PARIS — France’s last remaining veteran of World War I died Wednesday at age 110 after outliving 8.4 million Frenchmen who fought in what they called “la Grande Guerre.” Lazare Ponticelli, who was born in Italy but chose to fight for France and was a French citizen for most of the past century, died at his home in the Paris suburb of Kremlin-Bicetre, the national veterans’ office said.
France’s last World War I veteran, Ponticelli, has died at the age of 110, the French presidency announced Wednesday March 11, 2008. France planned a national funeral ceremony honoring the last “poilu”, meaning hairy, the nickname given to the unshaven troops who embodied French defiance in one of the bloodiest wars in the country’s history. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
“It is to him and his generation that we owe in large part the peaceful and pacified Europe of today. It is up to us to be worthy of that,” President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement.
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 soldiers who fought in World War I.
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 handful of World War I veterans are still living, scattered from Australia to the United States and Europe. Germany’s last WWI veteran died on 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.
At age 9, Ponticelli left Italy on his own to join his brothers in France, eventually becoming a French citizen, according to the veterans’ office in Versailles.
Ponticelli decided to fight for France because it had taken him in.
“It was my way of saying ‘Thank you,” he said in a 2005 interview with the newspaper .