March 26, 2008 by

Lazare Ponticelli


Categories: Military

Lazare Ponticelli, the last French veteran of World War I, died on March 12. Cause of death was not released. He was 110.
Born in 1897, Ponticelli came from a poor family that struggled to eke out an existence in northern Italy. His mother sought work in France when he was still a toddler, leaving her children in the care of neighbors. When he was nine, Ponticelli’s father and brother were killed in an accident. The boy didn’t speak of word of French, but decided to travel alone by train from Italy to France to be with his mother.
As a teenager, he cleaned chimneys and sold newspapers on the streets of Paris. When war broke out in 1914, Ponticelli felt he had to give back to his adopted country and join the fight. So at 16, he lied about his age in order to join the 1st Regiment de Marche of the French Foreign Legion.
Ponticelli served as a foot soldier, or poilus, for a year in northern France, fighting the Germans in the trenches and digging ditches to bury the dead. In 1915, the Italian Army conscripted him into their own military and forcibly escorted him to Turin to fight the Austrian Army in Tyrol. Ponticelli became a machinegunner and during one battle he suffered a shrapnel wound to the face. He refused to stop firing his weapon and seek treatment until the Austrian troops raised white cloths and surrendered. After his convalescence in Naples, Ponticelli returned to the front only to be gassed in 1918 by the Austrians.
Ponticelli returned to his adopted home in 1920, where he and two of his brothers founded “Ponticelli Freres” (“Ponticelli Brothers”), a heating and pipe company that is still in business today. Although he was too old to fight in World War II, Ponticelli became a French citizen in 1939 and joined the Resistance in 1942. He restarted his business after the war, and continued to work until retiring in 1960.
Ponticelli’s final years were spent in Le Kremlin Bicetre, a suburb of Paris. A modest man, he kept his war awards — the Croix de Buerre, the Medaille Interalliee, the Legion d’honneur and the Order of Vitttorio Veneto — hidden in a shoebox. Ponticelli never wanted a state funeral, nationwide accolades or interment in the Pantheon, but he agreed to be remembered in a simple ceremony so long as it focused on “those who died” on the battlefield.
On March 17, President Nicolas Sarkozy lead a funeral ceremony at Les Invalides, the Paris military hospice that also houses the tomb of Napoleon. The event, which honored Ponticelli and the 8.5 million other Frenchmen who fought in World War I, was followed by a simple family burial.

2 Responses to Lazare Ponticelli

  1. Geoffrey Brandner

    A great soldier he represented the Gallic spirit f ” never retreat ” at its finest. Patriots such as him are almost impossible to locate now. Back when men were tough he was the toughest.

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