Foreign Legionnaire is last French survivor of WWI
110 year old is the last man standing in France from World War I and wants nothing to do with the state funeral proposed by former president Jacques Chirac
PARIS, January 21, 2008 - At 110 years old, an Italian-born Foreign
Legionnaire who wants nothing to do with the state funeral proposed by former
president Jacques Chirac is the last man standing in France from World War I.
"The first men to fall in the trenches deserve to be honoured as much as
the last," Lazare Ponticelli said, according to his daughter Janine
Desbaucheron, upon learning of fellow veteran Louis de Cazenave's death on
National mourning for de Cazenave, two months Ponticelli's elder and the
second-last French veteran of the Great War, is clearly heartfelt.
Now the pressure on Ponticelli's family to allow for wider symbolic
significance when the inevitable happens may yet become overwhelming.
Desbaucheron acknowledged as much when she said she wouldn't resist calls
for a state occasion, "although we would impose some restrictions".
"It would have to honour all those men and women who fell," she added.
There is, therefore, much for Ponticelli to reflect upon as he comes to
terms with his new status.
Ponticelli's role has an extra dimension of course: he was born in Italy.
And when France's neighbour turned against its previous allies in Germany and
the Austro-Hungarian bloc of that era, he also fought in Italian colours.
Ponticelli, who had enlisted in the famed French Foreign Legion at 16 in
1914 and was already active in the trenches, was called up by his homeland. He
transferred to an Italian regiment the following year.
Worldwide, there are now less than two dozen verified veterans alive, and
many Italians would surely want to honour Ponticelli too.
With nothing worse than a wound to his cheek, he was demobilised in 1916
and returned to France in 1921, where he has remained ever since, receiving
French nationality in 1939. Today, he lives with his daughter at
Kremlin-Bicetre in the Val-de-Marne area north of Paris.
While Ponticelli and de Cazenave never met, as Desbaucheron pointed out,
the two men instinctively reacted the same way when Chirac produced his
suggestion for a ceremony filled with pomp and circumstance in 1995.
They were the last two of 8.5 million men who fought between 1914 and 1918
under French colours.
With the gratitude of so many, de Cazenave died "peacefully" in the early
hours of Sunday morning at his home in Brioude, in the Haute-Loire region of
France's mountaineous heartland, the Auvergne.
"He died as he wanted to, at home. He just went out like a candle," his
76-year-old son, who bears the same name, told AFP.
His funeral -- at a venue still to be determined -- will be held on
Tuesday, local police said.
Born on October 16, 1897, de Cazenave signed up in 1916 and served with the
fifth Senegalese battalion, seeing active service from December 1916 to
He took part in the Second Battle of the Aisne, the so-called Chemin des
Dames, part of an offensive launched by General Robert Nivelle that ended in
disaster for the French army.
On returning to civilian life in 1919 he became a railwayman. He married
and raised three sons before returning to his native region where he spent his
days with his family, indulging his love of the famed local salmon fishing.
During WWII and the days of the Vichy regime of the WWI national hero
Marshal Henri Philippe Petain, which collaborated with Nazi Germany, de
Cazenave spent several weeks in prison.
De Cazenave received France's highest award, the Legion d'Honneur, in 1995.
Dismissed by the railway company, he settled into early retirement and
family life, remaining true to his roots until the end.
In March, he told local newspaper La Montagne (The Mountain) that he wanted
a simple funeral.
Current French President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke Sunday of his "deep emotion"
at the news of his death, issuing a statement expressing the "nation's
condolences" to his family.
He also paid tribute to the 1.4 million French fighters killed, as well as
the 4.5 million wounded in WWI.