Sarkozy leads tribute to France's last World War I veteran
President led a national ceremony in Paris on Monday in honour of the last French veteran of World War I, Lazare Ponticelli, who died last week aged 110.
PARIS, March 18, 2008 - President Nicolas Sarkozy led a national ceremony in Paris on Monday in honour of the last French veteran of World War I, Lazare Ponticelli, who died last week aged 110.
Italian-born Ponticelli, the last of more than eight million men who fought
under French colours in the 1914-18 war that tore Europe apart, died on
Wednesday at his home in a Paris suburb.
Resting on the shoulders of 11 Foreign Legionnaires, draped in the colour
of the French flag, his coffin was carried at 11:00 am into a church at the
Invalides, the historic military hospice that houses the tomb of Napoleon.
State officials across France held a minute of silence, and flags flew at
half mast on public buildings for the ceremony led by Sarkozy and his
predecessor Jacques Chirac, Prime Minister Francois Fillon and Italian Defence
Minister Arturo Parisi.
"Far more than the last survivor on our soil of the great army that fought
in World War I, he makes us proud, for his whole life, to be his brother," the
historian Max Gallo said in a tribute to Ponticelli.
"Lazare Ponticelli, man of peace, modest and heroic, good and fraternal,
Italian by birth, French by choice, and living among us. His presence here is
an honour for the Invalides monument, at the heart of our nation's history."
The president laid a wreath in honour of the war's 8.5 million "poilus,"
the affectionate nickname meaning hairy or tough that had been given to French
foot soldiers since Napoleonic times but became associated with World War I.
France lost 1.4 million troops in the conflict, most in the trenches of
Ponticelli's coffin was later carried from the Invalides, to be buried in
the family vault in a cemetery in Ivry-sur-Seine, a Paris suburb.
An Italian immigrant who lied about his age to join the French Foreign
Legion and fight in the trenches at 16, Ponticelli died less than two months
after the penultimate French survivor of the war, Louis de Cazenave.
Germany's last veteran from World War I also died in January this year.
There are now 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.
Much of the fighting, which left around 10 million dead, happened in
northern France and was characterised by horrific trench warfare.
Ponticelli, who kept his many war medals in a shoe box, had long insisted
he did not want his death to be marked by a national event.
But he recently relented after government pressure, saying he would accept
the honour "in the name of those who died."
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.
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 eastern Argonne forest.
In May 1915, after Italy had joined the war on the side of France and its
allies, he was sent to the Alps to fight alongside his compatriots against the
Austrians. He spent the rest of the war there.
He returned to France after the war and in 1921, along with two of his
brothers, set up a piping company.
Ponticelli, who gave many talks about the war in schools, took French
nationality in 1939.