Friday, March 14, 2008

In Memoriam of Lazare Ponticelli

Today (Thursday), Lazare Ponticelli, the last "Poilu" (Poilu literally means "hairy man" and was the nickname given to all infantrymen during the first world war) died at the age of 110. He was born in 1897, joined the foreign legion in France to escape poverty and his destiny is absolutely incredible (see more info here). Since he's the last survivor of this war he'll have State funerals on Monday, but I thought I would celebrate his memory on PDP today, with this photo. I found this mailbox in a cemetery the 15th arrondissement. It says roughly: "Since you came here to celebrate your dead ones, think of those who died for France".


  1. I love the lines in this picture. Everything is so straight except the tress and the piles of dirt and leaves. Great depth of field as well.

  2. I think he was in the news here recently, something about the unveiling of portraits, but I'm not sure.
    Hope everyone here at PDP has a nice Friday and Saturday as I will be out of town and without internet and will have to do without my daily dose of Paris until I get home.

  3. Great idea to celebrate Lazare Ponticelli. He had quite a life, may he rest in peace.

    I was almost GF.... :( one day, maybe.

    Have a good evening all.

  4. How nice to see the bleu, blanc & rouge pop right out of the photo! A wonderful tribute to a phenomenal person. Thanks for the daily education of *our* beautiful France.

    Have you gotten your millionth hit yet?

  5. There was also an obit. for him today in the New York Times.
    I think it says quite a lot about a country when they put remembrances for a soldier around the town, and I might assume, the country.

  6. 110! Wow, that's longevity. Must be all the good wine...

    A very nice memorial.

  7. Very moving post, Eric. I saw this on the news and, underneath the annoying English voice-over i thought i heard his wife say that he never talked about it, is that right? What an amazing age.

  8. A fitting tribute to a long life well lived. Your photo today is particularly poignant and fitting.

  9. Sad news, Eric, but a poetic and touching tribute to Lazare and his fellow soldiers. Although I doubt that even a state funeral - as fitting and as fine as I'm sure it will be could possibly match the emotional resonance of this simple letterbox. I'm sure the items posted here have a much better chance of returning home than those unfortunate men and women posted to the front and forced to fight from the fatal sanctuary of those endless miles of open sewers and graves that for a while scarred the heart of Europe - otherwise known as the trenches of WWI.

    “Strange Meeting” by Wilfred Owen, poet and soldier (March 18, 1893 – November 4, 1918)

    It seemed that out of battle I escaped
    Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
    Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

    Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
    Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
    Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
    With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
    Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
    And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,-
    By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

    With a thousand pains that vision's face was grained;
    Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
    And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
    'Strange friend,' I said, 'here is no cause to mourn.'
    'None,' said that other, 'save the undone years,
    The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
    Was my life also; I went hunting wild
    After the wildest beauty in the world,
    Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
    But mocks the steady running of the hour,
    And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
    For by my glee might many men have laughed,
    And of my weeping something had been left,
    Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
    The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
    Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
    Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
    They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
    None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
    Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
    Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
    To miss the march of this retreating world
    Into vain citadels that are not walled.
    Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
    I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
    Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
    I would have poured my spirit without stint
    But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
    Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

    'I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
    I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
    Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
    I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
    Let us sleep now....'

    (Owen died just one week before the war ended at the Battle of the Sambre.)

  10. I also read about this in the newspaper here in Chicago, Illinois, USA. There are so few veterans left now of that war - only one here in the US. Your memorial for him is touching.

  11. 110!!! Wow, that's incredible. Rest in peace.

  12. What a life. Your post reminds me of the many memorials we encountered in Paris, especially the Communards' Wall (Mur des Federes) at Pere-Lachaise, which moved me to tears.

    I think it's not just a French trait to be good at remembering the dead, because I felt this when I visited England, too. Europeans live well with their dead, walking among them in a comfortable way.

  13. what a fantastic site. congratulations on your 1 millionth visitor!

  14. I heard this sad news on the radio yesterday. He must have been one heck of a man. Thanks for this post!

  15. A grand MERCI for this Eric..I saw it in the news today and immediately thought of this poem we had to learn as school children about the brave men that died in the First World War. It is by Wilfred Owen and I see that lucio already posted another poem by him. It has haunted me for well over forty years and none of us should forget that the price of Freedom is never Free! He was a humble man and his funeral will be at the Invalides. God bless him!!

