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WWI survivors a dwindling band

Published on November 09, 2005

GIEN, France, Nov 9 (AFP) - At the age of 107, Ferdinand Gilson is one of only six surviving French soldiers from the trenches of World War I.

Conscious of his place in history, he is eager to open up the book of his life to anyone who is interested.

Standing upright on the steps of his house in the small village of Choux in the Loire valley region near here, he welcomes a visitor with a smile, then allows himself to be helped into the dining room by his 85-year-old wife Suzanne, where he gathers together family photographs, post cards and other souvenirs.

After surviving the trenches, the gas attacks, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919 and the clandestine risks of a resistance operative in World War II, Gilson finds the modern world “astonishing, dangerous, immoral and lacking respect,” according to Suzanne. “For him, there is something deranged about it.”

Gilson raises his hand and chips in: “I’ll never go to one of those retirement homes,” he says with an outburst of chuckling. “They are full of old people.”

He enjoys doing crosswords in German, which he learned “to stop my mind going rusty,” and casts his mind back over a busy life to March 15, 1918, when he joined the army at the age of 19.

He wrote to his mother every day, certain that “one day the gendarmes would come to announce my death.” He remembered eating only at night so as not to see the worms in the meat.

“The smell was insupportable,” he said, but happily there was wine — two liters for the young, and seven to nine liters for older men.

After the war, Gilson, who has been married for 65 years, set up a small punch and die plant, where he manufactured false identity papers during World War II and hid four American airmen.

After he left the front, it was 10 years before Gilson could bring himself to talk about the war. He remembers it as a series of “colossal mistakes” — men “killed for nothing,” including two of his companions who died almost as soon as they reached the front.

The dean of France’s Great War veterans is Maurice Floquet, 110 years old, who still has a lump of lead in his head and one arm as a legacy of his role in the infantry.

After managing a garage, he retired in 1952 and still leads a normal life, according to his daughter.

Not more than a few dozen around the world are still alive to witness to the conflict.

Armistice day on November 11 is not marked in Germany, and historians are unable to say whether there are any survivors there.

The Veterans Agency in Britain says there are no more than a dozen survivors. The Daily Telegraph said only nine survivors live in Britain, all of them well over 100 years old.

“I saw many of my friends who went to fight never come back. It was tragic,” it quoted Bill Stone, 105, as saying. Stone, who walked at a memorial service at the Cenotaph in London last year behind three comrades in wheelchairs.

Canada counts five veterans, while the Italian ministry of defense listed about 30 at the end of last year.

Russia apparently has no surviving veterans, and there cannot be more than a handful in the countries that made up the Austro-Hungarian empire.

There was one known, 108-year-old survivor in Hungary, while the last survivor of the million Czechs who fought among the empire’s forces died in August 2003 at the age of 107.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news