As the world descended into the chaos of World War I, one man’s bravery and unwavering dedication stood out. Albert Severin Roche, known as the “First Soldier of France,” served with exceptional valor and resilience during the tumultuous years of the conflict. Delve into the extraordinary life of this unsung hero and how he almost found himself executed following a brave action.
Albert Severin Roche’s entry into the French Army
Albert Roche was born into a family of farmers on March 5, 1895 in Réauville, France. Little is known about his life up until he attempted to enlist in the French Army in 1913, at 18 years old. Standing at only five feet, two inches tall, the assessment board rejected him, and he was sent back to work on the family farm.
This dismissal didn’t put Roche off trying again, and, in August 1914, he ran away from home to report at the Allan training camp. Unlike the first time, the board accepted him into the Army and assigned him to the 30th Battalion of Chasseurs.
Just because he had an assignment didn’t mean his training went well. Roche was very poorly regarded amongst his peers and superior officers, which prompted him to run away, yet again. He was immediately found and arrested as a deserter, a claim he vehemently denied, saying, “Bad soldiers are sent up there, but I want to go where we fight.”
Becoming a one-man army in Aisne
Albert Roche’s punishment was being sent to the frontlines on July 3, 1915 with the 27th Battalion of Chasseurs Alpins, exactly what he’d wanted in the first place. It was there that he started making a name for himself as a one-man army.
Roche’s first notable engagement was when he neutralized a German blockhouse by sneaking along the enemy trench and throwing grenades down the chimney, where soldiers sat huddled around a stove. Many of them were killed, and the remainder surrendered to the Frenchman, assuming a larger force surrounded them. He returned with eight prisoners and their captured machine guns.
Later, when he was moved to Alsace, Roche forced an attacking group of Germans to retreat by convincing them the French garrison held strong, when, in reality, all of the men were dead, except himself.
Undertaking an incredible rescue mission
Albert Roche had many successes in battle, but there were also moments where he barely escaped. While on a reconnaissance mission, his lieutenant was wounded and the pair were captured. Somehow, Roche killed his interrogator for his weapon and escaped. Not only did he march back to the French lines carrying his wounded superior on his back, he was also shepherding 42 German prisoners.
However, the closest call Roche had came from the French. While fighting at Chemin des Dames, he saw his captain fall. Braving heavy fire, he crawled between the lines for six hours to reach him, after which it took him another four before his superior was safely passed off to medics.
Satisfied with the rescue and exhausted, Roche fell asleep, only to be awoken by a comrade on patrol. Assuming he’d fallen asleep on-duty, he was arrested on what was, at the time, an execution-able offense. There was no one to back up his story, as his captain had fallen into a coma, so his assertions weren’t believed.
Roche accepted his fate, but maintained his innocence, writing to his father, “In an hour I shall be shot, but I assure you that I am innocent.” He was found to be guilty and brought to the firing squad. Only moments before his death, a messenger arrived with notice that the captain had awoken and spoke about what Roche did, saving his life.
Albert Severin Roche and the end of World War I
By the end of World War I, Albert Roche had earned no rank, remaining a second-class soldier. That being said, he’d amassed an impressive record. At only 23 years old, he’d taken 1,180 prisoners and was wounded nine times.
Nonetheless, Roche’s exemplary service didn’t go unnoticed. He appeared before Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Ferdinand Foch, in front of a massive crowd on November 27, 1918. The Frenchman was presented as their “liberator Albert Roche. He is the first soldier of France!”