute Fusilier Theurel. You had a life very well lived. I bet you could tell some stories!

    “You may think THIS is bad, but you should’ve been at the Siege of Kehl!!”

    “Uh…I wasn’t alive yet. My GRANDFATHER was a baby at that time!”

  8. Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH B Woodman says:

    Obviously, no “up-or-out” policy at that time.
    Good for him. A soldier’s soldier.

  9. Mike B USAF Retired says:

    And to think that so many military personnel are quick to punch at the 20 year mark, saying I’ve done my duty.

    72 years that was one hell of a journey….Think about it for a minute….How much warfare evolved during his service.

    I’d be scared of this man if he was a Drill “Private”.

  10. SgtBob says:

    To compare Thurel to a fictitious idiot savant is very insulting to the French soldier. Other than that, a good post.

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