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Obituaries / Lazare Ponticelli, 1897 - 2008

Immigrant was France's last surviving World War I veteran

March 14, 2008|From Times Wire Services

Lazare Ponticelli, France's last surviving veteran of World War I, an Italian immigrant who fought in the trenches with the Foreign Legion, died Wednesday at his home in the Paris suburbs, the national veterans' office announced. He was 110.

Ponticelli, who joined his adopted country's army as a 16-year-old at the outbreak of the war with Germany in 1914, had attended a memorial ceremony as recently as November.

France planned a national funeral ceremony Monday honoring Ponticelli and all the "poilus," an affectionate term meaning hairy or tough that the French use for their World War I veterans.

The 1914-1918 conflict, known at the time as the Great War or the "war to end all wars," tore Europe apart and killed millions. Only a few World War I veterans are still living, scattered from Australia to the United States and Europe. Germany's last WWI veteran died New Year's Day.

Monuments to battles and war dead cover swaths of France where trenches once divided the landscape during the war, which left 1.4 million French fighters dead, of 8.4 million who served.

Ponticelli was born into a poor family Dec. 7, 1897, in the northern Italian town of Bettola and went to France as a 9-year-old, walking part of the way to save money.

In the French capital, he worked as a chimney sweep and then as a newspaper boy. When the war broke out, he was only 16, so he lied about his age to enlist in the Foreign Legion. He said later it was "a way of thanking" the country that had fed him.

He served at Soissons in Picardy, the Argonne region of northeast France and at Douaumont, near Verdun, on one occasion rescuing a wounded German and a wounded French soldier caught between the front lines.

"I was in all sorts of danger, during the war and at other times as well. We were all going to die," he told reporters at an Armistice Day ceremony last year.

With Italy's entry into the war in 1915, Ponticelli was conscripted into the Italian Army and fought against the Austrians in the Tyrol, where he was wounded in the face.

He returned to France in 1921, and he and his brothers started a company that made factory smokestacks. The company, Ponticelli Freres, grew into a manufacturer of specialized industrial equipment and is still in business.

Ponticelli became a French citizen in 1939, settling in the working-class Paris suburb of Kremlin Bicetre.

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