Last French World War I veteran dies at 110
The last French veteran of World War I, an Italian immigrant who lied about his age to join the Foreign Legion and fight in the trenches, died Wednesday aged 110.
PARIS, March 14, 2008 - The last French veteran of World War I, an
Italian immigrant who lied about his age to join the Foreign Legion and fight
in the trenches, died Wednesday aged 110, President Nicolas Sarkozy said.
Lazare Ponticelli, the last of more than eight million men who fought under
French colours in the 1914-18 war that tore Europe apart, died at the home he
shared with his daughter in Kremlin-Bicetre, a Paris suburb.
Reflecting on his wartime experiences, he once said: "You shoot at men who
are fathers: war is completely stupid."
President Sarkozy led tributes to the last "poilu," the affectionate
nickname meaning hairy or tough given to French foot soldiers since Napoleonic
"Today, I express the nation's deep emotion and infinite sadness," he said
in a statement.
"I salute the Italian boy who came to Paris to earn his living and chose to
become French, first in August 1914, when he lied about his age to sign up at
16 for the Foreign Legion to defend his adopted homeland. Then a second time
in 1921, when he decided to remain here for good," Sarkozy said.
Ponticelli's death came less than two months after that of the penultimate
French survivor of the 1914-18 war, Louis de Cazenave, who was also 110 years old.
Germany's last veteran from World War I also died in January this year.
Now there are just nine living veterans worldwide of the conflict which
France, Britain, Russia and later the United States, eventually won against
Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Turkish-led Ottoman Empire.
The bulk of the fighting, which left around 10 million dead, was done in
northern France and was characterised by horrific trench warfare
Ponticelli, who kept his many war medals in a shoe box, had long insisted
that he did not want his death to be marked by a national day of mourning.
But he recently relented after government pressure, saying he would accept
the honour "in the name of those who died."
A mass, to be attended by "the highest state authorities," will be held in
his honour at Les Invalides, the historic Paris military hospice that also
houses the tomb of Napoleon, at a date as yet to be decided, said officials,
who did not state the cause of his death.
Ponticelli was born on December 7, 1897, near the northern Italian village
of Bettola. Poverty drove him to leave home, alone, at the age of nine to seek
a new life in France, the neighbouring land he considered to be "paradise."
He worked in Paris as a paperboy and chimney sweep before signing up for
the French Foreign Legion in the autumn of 1914. By December he was at the
front line in the northeastern forest of Argonne.
"At the first attack.... we were immediately decimated because we didn't
have trenches. The Germans did, but we didn't," he said of his first taste of
But he did get to spend a few months in the trenches before political
events changed the course of his army career.
In May 1915, after Italy had joined the war on the French side, he was sent
to the Alps to fight alongside his compatriots against the Austrians. He spent
the rest of the war there, managing to survive and suffering no more than a
minor cheek wound.
He returned to France after the war and in 1921, along with two of his
brothers, set up a company that built and maintained factory chimneys. That
company, called Ponticelli Brothers, continues today and now counts 4,000
Ponticelli, who gave many talks about the war in schools, took French
nationality in 1939.