France paid homage on Monday to its last surviving World War I veteran, who died last week at the grand old age of 110.
Lazare Ponticelli’s early life – and in particular his military career - was one that’s without doubt hard for current generations to grasp.
At first sight it appears to read almost like the script for one of those US made-for-telly movies; a struggle against unbelievable odds, action packed and ever-so-slightly incredible with of course a happy ending. But in reality it’s much more than that. It is in fact a true and remarkable story that reflects the times in which Ponticelli grew up and, in its way, the changing face of Europe over the last century.
His beginnings were humble by any standards. Born into a poor family in rural Emiglia Romagna in northern Italy on 7 December 1897, Ponticelli was left with neighbours at the age of two after his father and oldest brother died and the rest of his family joined his mother in Paris, where she had been working to send money home.
He started working at the age of six and had scrimped enough money together to make the train journey to Paris alone when he was just nine, arriving at Gare de Lyon without speaking, reading or writing a word of French.
“The country had welcomed him,” he said in later interviews and gave him a chance to work, first as a chimney sweep and later as a newspaper seller on street corners. He repaid the debt he felt he owed his adopted country by lying about his age and signing up at the age of 16. “It was,” he said. “A chance to defend the country that had offered him a welcome and given him the opportunity to earn a living.” But without papers he couldn’t enlist in the regular arm and instead joined the French Foreign Legion.
Ponticelli’s first stint in the trenches was in northern France and ended when he was wounded and discharged from the Legion in 1915. Still without papers he was sent under police escort to fight in his native Italy and the war, already pretty incomprehensible to someone who had not yet reached the age of majority, started all over again.
He went through the same horrors, witnessing the same meaningless deaths of his fellow soldiers, the same gas attacks until once again he was injured, this time in the head. "This war - we didn't know why were doing what we were doing. We fought against people just like us," he said many years later. “”We shot at them without really knowing why.”
When the Armistice was signed and Ponticelli returned to Paris, he tried to register as a French civilian, but the authorities didn’t want to know. In fact it wasn’t until 1939 that he was finally granted French citizenship.
By that time he had married and started a successful piping and metal work company along with two of his brothers. It’s still going strong today.
As with many of French WWI veterans, Ponticelli preferred for much of his long life not to talk about what he had experienced in the trenches or in battle. It was only many years later years that he agreed to talk to journalists.
He was also a reluctant hero in the true sense. When France's oldest surviving WWI veteran, Louis de Cazenave died in January this year - also aged 110, Ponticelli was adamant that when his turn came he didn't want a state funeral.
And it was only a few weeks ago that he finally agreed to the principle of a national homage “in the name of all the men and women who died in WWI."
That tribute, broadcast live on national television, was held at Les Invalides in Paris on Monday, with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy leading the ceremony to remember Ponticelli, and all the other French who died in the war.
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