Albert Severin Roche tried to join the French Army well before World War I engulfed continental Europe. The army rejected him for being both too scrawny and too short. The French military believed that someone of his stature just couldn’t serve effectively in combat. They were wrong, very wrong.
Eventually, this pint-sized powerhouse would find his way into the army, rescue fellow soldiers, capture hundreds of enemy troops, and even escape from captivity after killing his interrogator. When French Marshal Ferdinand Foch learned about Roche’s daring after the war, he declared Roche “The First Soldier of France.”
Although Roche’s father was thrilled his son was rejected by the Army and soon had Roche working in the fields once more, Roche himself was less than thrilled. He did not want to be a farmer for the rest of his life. When World War I broke out in Europe and France was once again at war, Roche ran away from the family farm, determined to try again.
This time, he reported to another training camp in another French district. With France looking at a swift advance of enemy troops marching through the Low Countries, the army knew the Germans would soon be in France and more men would be needed to repel them. Roche was accepted and sent to the 30th Battalion of Chasseurs, a light infantry unit.
It turns out the Army was right to have reservations about his stature. His training didn’t go the way the Army expected. His fellow soldiers displayed outright contempt for the man of his stature. Roche responded with equal aggression. He lost his temper and even got into fights with the other soldiers. He also questioned the orders of his superiors, an intolerable offense.
After one disagreement about his insubordination, Roche walked away from the encampment walking toward the front line. He was caught and arrested by military policemen and charged with desertion. Roche argued that he was doing anything but deserting – he was sick of marching and was instead going to the actual war.
Instead of punishing the soldier, the French Army sent him to the Western Front. It was 1915 and Roche was assigned to the 27th Battalion of Chasseurs Alpins near Aisne. The Germans held the high ground from a cabin that could spray machine gun fire on any approach. Roche’s first action against the enemy would happen here.
On a cold night, Roche infiltrated the German position and found the enemy warming themselves by the fire, so he tossed grenades down the chimney. When the smoke cleared, the surviving Germans surrendered and Roche took them prisoner. Later, his entire unit was wiped out in an artillery barrage. He collected their guns and when the Germans attacked, he used all of them to fight off the assault single-handedly.
Roche was later sent on a reconnaissance patrol, one of the most dangerous missions in the mountains. Despite his bravery and skill, this patrol was ambushed and all were killed except for Roche and his lieutenant. Both were captured and sent to a bunker for interrogation.
A while later, Roche emerged with one of his interrogators dead, a pistol in his hand, and the other interrogator hostage. With this leverage, he forced 42 enemy troops to surrender and marched them back to the French lines, carrying his wounded officer the whole way.
Roche would serve on the front lines throughout the entire war, rescuing comrades, fighting off German assaults, and taking more than 1,100 prisoners. He was wounded nine times, never rising in rank. He would receive the Medaille Militaire, the Croix du Combatant Volontaire, the Croix de Guerre, and the Légion d`honneur. He died in a bus accident in 1939, a tragic end for one of France’s most celebrated soldiers.