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Say 'thanks' before they're gone

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By John Barnhart

France buried its last World War I veteran last week.

Actually, Lazare Ponticelli was Italian. Born at the end of 1897, he left Italy, when he was 9, to join his brothers who were already in France. When Germany invaded in August, 1914, Ponticelli, still 16 at the time, lied about his age in order to enlist in the Foreign Legion. He wanted to fight for the country that took him in.

He served in the Argonne region of the front until Italy entered the war on the Allied side. The Italian army called him up, but he wanted to stay with the French army. Italy got him anyway. After the war, he returned to France and ultimately became a French citizen.

France gave Ponticelli an elaborate national funeral ceremony. According to an Associate Press story, he had agreed to this prior to his death on the condition that it would honor all the poilus and not just himself. Poilu, which means "hairy" is the nickname that was given to all WWI French soldiers. There were 8,660,000 of them. Of these, 1,390,000 were killed and 4,330,000 were wounded. These figures come from a book, World War I, by H. P. Willmott, a British author.

Most of the fighting in France during World War I was like D-Day after D-Day with a major exception. Virtually all of these battles were indecisive. For example, 100,000 French soldiers were killed or wounded in a five-week offensive in the Artois region, accomplishing absolutely nothing. Soldiers who got hung up on barbed wire became easy targets for machine guns. Some soldiers drowned in water-filled shell craters. And I can't even imagine how miserable it must have been to be in a wet, muddy trench during an early winter freezing rain.

We ultimately won that war. All sides had reached the point at which they were no longer able to make up their combat losses. France was running out of Frenchmen. We sent 2 million troops to the front lines in France at a time when Germany was running out of Germans.

Bedford County sent men and a bronze plaque in the entrance to the courthouse bears the name of 39 local men who went over there and never came back.

I once met a World War I veteran. It was during the summer during my college years and I had gone with a friend to visit a fellow who had just had surgery. When we got there we discovered that, although Tom was back in his room, he was not quite coherent. It was a semi-private room, so Gary and I got to talking with the old fellow who was in the other bed. I wish I had taken notes of this conversation, but I didn't think of it at the time. I didn't note the man's name and have now forgotten it in the intervening 35 years.

It turned out that he had served in Italy, rather than France. This was a surprise for Gary, whose father had served in Italy. He had heard all of his father's "when I was in Italy" stories so many times that he could recite them by heart. Now, he was resigned to hear more "when I was in Italy" stories, from a different war.

Gary's dad's stories were all new to me, so I listened to them with rapt attention. The old doughboy's stories struck me the same way.

The old soldier said that his unit's duty consisted of marching to one location, changing all the unit insignia on their uniforms, and marching to another place. The apparent idea was to confuse Central Powers' agents as to which units and how many men we had in Italy.

At the end of the war, he was among the troops sent north, into the Italian Alps, to accept the surrender of Austrian troops. He recalled what terrible physical condition the surrendering Austrians were in.

"I thought, 'I could post you my rifle and still beat you,'" he recalled.

He also recalled that all the Austrian soldiers were smiling as they surrendered.

There are only three American WWI veterans left, so you'll probably never meet one. You still have the chance, however, to talk with guys who served in World War II. Don't pass up the opportunity, because it won't be long until they, too, are gone.