On 20th January 2008 France bid farewell to the last survivor of the battle of the Chemin des Dames of 1917.
Louis de Cazenave was also France’s oldest man having attained 110 years of age.
In 2006 his 75 year old son Louis explained that his father had only recently begun to talk about the war and he had never given an interview but as the 90th anniversary approached his father was being hassled by the press for his thoughts and so, finally, he recounted how he had been in the 5e Bataillon de tirailleurs sénégalais (5th Bn Senegalese Tirailleurs).
Prior to and during the war Frenchmen about to attain 20 years of age were called up to serve their period of conscription. Each year was considered a classe and you will sometimes see it included on a soldier’s graves.
Born on the 16th October 1897 Louis de Cazenave was mobilised into the classe of 1916 leaving his small village of Saint-Georges-d’Aurac (Haute-Loire), where his mother worked for the Post Office, to join the 22e Régiment d’Infanterie coloniale (22nd Colonial Infantry Regiment).
From the Colonial Infantry he was transferred to the Tirailleurs and in April 1917 found himself at the Chemin des Dames ready to take part in Nivelle’s disastrous campaign.
On the opening day, 16th April 1917, his battalion were involved in the attack on the Mont des Singes near Vauxaillon. The African soldiers were already half frozen in the sub zero temperatures and suffered enormous losses that day. Following the removal of Nivelle, the battalion took part in that battles for the Plateau of Vauclair during the summer.
That year the battalion lost 220 soldiers killed out of a strength of 800.
That was a bad place. I saw hundreds killed though I got away without anything at all. You could hear the wounded crying out in no mans’ land.
We were all manipulated, French and Germans alike by the high commandments. All those men sent off to certain death just because of some stupid general. We were butchered and for what ? It all started again in 1940.
Following the war Louis de Cazenave returned to his department of the Haute-Loire and took up a post with the SNCF. In 1920 he married his wife Marie and they had three sons.
In 1999 he was awarded the Légion d’honneur following a proposal put forward by Veterans’ Associations. He hadn’t wanted any awards at all and told his son to put the medal away somewhere. That somewhere, ended up in a frame in the living room, along with his other war time medals.
Never one for commemorations despite his place as the oldest Frenchman and one of the last survivors of the war he had always refused to take part in the Armistice ceremonies in Paris.
In regard to his Légion d’Honneur he said : I don’t see why I should have a medal when all my friends who died up there didn’t even get a wooden cross.
[Tens of thousands of French soldiers are buried in mass graves]
There had been talk a number of years ago about a State Funeral for the last soldier but Louis was adamant that he wished to remain in the shadows of history. I want to be buried amongst my family in my village at Saint-Georges d’Aurac. I don’t think of myself as a hero. Just a man who came back from hell at the beginning of the last century.
With the passing away of Louis de Cazenave the last remaining French combatant became Lazare Ponticelli ; also 110 years old but, Italian by birth, he had served in the French Foreign Legion. Like his comrade in arms he had spurned the idea of a State Funeral.
As the very last poilu and with such a weight of responsibility resting on his shoulders, M Ponticelli finally agreed (and sadly only weeks before his own death), that the State should be allowed to express its gratitude towards the 8,6 million pantalon rouge and poilus who answered the call to the colours. A state ceremony was held for him at the Invalides in Paris but he was then buried in his family plot, away from the eyes of the media.
The word poilu means hairy. Although used in the popular press where it suggested that the French soldier was a real hairy-arsed fighting machine the term never found favour amongst the troops themselves who felt that it suggested that they were unkempt. In 1914 the French soldiers had gone to war in their famous red trousers or pantalon rouge. Whilst completely ridiculous at the time, given the German’s strength in machine guns, attempts to change the colour had failed because : the French Army is recognised by its red trousers. However, as the garance dye had to come from Germany the poilus ended up in Horizon Blue.
There are four large cemeteries in Soupir as well as a CWGC Burial ground in the churchyard.