/ 12 March 2008

France’s last World War I veteran dies at 110

France’s last surviving veteran of World War I, an Italian immigrant who fought in the trenches with the Foreign Legion, has died at the age of 110, the president’s office said on Wednesday.

Lazare Ponticelli, who joined his adopted country’s army as a 16-year-old at the outbreak of the war with Germany in 1914, had attended a memorial ceremony as recently as November 2007.

Following the death of 110-year-old Louis de Cazenave in January, Ponticelli was the last of the ”poilus” (”hairy ones”), the nickname given to the unshaven troops who embodied French defiance in one of the bloodiest wars in the country’s history.

Ponticelli, who described war as ”idiotic”, had initially refused an offer of a state funeral made by former president Jacques Chirac, considering it would be an insult to the men who had died without commemoration.

He relented after Cazenave’s death, saying he would accept a simple ceremony ”in homage to my comrades”.

His death severs the last living link with a conflict whose traces can still be seen in war memorials in nearly every town and village in France.

In a war fought largely on their home soil, 8,4-million French soldiers served and 1,3-million were killed in battles that transformed familiar place names such as Verdun and the Chemin des Dames into bywords for horror and suffering.

Ninety years later, the Great War ”poilu” in his sky-blue uniform still occupies a special place in the French imagination and Ponticelli’s death is expected to be marked by wide media coverage and tributes from political leaders.

Ponticelli was born into a poor family on December 7 1897, in the northern Italian town of Bettola, and came to France as a nine-year-old, walking part of the way to save money.

He worked as a chimney sweep and newspaper boy before enlisting in the Foreign Legion when war broke out, saying later that it was ”a way of thanking” the country that had fed him.

He served at Soissons in Picardy, the Argonne region of north-east France and at Douaumont, near Verdun, on one occasion rescuing a wounded German and a wounded French soldier caught between the front lines.

”I was in all sorts of danger, during the war and at other times as well. We were all going to die,” he told reporters at an Armistice Day ceremony in 2007.

With Italy’s entry into the war in 1915, Ponticelli was conscripted into the Italian Army and fought against the Austrians in the Tyrol, where he was wounded in the face.

He made his way back to France after the war and, with two brothers, founded Ponticelli Freres, a successful engineering firm that still employs 2 000 people.

Ponticelli took French citizenship in 1939, settling in the working-class Paris suburb of Kremlin Bicetre, where he attended November 11 Armistice Day ceremonies regularly. — Reuters