Jean Thurel: the oldest soldier in history?
In a life spanning three centuries, Jean Thurel fought in numerous wars, survived serious injury and served under no less than three kings and an emperor
The year was 1787, and a veteran soldier made his way to the gleaming opulence of the Palace of Versailles. Less than five years before a wave of republicanism washed the monarchy from power and turned France upside down, Louis XVI performed an unusual act.
As the ageing infantryman stood before him, ready to be decorated for his service to the country, the king gave him the choice of which medal he would receive. He could choose the Médallion des Deux Épées, an honour bestowed on veterans with 24 years of regimental loyalty under their belt. Or he could opt for the Ordre Royal et Militaire de Saint-Louis, never before awarded to a soldier from the enlisted ranks.
However modest the man, the fact that he plumped for the former, the first medal to honour ordinary French soldiers, was nonetheless surprising. The decision was even more of an eye-opener as its recipient, Jean Thurel, was already in possession of two other Médallions des Deux Épées. Each had been awarded after a requisite period of 24 years of service, and here Thurel was now, receiving a third. To any unfamiliar onlooker, there would have seemed to be only one possible explanation, however ludicrous. Surely this man hadn’t been serving France’s armed forces for almost 72 years? But he had.
Jean Thurel's life as a soldier
Jean Thurel was destined for a life as a soldier. At 18, he signed up with the Regiment de Touraine, based in the central French region of the same name. And it was with the very same regiment that Thurel would serve – as a common-or-garden journeyman soldier – until way beyond his investiture at Versailles. As Louis XVI pinned the honour to Thurel’s tunic (rather sweetly referring to him as “père”, or father), the older man was a mere 88 years of age. By the time Napoleon Bonaparte presented him with the Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur in 1804, Thurel, still actively serving, was a scarcely believable 106.
That a military life was Thurel’s calling was indisputable. Not even the deaths of three of his brothers at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1874 could shift him from a devotion to duty. It was in his DNA. It was the family business. (Indeed, at one point he served in the same company as his son, who leapfrogged him to assume the rank of corporal.)
Throughout the conflict-heavy 18th century, Thurel Sr saw action at a number of key battles, including the War of the Polish Succession between 1733 and 1738, the War of the Austrian Succession (which broke out a couple of years later) and the Seven Years’ War of 1756–63. In 1781, aged 83, Thurel travelled across the Atlantic to line up and fight at Yorktown, a crucial skirmish in the American Revolutionary War. This was a soldier not shirking the frontline or lurking in the shadows.
Thurel’s longevity wasn’t the result of having risen to become officer material, so keeping away from the heat of battle. Throughout those 90-odd years in uniform, he remained happy as an infantryman. Not that, with his rich experience, he wasn’t offered promotions. But life among the ordinary men on the battlefield was infinitely more attractive than among the chattering officer class.
And, naturally, avoiding death for so long, and throughout so many battles, requires a generous dose of Lady Luck. Thurel was nearly a goner on a couple of occasions. During the Siege of Kehl in 1733, he took the full force of a musket ball in the chest. Twenty-six years later, at the Battle of Minden in Prussia in 1759, he was slashed multiple times across his face with a sabre.
The 90-year-old soldier
Instead of succumbing to infirmity, Thurel stayed fit and defiant of letting the years catch up with him. In 1787, with his regiment ordered to march to the coast, he was offered a seat on a coach making the same journey. He might have been approaching his 90th birthday, yet he politely declined the offer, instead electing to cover the route on foot with his comrades.
Elsewhere in 1787 – the same year Louis XVI paid his respects to the veteran infantryman via the Médallion des Deux Épées – Thurel was to be the recipient of a further accolade, one that possibly thrilled him more than all those medals. The officers of his regiment were keen to salute an extraordinary life and clubbed together to pay for a formal portrait of Thurel, to be painted by Antoine Vestier, portraitist to the highest folk in the land. The resultant painting elevates this humble soldier to the stature of a general or an admiral – the only indication of his low ranking are the three bright-red Médallion des Deux Épées pinned to his chest (the portrait was later modified in 1804 to include the Légion d’Honneur).
Jean Thurel finally died in 1807, following a short illness. He was 108. After nine full decades as a soldier, he remained a private throughout, never dropping off the regiment’s active duty list. His life spanned three separate centuries, during which time France had witnessed monarchies being overthrown, revolutions exploding, and emperors anointing themselves. But, whatever the regime, the beauty of Jean Thurel, and the nub of his tremendously exciting life, was his unstinting loyalty to his country and its people. After all, he was one of them.
This article first appeared in the September 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed