French Soldier Sought Athletic Stardom, Not the Title He Earned in World War I

French soccer and track star Jean-Marie Caujolle must have loved grabbing headlines on the sports pages. But in 1914, his country’s press awarded him a title he did not want: “the first invalid of the Great War.” At 25 years old, Caujolle lost both legs to German artillery fire.

The double amputee soldier became a media sensation in the then-neutral United States, too. “When Caujolle recovered consciousness and learned the extent of his wounds, he dictated a letter to his superior officer, asking that he be sent back to the front as a typist,” the Ogden Standard in Ogden, Utah, reported on Jan. 9, 1915. According to the Ogden Standard, Caujolle was considered “by several English critics to be the finest football [soccer player] back in Europe.”

Several other stateside papers published the same dispatch.

Return to war

Born in Saint-Girons in 1889, Caujolle was a cabinetmaker in Nimes before he joined the French army in 1910, according to La Dépêche, a French publishing group based in Toulouse. He was assigned to the 9th Regiment of Colonial Infantry and served in French Indo-China.

Jean-Marie Caujolle is believed to be the first French soldier to undergo double amputation due to wounds from World War I. This photo of Caujolle is dated May 1915.
Jean-Marie Caujolle is believed to be the first French soldier to undergo double amputation due to wounds from World War I. This photo of Caujolle is dated May 1915.

Image: Public domain, held by British Library and Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

After his enlistment expired, Caujolle returned to France, arriving on Aug. 1, 1914, 3 days before Germany invaded Belgium, plunging Europe into World War I.

No sooner did Caujolle step onto French soil than he hurried to the nearest recruiting office and re-enlisted, according to the Wilmington, N.C., Dispatch of April 16, 1915. France badly needed soldiers.

The Germans intended to drive through Belgium en route to France and quickly defeat the French and their British allies. That accomplished, they planned to turn east and quickly conquer imperial Russia, which was allied with Britain and France. “Paris for lunch, dinner in St. Petersburg,” the Germans were commonly cited as saying.

The German drive stalled on the Marne River, near Paris, in September. Afterwards, neither side could gain the advantage and the fighting on the Western Front deteriorated into bloody trench warfare that lasted until mid-1918.

Repeated heroism

Caujolle suffered his near fatal wound in battle on Sept. 24, 1914. The exploding shell shattered the bones in both of his legs, necessitating amputation.

Caujolle was already a war hero. He earned the Military Medal, France’s third-highest decoration for bravery in battle, after he led a charge against the Germans in earlier fighting.

When his residual limbs sufficiently healed, he was fitted with wooden legs. His prostheses resembled spindly table legs and he had to use canes to steady himself. Caujolle recuperated in Les Invalides, the retirement home for soldiers in Paris founded by King Louis XVI.

“Cited in the orders of the day for his work in the field he was again cited for his bearing in the hospital wards and he goes into the soldier’s home still nothing but a private soldier but wearing on his breast a military medal coveted by every general who has not yet won it,” the Dispatch reported.

Caujolle also won the French Croix de Guerre — Cross of War — and was honored with a civilian Legion of Honor award.

World War I ended in Allied victory in 1918. Caujolle ultimately left Les Invalides and died in the hamlet of Lauch in 1928, according to La Dépêche.

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