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He was the last, now there is no one who remembers. Lazare Ponticelli was a hundred and ten years old. He was what they in France almost affectionately and untranslatable, called a poilu, a soldier of the First World War. At an age when others are almost children, he was lying in the trenches.
That was in the Great War, as they say here, la Grande Guerre. In Germany, that lost war has been suppressed and while in England and France November 11, the end of the war in 1918, is a public holiday, the carnival begins in Germany.
Perhaps it is a symbol in our Europe that the old Lazare Ponticelli was not born a French, that he followed the French tricolor as an Italian guest worker. The times were lousy and first of all the military had something to bite about and secondly he wanted to show his gratitude to the country that had taken him in. So he signed up for the Foreign Legion.
In an interview he once told how they were in Argonne at the beginning of the war. One of his comrades was hit and he was injured between the lines. "Get me out of here," he shouted, "my leg is off". He, Lazare Ponticelli, crawled out of the ditch and fetched him. He snapped open the barbed wire with a pair of pliers and crept up to him.
The buddy screamed and the Germans were shooting all the time. Ponticelli pulled him back into his own ditch. "Grit your teeth, if you scream it will only get worse". When the paramedics were finally able to grab the injured man, he screamed again, but also tried to hug his rescuer and thank him: "Merci, on behalf of my four children".
When Italy entered the war on France's side, Ponticelli was sent home. There cannot have been many who fought in two armies in the same war. Towards the end he was still wounded, but was ordered back to the front after his recovery. The peace of 1918 overtook him on Monte Grappa.
"It was over, everyone was happy, the Austrians as well as us. And since then people have asked themselves: 'Why did we only fight against each other'". After the war he returned to France and founded a boiler and coppersmith with his brothers. It was not until 1939 that he took French citizenship. In the Second World War he was active again in the resistance against the Germans.
Jacques Chirac had the idea of organizing a state funeral for the last poilu. Lazare Ponticelli protested against this for a long time. He didn't want honors, he didn't see himself as exceptional, at least not as a soldier. Finally he made his peace with the idea.
"A mass in the Invalides in honor of all my comrades who died in the hell of war," he finally accepted. "A national celebration of the dead, without fuss and without a large parade, for all the dead, men and women", that should be the end of it. He rejected the Panthéon, where the nation lays its great dead to rest. He wants to rest in the family grave in Ivry's cemetery.
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