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The Oldest Soldier

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

At the age of 100, those of us still alive are likely to be sitting in a rocking chair with a blanket over our knees. Not so Jean Thurel. As he reached the century mark, he was still soldiering.

How could a simple infantry soldier afford such a magnificent portrait? Read on to find out.

How could a simple infantry soldier afford such a magnificent portrait? Read on to find out.

A Soldier for Life

Born in 1698 in Orain in east-central France, Jean Thurel was destined to live in three different centuries. He was also destined to perform almost 90 years of military service after signing up at the age of 18.

He joined the Regiment de Touraine and remained with that unit for his entire military career, never rising above the rank of grunt infantryman. He was still serving in the ranks in 1804 at the age of 106.

To be a soldier in the 18th century was to pick an occupation very much in demand as royal houses throughout Europe launched attacks on each other.

A Man of Many Wars

During his long life, Thurel took part in four wars:

  • The War of Polish Succession raged from 1733 to 1735. Poland was only peripherally involved in this conflict, which was more about monarchs of various countries trying to expand the territory they ruled. It was mainly a struggle between the Bourbon dynasty of France and the Hapsburgs of Austria.
  • The War of the Austrian Succession was fought from 1740 to 1748 and once more involved the Hapsburgs and Bourbons. Battles were fought in many European locations as the two royal houses struggled for supremacy.
  • The Seven Years' War (1756–1763) saw a new player enter the contest for global supremacy. Britain and France were the main combatants in a conflict fought in Europe, the Caribbean, and Canada, but players such as Prussia and Spain were happy to join in the fray in hopes of picking up some morsels of territory.
  • The American Revolutionary War of 1775 to 1783 was fought to sever the English monarch's rule over the American colonies. France became involved in support of the American patriots because the French have always hated the English, a sentiment returned with interest by Britain. Thurel crossed the Atlantic and, at the age of 83, arrived in time to take part in the Yorktown campaign, the last major battle of the war.
  • Foot soldier Jean Thurel was involved in all these conflicts but missed out on many others including the War of Jenkins' Ear that was fought mainly in the West Indies. This dust-up started in 1739 when members of the Spanish coastguard lopped off the ear of Robert Jenkins, the captain of a British merchant vessel.

Glorious Thing War

Battle of Minden

Already 61 years old, Jean Thurel took part in the Battle of Minden, the decisive action of the Seven Years War. Thurel was just one of almost 100,000 men engaged in the fight. As an infantryman, he was equipped with a musket that had a bayonet attached; it took 20 to 30 seconds to reload the weapon.

The infantry was backed up by cavalry armed with lances and swords. Before the two sides closed on one another cannon were fired into the ranks of troops to cut down numbers.

Despite having a numerical advantage, France and its allies lost the battle. Jean Thurel suffered numerous sabre wounds but survived. He had those wounds to go with the one in his chest when he stopped a musket ball at the Siege of Kehl in 1733.

Otherwise, Thurel emerged from his long army career unscathed. Unlike the almost 10,000 men who were either killed, wounded, or missing at the Battle of Minden.

Depiction of the Battle of Minden.

Depiction of the Battle of Minden.

A Modest Soldier

Throughout his career Thurel was offered promotion several times and on each occasion he turned it down. He was a man who was happy with his lowly station in the ranks.

He wanted no accommodations because of his advancing years. When, in 1787, his regiment was sent on a long march, Thurel was offered a ride in a coach. Just shy of his 90th birthday he said “No thank you. I'll march with my comrades.”

His modesty extended to decorations. In 1787, he stood before King Louis XVI at the magnificent Palace of Versailles. He was there to be honored for his service. The king offered him a choice of decorations. He could have the Ordre Royal et Militaire de Saint-Louis, a medal never before given to a lowly infantryman, or, if he preferred, the Médallion des Deux Épées could be his.

The Médallion was a long-service award handed to those who had spent at least 24 years in the military and Thurel already had two of those. He declined the more prestigious Ordre Royal et Militaire de Saint-Louis and opted for a third Médallion des Deux Épées.

The French monarchy was swept away in 1792, and Thurel found himself once more standing before his country's leader to receive a decoration. In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte awarded him Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur; at 106, the man was still on active service.

Perhaps, Jean Thurel's most cherished honour was one that came from the officers of his regiment. In 1787, they took a collection and raised enough money to hire Antoine Vestier to paint his portrait. It is that portrait that is at the top of this article.

Jean Thurel's extraordinary life came to an end, after a brief illness, in 1807. He was 108.

The Médallion des Deux Épées (Medallion of the Two Swords) that was conferred on Jean Thurel three times.

The Médallion des Deux Épées (Medallion of the Two Swords) that was conferred on Jean Thurel three times.

Bonus Factoids

  • Military service ran in Jean Thurel's family. He had three brothers in the French army. They were all killed in the Battle of Fontenoy in 1874. He also had a son who was promoted to corporal and, for a time, served in the same regiment as his father, perhaps giving the older man orders.
  • William Hiseland was a British soldier who fought in the Battle of Malplaquet in France at what is believed to have been the age of 89. There's some doubt about his date of birth, which is said to have been in August 1620. He claimed to have fought in the English Civil War from 1642 to 1651, and to have been its last surviving combatant. He is said to have married at the age of 103 and to have died in 1732 at the age of 112.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor