The Final French First World War Veteran

Lazare Ponticelli, the last French veteran of the First World War

The obituary this week in The Economist is Lazare Ponticelli, the last French veteran of the First World War. He was born in Italy on 7 December 1897 and enlisted in the French army at the age of 16. He died on 12 March 2008, age 110. The Economist chooses the theme of memory and — strangely more significant — the forgotten for its elegy (“Obituary: Lazare Ponticelli,” 19 March 2008):

Mr. Ponticelli wanted none of that: no procession, no racket, pas de tapage important. He was grateful for his belated Légion d’Honneur, which he kept with his other medals in a shoe-box. But he was keenly aware that he drew such attention only because he was the last.

What had become of the others? The stretcher-bearers in the Argonne, for example, who had told him they didn’t dare leave the trench for fear of German fire. The man he had heard from no-man’s land, caught in the barbed wire and with his leg severed, screaming to be rescued, until Mr. Ponticelli ran out to him with wire-cutters and dragged him back to the lines. The German soldier he tripped over in the dark, already wounded and expecting to be killed, who mutely held up his fingers to show him that he had two children. The comrades who helped him, because he could not read or write, to keep in touch by letter with the milkmaid he had met before the war. Or the four colleagues who held him down when, after the battle of Pal Piccolo, the army surgeon gouged out of his cheek a piece of shrapnel already lodged in gangrene.

With each new round of shelling, he said, they all expected the worst. They would reassure each other by saying, “If I die, you’ll remember me, won’t you?” Mr. Ponticelli felt he had a duty to try, but struggled. These were mes camarades, les gars, un type: faces, not names. And as he faded, even those faces lost their last hold on the living.

Increasingly, however, people wanted to talk to him about the war. He always courteously obliged them, though by the end his thin, scratchy voice came out in gasps. It was as important to him as it was to them to underscore the horror and futility of it. More than anything, he was appalled that he had been made to fire on people he didn’t know and to whom he, too, was a stranger. These were fathers of children. He had no quarrel with them. C’est complètement idiot la guerre. His Italian Alpine regiment had once stopped firing for three weeks on the Austrians, whose language many of them spoke; they had swapped loaves of bread for tobacco and taken pictures of each other. To the end of his life, Mr. Ponticelli showed no interest in labelling anyone his enemy. He said he did not understand why on earth he, or they, had been fighting.

On March 17th he had his wish, or most of it: a state funeral for all the poilus at Les Invalides, and then a simple family burial. The government badly wanted this last foot-soldier to be memorialised; but he preferred to be uncelebrated and ordinary, even in some sense forgotten, and thus the more symbolic of all the rest.

The passing of the last French veteran of the First World War is most significant in that the French are considered the most outstanding participant, as both victim and hero, of that war, perhaps the most outstanding war in modern history. As the New York Times obituary notes (Martin, Douglas, “Lazare Ponticelli, France’s Last Veteran of World War I, Is Dead at 110,” 13 March 2008), the passing of the last German veteran of the war, Erich Kästner, on 1 January 2008 went unobserved. There is no honor in villainy, even when it’s as inadvertent as the corresponding heroism.

Americans like to ridicule the French for their recent military fortunes. “Cheese-eating surrender monkeys” is the phrase. It’s always easy for the young to get the better of the old. By the time the First World War came about, France was a country in the full of relative decline. By the time it faced the blitzkrieg, it was a nation exhausted.

Perhaps it was easy too for the United States to roll Germany because by the time we showed up on the scene French and German casualties had already passed a million on each side. Total U.S. casualties in that war were 117,000 — less than were killed among the French in some single running battles. The French suffered 161,000 killed between February and December 1916 at the Battle of Verdun; 50,000 killed in action between July and November 1916 during the Somme offensive; and 95,000 casualties (killed and wounded) between July and August at the Second Battle of the Marne.

When you consider that in the Twentieth Century France sustained 2,262,000 killed blunting the German onslaught, compared to 409,000 for the United States — a fifth the French number — our boasts seem pretty hollow. G.I. Joe looks a little Johnny Come Lately. We installed the keystone and take credit for the entire arc. But the big wheel keeps on turning and the United States is no longer a young country. Our day to be elbowed aside by a young upstart is in the works already and our dotage will be similarly unhonored by youth.