Faux Pas

How General Patton’s Latrine Became a National Hero

How General George Patton’s latrine became a French national hero

Many monuments have been inspired by the horrors of war. None is more significant than the graves of soldiers who were killed in combat. Battlefield burial sites stand as sober reminders of those who have been left on the field of combat.

And then there is the site that honors something else that got left behind.

In his unfinished memoir, War As I Knew It, General George S. Patton recalled his time in France during World War I. He was in the French village of Bourg in 1917, preparing to develop the Army Tank School. When the mayor learned that Patton was in town, he sought him out. Patton said the man was obviously distraught and “weeping copiously.” The cause for his distress was that he had just learned that an American soldier had been killed.

Patton wrote, “Being unaware of this sad fact, and not liking to admit it to a stranger, I stalled until I found out that no one was dead. However, he insisted that we visit the ‘grave,’ so we went together and found a newly closed latrine pit with the earth properly banked and a stick at one end to which was affixed crosswise a sign saying, ‘Abandoned Rear.’ This the French had taken for a cross.”

The site was, quite simply, an old latrine. After vacating that site, soldiers filled in the sewage pit with dirt and marked the location so no one would accidentally dig in that location. The message “Abandoned Rear” was lost in translation, however. The residents of Bourg, thinking it was the gravesite of a fallen soldier, were intent upon showing proper respect and honor by maintaining the “grave.”

Now fast-forward 27 years. It is 1944, and Patton is back in France for World War II. He found himself back in Bourg, where he was welcomed with a triumphal procession of the residents, all armed with pitchforks, scythes, and rakes. Dignitaries from the community escorted the general on a quick tour of all the places that had been so familiar to him during the last war.

He wrote, “[W]e proceeded to rediscover my old haunts, including my office, and my billet in the chateau of Madame de Vaux. The grave of that national hero, ‘Abandoned Rear,’ was still maintained by the natives.”

Patton confessed, “I never told them the truth.”

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