法新社╱曹宇帆 2008-03-13 22:35
Last French World War I veteran dies at 110
Thursday March 13, 08:02 AM
PARIS (AFP) - 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 times.
"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.
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 that 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."
A mass, to be attended by Sarkozy, will be held Monday as part of the national homage to the "poilu" at Les Invalides, the historic Paris military hospice that also houses the tomb of Napoleon, 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 eastern Argonne forest.
"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 battle.
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 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. That company, called Ponticelli Brothers, continues today and now counts 4,000 employees.
Ponticelli, who gave many talks about the war in schools, took French nationality in 1939. He regularly attended Armistice Day ceremonies to mark the end of World War I, and was at the last one in his hometown last November.
He will be buried Monday after the ceremony at Les Invalides in the family vault in a cemetery in Ivry-sur-Seine, a Paris suburb.
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