French Connections

Find Holiday accommodation in France

A FEW days ago Lazare Ponticelli died at the age of 110, the last poilu, the last French infantryman to have served in the First World War...

A FEW days ago Lazare Ponticelli died at the age of 110, the last poilu, the last French infantryman to have served in the First World War. Some months before his presidency expired last May Jacques Chirac expressed the hope that Lazare Ponticelli might be given a state funeral. M. Ponticelli agreed, on condition that the ceremony should be dedicated not to him alone but to all those who perished in World War I.

Lazare Ponticelli's story is unusual, to say the least. He was born in 1897 in Bettola, in northern Italy, into a very poor family, further impoverished when his father, a market livestock broker, and elder brother both died early on. In order to survive, his mother and the five younger children emigrated to France, where there was a better chance of finding work. There was no money to pay for the 7-year-old Lazare's journey, so he stayed behind looking after sheep for some neighbours, intending to join his family when he had put by enough money from selling thrushes in local markets. When he was 9, having saved enough for the journey, he made himself some shoes and set off for France. He reached Paris, alone and with no word of French, where he was taken in by a family of Franco-Italian hoteliers, and eventually joined the rest of his family in Normandy. At the age of 16 he started a chimney-sweeping business with a friend. This prospered, but was overtaken by the outbreak of war in 1914.

Anxious to repay in some way the country that had welcomed his family, he volunteered for the Foreign Legion, the only military unit authorised to recruit non-French soldiers. After training his unit was sent to the western front, where he served in struggles as evocative for the French as the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele are for the British: the Chemin des Dames, the Argonne, Verdun. He showed extraordinary courage but also a marked humanity. After one murderous attack he crept out by night into no man's land, between the trenches, responding to cries of the wounded. Here he rescued a wounded German soldier and contrived to deliver back him to his own trenches before returning to the French lines with a wounded French soldier.

In 1915 Italy entered the war. In due course M. Ponticelli was discharged from the Foreign Legion and repatriated to Italy, where he joined the elite mountain troops, the Alpini corps. Facing Austro-Hungarian forces in the Tyrol, he took part in one of the most extraordinary - and least known - episodes of World War I: for weeks opposing troops ceased fire, fraternised, exchanged rations, shared patrols, held councils of war together, running the risk of courts martial and the firing squad. His unit was subsequently posted to what is now Slovenia, where he was wounded in the face and was operated on without anaesthetic. Towards the end of the war he was awarded the Italian equivalent of the VC for a solo action which saved the lives of a French unit fighting alongside the Italians.

After the war he returned to France and set up a company with his brothers Céleste and Bonfils called Ponticelli Frères. In 1939 he received French citizenship. He worked with the Resistance during the Nazi occupation. After World War 2 Ponticelli Frères, sometimes known as 'Pontic', thrived, producing vats, hoppers and storage silos for the sugar industry. Today the company is a French industrial giant, specialising in pipework for oil refineries and chemical plant.

THE CEREMONY took place in Les Invalides, the Paris military hospital founded by Louis XIV and now the spiritual centre of the French army. The ashes of Napoleon are buried here, together with Maréchal Foch, France's outstanding First World War leader, and, curiously, Rouget de l'Isle, composer of La Marseillaise. Military honours were provided by a detachment of Lazare Ponticelli's old regiment, the Foreign Legion, very impressive with their slow march, their full beards and their extraordinarily ability to stand motionless, like the British Brigade of Guards, for long periods. President Sarkozy was there, with former president Jacques Chirac, whose idea this had been. It was all very impressive and moving, and one of the most memorable moments among much grander orations came when a 13-year-old with no Ponticelli family connections recited an acrostic he and his classmates had composed. (I quote it as far I can remember it. It mightn't be 100% accurate.)

P - les Poilus, dont vous étiez le dernier des derniers

(Poilus - i.e. French equivalent of Tommies - of whom you were the very last)

O - les Obstacles que vous avez surmontés

(Obstacles that you overcame)

N - la Nation que vous avez servie

(The Nation that you served)

T - la Tranchée, où se sont déroulées les batailles

(The Trenches, where the battles took place)

I - l'Italie, votre pays natal

(Italy, the land of your birth)

C - le Courage, que vous avez montré

(The Courage that you showed)

E - l'Ennemi, que vous avez refoulé

(The Enemy that you threw back)

L et L - la Liberté, que vous avez défendue

(Liberty, that you defended)

I - l'Inspiration, que vous nous avez donnée

(The Inspiration that you gave us.)

* * *

THIS IS the 100th Campbell's Diary entry since I started writing in January, 2000. Maybe Lazare Ponticelli's state funeral, however impressive and symbolic of page turning, is a bit sombre to mark the occasion, so I'll move on to something more joyful. After weeks, months, even, of gathering papers, not without the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth that characterises French paper chases, Josephine and I have at last put our complete dossiers together and at the end of the month we're getting married here in the village. Full report next month.