Eloquent witness against war

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Lazare Ponticelli, le dernier Poilu

Dateline: Mar 19th 2008
From The Economist print edition

Lazare Ponticelli, the last French foot-soldier of the first world war, died on March 12th, aged 110.  

Ponticelli’s self-effacing behavior underscores the unforgivable shamelessness—and outright criminality—of imperialist warmongers everywhere. Yet it is such criminals and demagogues that the Western media elevate to positions of power and even distinction to satisfy the policy needs of the global capitalist system and its plutocratic beneficiaries. 

THE business of memory is a solid and solemn thing. Plaques are unveiled on the wall; stone memorials are built in the square; the domed mausoleum rises brick by brick over the city. But the business of memory is also as elusive as water or mist. The yellowing photographs slide to the back of the drawer; the voices fade; and the last rememberers of the dead die in their turn, leaving only what Thomas Hardy called “oblivion’s swallowing sea”.

The approach of the death of Lazare Ponticelli therefore caused something of a panic in France. Thisderdesders, “the last of the last”, was for a while the only man in the country who remembered the first world war because he had fought in it. The suburb of Kremlin-Bicetre, where he lived, had like most other communities in France a memorial to the war dead. But, more important, it had Mr Ponticelli, who up to his 111th year appeared every November 11th in his flat cap and brown coat, lean and bright-eyed, gamely managing the few steps required to lay his small bunch of carnations there. The most astonished and serious observers were always children, to whom—if they wanted—he would tell his stories.

Allied infantry prepares for gas attack. (1917)

Successive presidents of France strove to honour Mr Ponticelli. It was a way of detaining all the other shadows he represented: the 8.4m workmen, peasants and common folk who, in pointed steel helmets and flapping greatcoats, had gloriously defended the fatherland as poilus, or foot-soldiers, between 1914 and 1918. Jacques Chirac suggested a state funeral for him and perhaps interment in the Pantheon, alongside Rousseau and Voltaire. Nicolas Sarkozy proposed a mass at Les Invalides. Mr Ponticelli wanted none of that: no procession, no racket, pas de tapage important. He was grateful for his belated Légion d’Honneur, which he kept with his other medals in a shoe-box. But he was keenly aware that he drew such attention only because he was the last.

Blinded soldiers await transportation from the front.

What had become of the others? The stretcher-bearers in the Argonne, for example, who had told him they didn’t dare leave the trench for fear of German fire. The man he had heard from no-man’s land, caught in the barbed wire and with his leg severed, screaming to be rescued, until Mr Ponticelli ran out to him with wire-cutters and dragged him back to the lines. The German soldier he tripped over in the dark, already wounded and expecting to be killed, who mutely held up his fingers to show him that he had two children. The comrades who helped him, because he could not read or write, to keep in touch by letter with the milkmaid he had met before the war. Or the four colleagues who held him down when, after the battle of Pal Piccolo, the army surgeon gouged out of his cheek a piece of shrapnel already lodged in gangrene.

Facial burns disfigure a 27 year-old soldier in 1916. The romanticization of war should be seen for what it is: a crime against the innocent.

With each new round of shelling, he said, they all expected the worst. They would reassure each other by saying, “If I die, you’ll remember me, won’t you?” Mr Ponticelli felt he had a duty to try, but struggled. These were mes camaradesles garsun type: faces, not names. And as he faded, even those faces lost their last hold on the living.

Bread for tobacco

In many ways Mr Ponticelli was not typical of the poilus. He was an Italian, from dirt-poor Emilia-Romagna, who followed his family to France to find work. Some of his childhood, peacetime memories were perhaps as rare as his wartime ones: catching thrushes by hand in the rocky fields, hand-stitching his own shoes, setting up a chimney-sweep business in Nogent-sur-Marne. He thought France “paradise”, and enlisted in the Foreign Legion at 16, under-age, by way of thanks. When Italy joined the war in 1915 he switched to an Italian Alpine regiment, but only because two policemen marched him bodily to Turin; and he kept his French military passbook carefully on him through three years as a machine-gunner, until he was able to return to paradise again. In 1939 he became a French citizen, and the rest of his life was spent setting up Ponticelli frères, a company that still builds and takes down chimneys and makes industrial piping.

Increasingly, however, people wanted to talk to him about the war. He always courteously obliged them, though by the end his thin, scratchy voice came out in gasps. It was as important to him as it was to them to underscore the horror and futility of it. More than anything, he was appalled that he had been made to fire on people he didn’t know and to whom he, too, was a stranger. These were fathers of children. He had no quarrel with them. C’est complètement idiot la guerre. His Italian Alpine regiment had once stopped firing for three weeks on the Austrians, whose language many of them spoke; they had swapped loaves of bread for tobacco and taken pictures of each other. To the end of his life, Mr Ponticelli showed no interest in labelling anyone his enemy. He said he did not understand why on earth he, or they, had been fighting.

On March 17th he had his wish, or most of it: a state funeral for all the poilus at Les Invalides, and then a simple family burial. The government badly wanted this last foot-soldier to be memorialised; but he preferred to be uncelebrated and ordinary, even in some sense forgotten, and thus the more symbolic of all the rest.

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FORGOTTEN FACTS

Aside from bullets, bombs and bayonets, probably the biggest and worst injury producer in World War 1 was shrapnel (metal fragments) from shelling.     

The artillery shells and bombs of World War 2 were more sophisticated than those of the First War. They tended to fragment into many smaller pieces, so the injuries they caused tended, very generally speaking, to be more like bullet wounds. The objective was to wound or kill as many soldiers as possible with a single shellburst, which of course they did, but the physical injuries might be less than they would have been in the First War. 

The shells of World War 1 tended to burst in huge discrete chunks, which did appalling damage to the human body when they struck one. This assumes, of course, that the hit was not a direct or near-direct hit, which in either war would have meant instant death and dismemberment. But in World War 1 these monstrous hunks of steel hurtling around at close to the speed of sound would, if they didn’t kill you, instantly take off an arm or a leg or both legs or whatever. Soldiers and physicians who had served in both wars pretty much agreed that the shrapnel wounds of the First War were worse, by and large, than the shrapnel wounds of the Second World War. 

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