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France honours last Great War veteran


Latest update : 2009-11-11

France paid tribute to its last World War I veteran Lazare Ponticelli in a special funeral on Monday. President Nicolas Sarkozy led the ceremony, accompanied by his predecessor Jacques Chirac. (Report: G.Cragg)

- 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, 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 as the ceremony began, led by Sarkozy, Prime Minister Francois Fillon and Italian Defence Minister Arturo Parisi.
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.
Ponticelli was to be buried after the ceremony 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 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."
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 regarded as a "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. 

Date created : 2008-03-17