    Wilfred Owen
    Dulce Et Decorum Est

    Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
    And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
    Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

    GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
    And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
    Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

    In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

    If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori.

  16. The kinds and types of memorials are interesting: some large and imposing and some small and unique. This also reminds me of colours that are considered important for countries. If I weren't so lazy, I'd check to see how many countries use the red, white, and blue colours for identification in flags, for example.

    The tribute is meaningful.

  17. Tonton Flaneur: Haunting is a good word to describe the poetry of Wilfred Owen. And, as we approach the centenary of the First World War, we should all make an effort to read it; alone or in company, for the first time or the hundredth, at home or in public.

    The facts and figures, though gruesome and shocking, will only ever relay half - if that! - of the horrors perpetrated and endured during WWI. If we aren't also receptive, both as individuals and as a global community, to the sorrow and pathos of poems like these, then what hope have we of remaining repulsed by the reality - and, as Owen himself would have it, the futility - of most human combat.

    As far as ignorance and forgetfulness are concerned, to know is to win the battle, but to feel is to win the war.

  18. Lucio's and tonton_flaneur's Wilfred Owen poetry also brings a vivid reality to the mention just a few days ago of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier watched over by the Arc de Triomphe.

    "All Quiet on the Western Front" pretty much did it for me: exposed that old Lie.

    Lazare Ponticelli, in the photo at Wikipedia, has such a vibrant, life-loving smile. It's as if death was saving the best for last. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

  19. Hi Eric, this is my first visit but certainly not my last. I love your blog it's very intersting, thanks for sharing!


  20. My grandfather fought in the trenches in WWI as part of the American forces. Like many others who have been through that kind of experience, he spoke very little about it. But he was proud to have served, hoping it truly was "the war to end all wars."
    Here's to the memory of all those who served...

  21. Generations pass away (some members much later than others), but the virtues which they showed can only continue in their descendants, physical or spiritual. The generations of American servicemen from the two World Wars are fading also.

  22. That's a ripe old age. I couldn't help but recall Jeanne Calment,who lived in Arles, and who died at the age of 122 1/2 in 1997. This lady was quite deaf and suffered from cataracts, which she refused to have removed, but had all her smarts! Van Gogh bought artists' canvas in her father's store, and she remembered him.

    Must be the French food (and butter!), wine, no matter what health experts say!

  23. lucio...Yes, I agree...I had to memorize this poem in the 7th grade, I believe, and the final lines almost always brought me to tears.

    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie:
    Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori.

    Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori. I believe the translation of this is "It is sweet and good to die for one's country"..amazing ehh?? I find it even more amazing that many young people I encounter today don't even know who Eisenhower was, and still don't when or why the First World War even started. Very sad indeed.

    “Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.” Pray it isn't true.

  24. Very sad but yet...
    Our stay here is not forever.
    Some of us come and go and barely make a difference to people around us when we leave.
    Some have done and given so much and will be forever missed...

  25. Tonton Flaneur: I studied Owen's poetry in my last year of high school, and I can no longer remember as much of it by heart as I used to, but its power to move me has never waned.

    The passage you highlight is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a semantic grenade. Mockingly patrician in its use of Latin, it gilds - and in so doing exposes - the lie it promulgates. (There is an interesting ambiguity here, however, when one considers the fact that even most professed pacifists honour those who have died in the valiant defense of their nation and countrymen. But I suppose that's what enables it to "detonate" so effectively, leaving the stench of massacre hanging in the air like a belch from Hell.)

    As for the translation, I, too, was led to believe that "it is sweet and good to die for one's country" is its literal meaning. However, in hindsight (though without much more than a Latin dictionary to guide me), I would argue that "it is sweet and [proper/becoming] to die for one's country" is perhaps better, inasmuch as it is in keeping with the "nobility" of Latin, which Owen both appropriates and abuses. But that's just me: a true Latin scholar or bona fide translator might disagree.

    In any case, the ultimate effect is much the same. With apologies to Gertrude Stein, a lie is a lie is a lie...n'est pas?

