French World War One veteran salutes war dead

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PARIS, Nov 11 (Reuters) One of France's last two surviving veterans of World War One braved chilly winds at an Armistice Day ceremony today to commemorate the country's war dead.

''I'm here for the moment, this year. I don't know how it will be next year,'' said Lazare Ponticelli, 109, at a small ceremony in the working class Paris suburb of Kremlin Bicetre.

''It's very difficult when you're my age,'' he told reporters.

Born in Italy in 1897, Ponticelli joined the Foreign Legion in 1914, fighting in Picardy and at the Battle of Verdun before being drafted into the Italian army in 1915 where he served until the end of the war.

He and Louis de Cazenave, 110, are the only two surviving ''poilus'' (''unshaven ones'') -- the nickname given to France's frontline combat troops in World War One.

''I never knew how I got to this point. I was in all sorts of danger, during the war and at other times as well,'' he said.

''We were all going to die, I managed to win the battle.'' Some 8.4 million French soldiers served in the Great War of 1914-18 against the Germans and their allies and more than 1.3 million were killed.

In Paris, President Nicolas Sarkozy broke with tradition by delivering a speech at a ceremony beneath the Arc de Triomphe, calling on young people not to forget the lessons of the war.

''Now that the last witnesses are departing, we have to continue keeping this memory alive so that our children never forget and so that our children transmit the memory of these wars to their children,'' he said.

Across the city at Kremlin Bicetre, the more modest ceremony resembled hundreds of others in towns up and down France, which is still profoundly marked by the four years of fighting.

Ponticelli, who worked his way up from a newspaper boy to the head of a flourishing engineering company after the war, has always attended the commemoration.

But he turned down a proposal from former President Jacques Chirac in 2005 that the last veteran be awarded a state funeral, saying it would insult veterans who died unhonoured.

He made no reference to the controversy today but posed for photographs with a group of young children, advising them to work hard and study engineering.

''You're happy, when you're among friends,'' he said as the marching song ''Le regiment de Sambre et Meuse'' played over loudspeakers and the tricolour flag flew in the wind.

Reuters SBC DB2111

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