On this date in 1716 Jean Thurel, or Jean Theurel (6 September 1698 – 10 March 1807) enlisted as a fusilier in the French Army (Touraine Regiment) at the age of 18. He remained on active duty for 75 years, refusing all promotions, and died at the age of 108, still registered as a soldier in the army. Technically, therefore, he was a soldier for 90 years. Longtime readers of this blog know that I am averse to writing about war and soldiery, but I’ll make an exception for Thurel because of his extraordinary life. He was born in the reign of Louis XIV and died when Napoleon I was emperor; Thurel lived in three different centuries, experiencing extraordinary changes in France and Europe.
Thurel was born in Orain, Burgundy in 1698. As a soldier Thurel was severely wounded in battle on two occasions. In 1733, during the siege of Kehl, he was shot in the chest with a musket, and at the battle of Minden in 1759, he received seven sword slashes, including six to the head. Three of his brothers were killed in the battle of Fontenoy in 1745. One of Thurel’s sons was a corporal and a veteran in the same company. He died at the Battle of the Saintes, a naval battle that was fought off the coast of Dominica, West Indies during the American Revolutionary War, on 12 April 1782. Thurel was a survivor!
Thurel was a notably well-disciplined infantry soldier of the line infantry and was admonished only once during his entire career. During the 1747 Siege of Bergen as the French troops occupied the citadel he was disciplined because, the doors of the fortress were locked, so he had to scale its walls to get in so that he would not miss muster. Another example of Thurel’s discipline and physical fitness occurred in 1787. When his regiment was ordered to march to the coast to embark on ships of the French Navy he was given the opportunity to travel in a carriage due to his advanced age – he was 88 at the time. Thurel refused the offer and marched the entire distance on foot, saying that he had never before traveled by carriage and had no intention of doing so at that time. His humility is evident in his steadfast refusal to accept any promotions. He remained a common fusilier for his entire military career.
In hopes of improving re-enlistment rates, Louis XV established the Médaillon Des Deux Épées (Medal of the Two Swords) by a royal decree in 1771. This was the first military decoration in France for which an enlisted man could be eligible. This medal was initially awarded to soldiers who had served in the French Army, as a reward for their longevity of service. The decree was extended in 1774 so that sailors of the French Navy were also eligible to receive the medal. A soldier or sailor would have to serve for 24 years to be eligible for the Médaillon Des Deux Épées. Thurel was awarded two Médaillon Des Deux Épées in 1771, the year the medal was established, in recognition of the two 24-year periods of time (1716–1740 and 1740–1764) he had served up until then.
On 8 November 1787, Thurel was presented to the royal court at the Palace of Versailles. The 33-year-old king of France, Louis XVI, addressed the 88-year-old Army private in a respectful manner as “père” (“father”), and asked whether Thurel would prefer to be awarded the Ordre Royal et Militaire de Saint-Louis (Royal and Military Order of Saint Louis) or a third Médaillon Des Deux Épées medal, in recognition of the period from 1764–1788. This was a highly unusual request—not only because enlisted men and non-commissioned officers were not normally eligible to receive the Ordre Royal et Militaire de Saint-Louis, which was reserved for commissioned officers of the Army or the Navy—but also because Thurel still had four more months of military service to complete before being eligible for a third Médaillon Des Deux Épées medal. Thurel opted to receive a third Médaillon Des Deux Épées, on the condition that the king himself attach the medal to his uniform. Louis agreed. The Comte d’Artois offered Thurel his sword, and the ladies of the court put a carriage at his disposal during his stay in the Paris area. The king also granted Thurel an annual pension of 300 livres. Very few men ever completed the 48 years of military service required to receive a second medal. Thurel was the only one to have received it three times. In 1788 the officers of his regiment jointly paid for a portrait of Thurel to be painted by Antoine Vestier (lead image).
On 26 October 1804, at the age of 106, Thurel became one of the first recipients of the newly established Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur (Legion of Honor), the highest decoration in France. Napoleon also rewarded him with a pension of 1,200 francs. He was later appointed as the “oldest soldier of Europe.” He remained healthy in body and spirit throughout his remarkably long life. He died in Tours on 10 March 1807, at the age of 108, after a brief illness.
