End of an era

Lazare Ponticelli

7 December 1897 - 12 March 2008

Wednesday 12th March 2008 marked the end of an era in France with the death of her last surviving soldier from the First World War.

Following the death in January 2008 of Louis de Cazenave (the last Frenchman to have fought in the war), M Ponticelli who was France's last Foreign Legionnaire to have fought, became a figure of significance.

Louis de Cazenave Louis de Cazenave

He had always resisted the idea of having a state ceremony, but now as the final link to an almost forgotten past he agreed to a simple ceremony: no parade of troops, no gun carriage, just an ordinary mass at the Invalides, the heart of French military history and the resting place of Napoleon.

This was carried out in private in the presence of the French President, government officials and members of the family.

In the afternoon, under a grey sky a public ceremony was held during which representatives of the French Defence Forces paid honour not only to the 8,4 million French soldiers who fought at the front but also the women who had worked and suffered at home, keeping industry and agriculture alive during the war, and in its aftermath, following the loss of 1,4 million fathers; sons; husbands.


In 1908 Lazarre Ponticelli left his native Italy to join his two elder brothers who were already working in Paris - he was just 9 years old. He managed to find work as a chimney sweep and paper boy but had only been there a few years when Europe was rocked by the outbreak of war.

Like many a volunteer, eager to do his bit before it was all over (home by the new year as everyone thought) Lazarre had to lie about his 16 years in order to find a place in the French Foreign Legion.

For the next four years he served in the ranks of the 4è régiment de marche of the Legion and saw service throughout the Western Front.

Ninety years later on St Patrick's Day, 17th March, eleven pall-bearers from the 3è régiment d'infanterie of the Foreign Legion (who continue the honours and traditions of Lazarre's old unit) carried his tricolore draped coffin into the church of St Louis at the Invalides, flanked by four of their bearded pioneers wearing their traditional leather aprons and carrying axes.

Speaking before the funeral, The President of the Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy had paid tribute to the young man's desire to fight for his new homeland in 1914 and his decision to remain there for good in 1921.

In his address given in the cour d'honneur between lines of soldiers in the Horizon Blue of the Poilus, the writer and historian Max Gallo described Lazarre Ponticelli as a man of peace, modest, heroic...Italian by birth and French by choice.

During the afternoon's ceremony the President unveiled a plaque inside the dome of the Invalides near Maréchal Foch's tomb.

With the passing of the last French combatant of the First World War, the Nation testifies its gratitude towards those who served the colours in 1914-1918.

France cherishes the memory of those who shall remain in history as the Poilus of the Great War.


The Public Homage

The funerary aspect of the day's events were private, but here are a few photos from the afternoon's National homage.

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