    And yes, let's all get to know our history - but let's not forget that art, in its many guises, is also a kind of history. One which may not be strictly empirical, but one which - at its best - still has much to say, and teach.

  26. Eric, who WAS the millionth visitor? We demand an answer't we everyone? :)

  27. Oh yes Lynn, that brings me to this point:

    Will Eric be rewarding the millonth visitor with a free 2-way ticket to Paris?

    Now, that, we wish to know!!!

  28. lol i was imagining perhaps a free postcard but hey who am i to argue with that, Photolicious!

  29. These are nice photos. I don't know you, but nice to meet you =)

  30. Your photo touched me a lot...It was so sad to learn it yesterday morning. He always refused to receive the honours due to his role when he was still alive but few month ago, in November if I remember, he decided that when he would die, he would accept the National military ceremony in honour of all the Poilus.
    This flag mailbox is new for me, I've never seen something like that in cemeteries...
    Photolicious, He was Corsican.

  31. To think he was born in 1897. That was the same year my father was born, and he served from 1916 to 1920 and again from 1940 to 1945. That generation went through so much, and their rewards were so little. It makes me angry to see the big businessmen, politicians, and so called public servants, arrogating such great rewards to themselves today.
    Sorry for the rant

  32. Je ne me lasse pas de vos photos cher Eric. Et je suis dégoutée de vous avoir manqué en septembre dernier alors que vous aviez eu l'immense gentillesse de passer voir mes photos au Café Jules dans le XVIIème... Photos que je signe sous un autre nom... Je crois également que vous connaissez mon cousin : Dubuc. A bientôt.

  33. Mr Ponticelli was Italian born. He travelled from his italian village to Paris, on his own, when he was 9,
    Created his 1st company (chimney cleaning) at 16,
    Signed in the Legion Etrangere (cheating about his age) at the beginning of WW1.
    Was enroled in the italian army when Italy joined the war in 1915.
    Back to France after the War,
    Obtained the French Nationality after a few years,
    created a company with his 2 brothers, company which is still "healthy" nowadays (T.O. : 450 M€, 3500 employees, more info at
    His motto in life has always been "give back to France what France gave me!".
    Recently, when an interviewer asked him about paradise -- you know,the sort of silly questions you ask to people over 100 years old ;-)--, he answered that he was already living in paradise, as France is Paradise...

  34. This "flag mailbox" as guille wrote, is not a mail box at all. You may drop money inside for Le souvenir français. This association takes care of the graves of the soldiers who died on duty, since 1887.
    That means that even if there will be no family nor relatives left to maintain it, they will come, clean the place and never let it look abandonned.
    If you know one grave that needs them, you can tell them.
    more here in franch

  35. sorry guille, it's not you with the mail box mistake

  36. Great post, Eric!...
    BTW, have you reached 1.000.000 visitors yet?

  37. Nicely done. Rest in peace, M. Ponticelli.

  38. He won't tell us, Sailor Girl! Eric we are sooooo curious.

  39. There may not be a way to know who it is, depending on the statistical software he's using.

  40. Oh i see Petrea. Gosh i'm even more admiring of you now, you know computer stuff too!

  41. Super blog Eric. I'm a new fan and from what I'm seeing, sure to be one for life.

  42. Nice from you Eric to make us think a bit of the past times. Lazare Ponticelli, wherever he rests now, may be happy to see you celebrating his memory on PDP.
    Time flies for all of us. We have to keep it in mind, each day!

  43. Lili, it was me (mailbox). I blindly follow what Eric said... ;)
    Nice to know what it is actually, I had never heard about this kind of donation box before. Fortunatelly, charitable people still exist.

    Thib, ooops I thought/heard he was Corsican...I was in the wrong.

  44. So it speaks for itself~~living in the most romantic place in the world, eating the most amazing food, drinking local vintages, talking around the table until the sun is peeking over the skyline. . .110 is quite an accomplishment~~Bravo!


  45. Eric, a touching and very interesting post of remembrance. I hope the Monday ceremonies honoring this gentleman are lovely and give the older and younger generations of France a moment of reflection about that long ago generation which lived through such tragedy and horror.

  46. That's really rather wonderful Eric,

    Thanks for posting this.