In researching Thurel’s life I came across a brief discussion about his date of birth. Was he actually born in 1699 and not 1698? Apparently a baptismal record was discovered at some point listing 1699 as his date of birth, but some people believe that this is a forgery. I’d file this under “who cares?” I’m sometimes given to wonder about the sanity of people who get all bent out of shape by insisting that he was 107, not 108, when he died. Our whole view of French history is hardly going to crumble because of this. Either way he lived a remarkable life.
Inasmuch as one can know anything about people of past centuries I’d have to say that I’d likely have found Thurel a bit hard to stomach in large doses if I’d ever met him. On the one hand, his dedication to service is admirable. I take my hat off to anyone who devotes his entire life, with energy and passion, to a single pursuit. On the other hand, Thurel reminds me of old men and women that I have met over the years who have an unwavering devotion to a fixed concept of duty that won’t bend under any circumstances. It’s not the devotion itself that I have any quarrel with, it’s the underlying inflexibility of mind that often goes with it that can be a tad annoying.
Given that Thurel was on active duty for 75 years, he would have had one main meal per day throughout the 18th century, as was the custom for rich and poor. That works out to over 27,000 meals. I would imagine that an awful lot of them were the same, and I don’t imagine that Thurel was a gourmet nor used to fine dining. So let’s start with the basics. Standing armies did not develop much in Europe until the 18th century. Before that, militias were raised as needed. With the development of standing armies, budgets and rations had to be codified. They were more or less the same for France and Britain, for navies as well as armies. That is, in theory, each soldier (or sailor) was assigned something like 1 lb salt beef, 1 lb bread, and 1 pint legumes or rice. Whether they actually got this is another matter. Of course, individual circumstances would have varied enormously. Campaigning soldiers could ransack farms and farmhouses for provisions (and did), and when at home were encouraged to raise chickens and livestock, and tend gardens (usually turnips, carrots, and cabbage). What soldiers actually ate routinely would depend on both what was available and the abilities of the camp cooks. My surmise is that Thurel ate a lot of boiled beef and beans with bread. The common habit on campaign was for soldiers to eat in “messes” of 5 to 6 men, that is, the occupants of a single tent. Each mess would build a fire and cook their meals using an issued pot and kettle. The quality of cooking is anyone’s guess. Bread was supplied by local bakers or they ate hard tack.
I’ve covered military (naval) recipes, including salt beef, dried peas, and hard tack, in the past quite fully. You can search for them easily enough. Whilst I can’t imagine that Thurel ate omelets terribly often, he must have had them once in a while. So I’ll stretch things a bit by giving an 18th century omelet recipe from Les Soupers de la Cour, Menon (1755). I gave his recipe for Omelette à la Gendarme (Military Omelette) here https://www.bookofdaystales.com/thomas-paine/ . This name does not imply that the omelet was made for the military, but that it looks like soldiers on guard (sort of). Close enough.
What intrigues me about this new recipe, omelette au jambon (ham omelet), is that it calls for “coulis” with ham as a sauce for the omelet. A coulis (the term used also in English by chefs) is a form of thick sauce made from puréed and strained vegetables or fruits. In this case the recipe specifies that the coulis be very sweet:
Mettez dans des oeufs une petite cuillerée coulis avec du jambon cuit haché; battez & faites l’omelette; dressez sur le plat; servez dessus une sauce faites avec coulis bien doux & jambon haché.
Roughly translated: Put a small spoonful of coulis with chopped ham into some eggs. Beat (the eggs), and make an omelet. Put it on a plate. Serve with a sauce of sweet coulis and chopped ham.
Your only issue is going to be how to make the coulis (I’m assuming you know how to cook an omelet). Well, technically that’s not a problem. Blend some fruit to a fine purée. The question is what fruit to use. First off, I’d say that you need to add some stock to the coulis to give it more character whatever fruit you use. Beef stock would be all right, but ham stock or broth would be better. Still, if you are going to be true to this recipe it needs to be a sweet coulis. That means using a properly sweet, ripe fruit. Pineapple would serve, but would not be very 18th century. Plums would fit the bill better. But it’s your choice.