One fence deprived William Fox-Pitt of the individual world eventing title as Britain took team silver at the World Equestrian Games in Normandy.
GB's world number one Fox-Pitt and Chilli Morning had the second fence down to hand individual victory to German Sandra Auffarth and Opgun Louvo.
Germany reclaimed the team title, won by Britain in 2010, with impeccable jumping to preserve an overnight lead.
"I'm happy to have clung on to a medal," Fox-Pitt told BBC Sport.
"Chilli Morning had a fence down, which is a little bit frustrating, but he could have had two - he was leg-weary.
"I'd love to have won gold but I'm more relieved that I got bronze, than frustrated."
Fox-Pitt, 45, remains without an individual major championship title, having taken silver at the 2010 World Equestrian Games aboard Cool Mountain and twice finished second at the European Championships.
The team silver ensured Britain have secured their qualification for the Rio 2016 Olympics alongside Germany, bronze medallists the Netherlands and France, Australia and Ireland, who completed the top six.
Defending world champion Michael Jung, forced to ride back-up horse Fischerrocana FST through injury to star ride La Biosthetique Sam FBW, finished second behind compatriot Auffarth.
Zara Phillips and High Kingdom, the first British combination into Caen's D'Ornano Stadium for Sunday's showjumping finale, delivered an impressive clear round which saw the 2006 world champion take 11th place.
However, two fences down for Tina Cook and De Novo News - who placed 16th - eased the pressure on Germany, after Ingrid Klimke had gone clear with showjumping specialist FRH Escada JS.
Jung and Auffarth produced back-to-back clear rounds to put team gold beyond Britain and demand a clear round from Fox-Pitt to have any hope of individual victory.
"We're catching them," insisted Phillips - part of Britain's Olympic silver medal-winning team in 2012 - when asked if champions Germany could be overhauled at Rio 2016.
With the team medals settled, Chilli Morning - a stallion in only his second showjumping outing at an event of this standard - clipped the second fence to maintain Fox-Pitt's status as the nearly man at major championships.
"He's a very good horse and he knows his job, and he certainly tried his best," said Fox-Pitt.
"Yesterday was a long cross-country track on soft ground and definitely, today, you could feel he was looking forward to his holiday."
Nicola Wilson and Annie Clover, the other remaining British combination (riding as individuals and not counted towards the team score) had four fences down, plus a stop at the last, to finish 25th.