Last French WWI veteran dies

( AP ) - 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.

"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 swathes 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.

Ponticelli was born Dec. 7, 1897, in Bettola, a town in northern Italy.

To escape a tough childhood, Ponticelli trooped off alone at age 9 to the nearest railway station, 21 miles away in Piacenza, where he took a train to join his brothers in France, eventually becoming a French citizen, according to the veterans' office in Versailles.

In the French capital, he worked as a chimney sweep and then as a newspaper boy. When the war broke out, he was just 16, so he lied about his age to enlist, the president's statement said.

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 Le Monde.

Ponticelli joined the Foreign Legion during the war and served in the Argonne region of forest, rivers and lakes in northeast France, digging burial pits and trenches.

"At the beginning, we barely knew how to fight and had hardly any ammunition. Every time that one of us died, we fell silent and waited for our turn," he said in the 2005 interview.

He also recalled running into no man's land to save a wounded comrade stuck in barbed wire.

"He was shouting, 'Come and get me, I've severed a leg.' The stretcher-bearers didn't dare go out. I couldn't bear it any longer," he said.

When Italy entered the war in 1915, Ponticelli was called up to fight with an Italian Alpine regiment. He tried to hide, but was found and sent to fight the Austrian army.

He described moments of fraternity with enemy Austrian soldiers.

"They gave us tobacco, and we gave them loaves of bread. No one was shooting any more. The headquarters found out, and moved us to a tougher zone," he told Le Monde.

He described the joy in receiving letters from a milkmaid who "adopted" him when he was serving in Italy. He couldn't read at the time, so comrades read them to him, according to a biography by the Versailles veterans' office.

He returned to France in 1921, and he and his brothers started a company that made factory smokestacks. The company, Ponticelli Freres, grew into a manufacturer of specialized industrial equipment and is still in business.

Ponticelli became a French citizen in 1939, his nephew said.

His family was uncomfortable with the elaborate national funeral ceremony planned. Ponticelli agreed to one before his death, as long as it honored all the poilus and not just himself.

"We are trying to keep this a bit personal. We didn't want all this ceremony," said his grandnephew, Daniel Ponticelli.

He will be interred in a family burial plot in Paris.

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