France buries its last WWI veteran

PARIS — France unfurled its military majesty Monday in honor of its last World War I veteran, who died last week at 110, and all the other Frenchmen who fought in the conflict.

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Flags fell to half-staff and the president unveiled a plaque at the gold-domed edifice where Napoleon is buried to honor Lazare Ponticelli and the 8.4-million other Frenchmen who served in a war that tore Europe apart.

The day of national commemoration was ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy, who wants younger generations to remember the sacrifices of les poilus — an affectionate nickname meaning hairy or tough that France uses for its WWI veterans.

"Never again will anyone tell their grandchildren or great-grandchildren about the terrible life of the trenches," Sarkozy said. "No more will anyone hear the old poilu tell his grandchildren or great-grandchildren: 'Never make war again.' 

"We will never forget them."

The solemn day began with a Roman Catholic funeral Mass attended by Sarkozy, government ministers, soldiers and teary-eyed members of Ponticelli's family at the Saint-Louis Cathedral, part of the Invalides complex that honors France's military and houses Napoleon's tomb.

"You didn't talk much, but when you did, we felt your wisdom, that you doubted nothing and were determined," Ponticelli's grandson, Patrick Large, said during the Mass.

Flags representing all military divisions that fought in World War I were later ceremoniously unfurled.

Ponticelli was a French citizen for most of the past century and an unusual soldier who fought first for France, then for Italy, where he was born, during WWI.

Representatives of the Italian Alpine brigade for which he fought, along with its French counterpart, attended the Mass.

The 1914-18 conflict, known at the time as the Great War or the "War to End All Wars," killed millions, including 1.4-million French fighters. Only a handful of veterans from the war are still living, scattered from Australia to the United States and Europe. Germany's last WWI veteran died on New Year's Day.

Ponticelli was born Dec. 7, 1897, in Bettola in northern Italy. To escape a tough childhood, he trooped off at age 9 to join his brothers in France, eventually becoming a French citizen.

When the war broke out, he was only 16 and lied about his age to enlist.

"It was my way of saying 'Thank you' " to France he said in a 2005 interview with the newspaper Le Monde.

He later fought for Italy.

After the ceremony, he was interred in a family burial plot in Paris.

France buries its last WWI veteran 03/17/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 9:41am]

    

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