For many in the United States, Great Britain, and Ireland, March 17 this year was just another St. Patrick’s Day. But in France it was a day for a more somber commemoration, as French president Nicolas Sarkozy oversaw a ceremony at the Hotel des Invalides to mark the death of Lazare Ponticelli the previous week at age 110. M. Ponticelli, born in a small Italian village, had come to France at the age of 9. In his twenties, he had set up a successful company that made factory smokestacks.
But it was what he had done between the ages of 16 and 20 that earned him a ceremony and the final honors of a grateful nation. When World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, M. Ponticelli joined the Foreign Legion and participated in some of the toughest fighting of the Argonne campaigns. In 1915, when Italy entered the war, he was summoned to fight for that country. After the war, he returned to France and ultimately became a citizen.
In 1920 M. Ponticelli was one of millions of former poilus (as the French veterans of WWI were called), distinguishable from most of his counterparts mainly because he had not been a citizen of France at the time he fought for it. But, as the years rolled on, he became one of hundreds of thousands. Then thousands. Then hundreds. Then dozens. Then less than a dozen. Then two. And finally, with the death of Louis de Cazenave this year, he became France’s last WWI veteran. As his longevity attracted attention, he used it to emphasize, over and over, the horrors of warfare and his view that during that war he had been no more than an ordinary man, struggling to stay alive another day like so many others on both sides of the conflict. In his last years M. Ponticelli received the Legion of Honor, but kept the medal in a shoebox along with his other awards. He was disinclined to accept the idea of a state funeral unless it was treated as an occasion to honor all the dead of his war.
There are, now, only about a dozen veterans left from “the war to end all wars.” On Jan. 1, Erich Kaestner, thought to be the last German veteran, died; the German government chose not to commemorate the event. Of the 12 million who served in the Russian armed forces from 1914 to 1918, none are known to survive. The United Kingdom has three living veterans; Canada has one woman (the only female veteran living) and one man (who, as it happens, has long resided in Washington state).
And now the United States is down to one living veteran of what Winston Churchill called “The World Crisis” when he titled his multivolume history of the war. Earlier this month, at the White House, President Bush greeted Frank Buckles. Mr. Buckles, “107 years young” as the President put it, was born in Bethany, Missouri. When President Wilson put out a call for volunteers when America entered the war in April 1917, Mr. Buckles signed up, giving his age as 21 when he was actually 16. (He informed reporters at the White House that “I’m no liar,” saying he had just “exaggerated” a little.) In France, Mr. Buckles drove an ambulance, then served in a unit escorting German POWs back to their homeland. After the war he worked in a shipping company, and Pearl Harbor found him in the Phillippines. Unable to leave before the Japanese occupation, he was put in a prison camp for three years. After the war he returned to the United States, ultimately settling on a farm near Charles Town in West Virginia’s Eastern panhandle. There, Mr. Buckles cheerfully passes his days giving interviews and speaking to local schoolchildren about a war that ended 80 or so years before they were born.
So far there has been little indication of how the United States plans to commemorate the passing of Mr. Buckles when it comes time for him to join his fellow doughboys. I’m now 50. I can recall a time when I heard old men and women automatically refer to November 11 as Armistice Day rather than Veterans Day (as it was renamed after WWII), and when the monuments in every town erected to remember the fallen of “the Great War” had rather less of the patina of age about them. When I open David Michaelis’ new biography Schulz and Peanuts and examine a 1966-vintage strip with Snoopy taking on the Red Baron, it’s hard to realize it dates from a time almost as far away from the present as WWI was at the time I first saw it in the newspaper.
In 1905, Hiram Cronk, the last veteran of the War of 1812, died; an estimated 25,000 people filed past his bier at New York’s City Hall. The deaths of what were thought to be the last Civil War veterans were solemnly noted by President Eisenhower in public statements. (Though Union soldier Albert Woolson, who died in 1956, is now regarded as the last verifiable veteran of that war, three who claimed to have fought for the Confederacy died in the late 1950s.) By contrast, the deaths of the last two Spanish-American War veterans in 1992 and 1993 received little attention. One wonders if, in this age of Britney and Paris and Lindsay, the media (apart from perhaps CSPAN) is ready to spare some substantial airtime or ink when the last of the doughboys is gone.