It’s been just a few weeks since Claude Choules, the last combatant of World War I, died at age 110 in Perth, Australia.
In all, some 70 million military personnel were involved in the First World War, 10 million of whom died.
While much of the world rightfully took notice of Choules passing on May 5, marking the end of an era, one also is struck by the vagaries of fate which enabled individuals such as Choules, who enlisted at age 15 and lived nearly a century after the outbreak of the conflict, and others such South Carolinian Theodore Dubose Ravenel Jr., who was likely killed less than 24 hours before hostilities ceased on Nov. 11, 1918.
Ravenel came from Stateburg, the Sumter County community made famous by Gen. Thomas Sumter. Hailing from a well-known family, Ravenel was known throughout the state, according to a newspaper article written about him by The State following his death, and he was acknowledged as Sumter County’s first volunteer following President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of War in 1917.
Commissioned as a lieutenant, he was stationed at what was then Camp Jackson before being sent overseas as a member of the 316th machine gun battalion of the American Expeditionary Force.
News accounts of Ravenel’s death describe him as a “brave soldier and was highly esteemed by a wide circle of friends.” He was promoted to captain during his service on the Western Front.
An indication of his bravery may be the fact that he was killed on Nov. 10, 1918, the final full day of the war. Rumors were rampant by this point that an armistice was imminent and many soldiers were understandably content to essentially sit back and keep out of harm’s way.
Ravenel was killed in action near Verdun, France. Verdun, of course, had gained fame a couple of years earlier as one of the longest and most devastating battles of not just World War I, but in the history of warfare.
The protracted struggle resulted in more than 300,000 battlefield deaths (163,000 French and 143,000 German), plus at least 500,000 wounded, an average of 1,000 death a day for each of the ten months of the battle.
Few today realized that two years after the Battle of Verdun ended men were still dying in the area along the Meuse River.
It’s unclear from the limited sources available today, more than 90 years after Ravenel’s death, how he died. It does appear that it was many weeks before his family was notified.
One can only imagine the shock and grief his wife and the rest of his family felt at receiving the news, after having just celebrated the end of the horrific four-year conflict, likely overjoyed at the mistaken belief that Ravenel had survived.
Ravenel’s body wasn’t returned to the US for nearly three years, when he interred in the family burial plot at Stateburg’s Church of the Holy Cross in August 1921.
Ravenel and many of his compatriots have been at rest for more than 90 years; we would do well to keep in mind their sacrifice on this Memorial Day – and every day we enjoy the freedoms they were willing to give their lives for – despite the many years that have passed.
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