Whenever the topic came up over the course of his biblically long life, Lazare Ponticelli always doggedly rejected the idea of being buried in a state funeral. But shortly before his death, under pressure from both the media and political leaders, he gave his consent for a solemn ceremony, "without much fuss and without a big parade, in the name of all those who died, men and women."
Ponticelli was the last recognized veteran of in France, the last living survivor of the more than 8 million people who were called to arms by the French Republic. Of that number, some 1.4 million did not survive the massive slaughter. When Ponticelli passed away on March 12, 2008, in Le Kremlin-Bicêtre near Paris, at the age of 110, his death moved the entire nation.
He was known as "le dernier poilu" (the last of the hairy ones) or "le der des der" (the last of the last), a popular term for the ordinary soldiers fighting at the front in the "Great War," who held the line in the mud and filth of the trenches, unwashed and unshaven (hence the term of endearment "poilu," or hairy), suffering the greatest of deprivations and ultimately becoming an icon in the mythological imagery of France's collective memory.
The funeral mass was broadcast on live television from the Les Invalides complex in Paris, and it was attended by some of the country's highest ranking leaders: then-President Nicolas Sarkozy and his predecessor Jacques Chirac, the presidents of the National Assembly and the senate, the prime minister and key members of the cabinet. Eleven French Foreign Legion soldiers carried the coffin.
From Poor Immigrant to National Treasure
When Ponticelli, born in Italy in 1897, came to France at the age of nine, he was illiterate and didn't speak a word of French. He joined the Foreign Legion at the beginning of the war, lying about his age to be accepted. "I wanted to defend France, because it had given me food," he said. He was only awarded French citizenship in 1939.
And now Ponticelli's adopted country was bidding farewell to him with military honors and a mass in Saint-Louis Cathedral. Writer and author Max Gallo, a master of French patriotic literature, delivered the eulogy to the deceased, a "man of peace, modest and heroic, Italian by birth and French by choice." Guillaume Kaleff, a French schoolboy, recited a poem that his ninth-grade class had written in memory of the poilus and their fight for freedom. Flags flew at half-mast on public buildings, and schools and government offices observed a minute of silence.
"When we began an assault," Ponticelli used to say, "we promised each other: You must think of me if I die." France has remained true to this promise, and there is no doubt that the country will solemnly reinforce it in the 100th commemorative year of the Great War.
In contrast to Germany, France does not treat the war as a remote and de-emotionalized part of history, but as the vivid subject of what historian Nicolas Offenstadt called a "social and cultural practice," or "Activism 14/18." The nation, internally divided, plagued by self-doubts, and at greater risk than ever of falling behind in the competitive struggle of a globalized economy, is turning inward to find refuge and protection.
Collective Memory as Comfort
The memory of the last war of the modern age from which France emerged victorious -- and the invocation of those four years in which a united, heroic and self-sacrificing people (at least in the prevailing self-image) passed a test of global history -- provides contemporary France with an excellent source of meaning. It gives the French confidence and support, despite the current economic and political upheavals. And it allows for an ecumenical interpretation of the past, in which those on the left and the right, pacifists and patriots, European idealists and nationalists can find common ground.
The symbolically exalted poilu serves politicians as a useful point of crystallization and orientation in the reconstruction of an unhappy, suffering national identity that threatens to come apart in the wind gusts of modernity.
Both conservative former President Sarkozy and his Socialist successor, François Hollande, saw the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I as a welcome opportunity to transfer the national unity, courage and willingness to make sacrifices of the French in 1914 to the present. The virtues of that moment can be tapped again today: solidarity, closing ranks and standing together as one are the recurring buzzwords in a patriotic discourse that appeals to those alive today by honoring past generations.
A memory intended to bolster dwindling self-confidence produces a completely different commemorative culture than in Germany, where the culture of remembrance is dominated by what French philosopher Pascal Bruckner calls a "guilt complex." The last presumed German participant in World War I, Erich Kästner, a retired court official, died in Cologne at the age of 107, only three months before Ponticelli's death. It was telling that the German public learned almost nothing about the quiet death of this veteran, who had the same name as a famous German writer. There was no official German reaction to Kästner's death. In fact, the British, Canadians, Americans and French paid more attention to it than did his own countrymen.
For historian Arndt Weinrich, a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Paris, the example of the two veterans underscores the "stable asymmetry in perception of the years 1914 to 1918" between the French and the Germans. World War II and the Holocaust are the negative myth of origin of the Federal Republic, one that has largely eliminated World War I from the collective consciousness. "World War I plays no role whatsoever when it comes to the symbolism and self-image of the Federal Republic within Germany's political culture," says Weinrich.
The French find this difficult to understand, just as German observers have trouble relating to the idea that, especially in the last 10 to 20 years, 14/18 and the cult surrounding the last poilus have developed into a positive original myth for modern France.
"La Grande Guerre," Weinrich notes, "has thus achieved, in the national collection of symbols of the Fifth Republic, an importance readily comparable with the French Revolution of 1789." Accordingly, the French associate the anniversary year with a historic mission that completely lacks an equivalent moral foundation in Berlin. Europe simply lacks a common memory of the war.
Declarations of commitment to European integration and to the Franco-German friendship have long since acquired the tone of ritual, formulaic prayers on both sides of the Rhine, as if officials there aimed to reestablish the Carolingian Empire. No crisis seems capable of breaking the couple apart, and yet the relationship is becoming more and more imbalanced. France is keeping a watchful eye on Germany, fluctuating between expectation and mistrust. Germany, for its part, runs the risk that its view of neighboring France will freeze into benevolent indifference, together with a dose of condescension.
Betrayal of the Fallen?
The gradual estrangement of Paris and Berlin, accompanied as it may be by constant empty talk of reconciliation, could well be the beginning of the end of the European adventure -- and a betrayal of the legacy of those who gave their lives in World War I. Soon after 1918, French society imposed on itself the dual obligation that Germany was only willing to accept after 1945: never to forget and never to allow such a catastrophe to happen again. The pacification and unification of Europe was based on this common experience, even though it occurred 30 years later in Germany. For France, Nov. 11, the day of the armistice of 1918, was the sad counterpart to Bastille Day on July 14, as Patrick Cabanel, a professor of history in Toulouse, put it. The two dates mark the "death and resurrection of the nation" -- and of Europe.
The many milestones of Franco-German reconciliation -- Robert Schuman's 1951 plan to create the European Coal and Steel Community, the 1957 Treaty of Rome, the 1963 Elysée Treaty between then-President Charles de Gaulle and then-Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the handshake between later heads of state, François Mitterand and Helmut Kohl in a graveyard near Verdun in 1984, and Sarkozy's invitation to Chancellor Angela Merkel to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on Nov. 11, 2009 -- they all lead back to 1914/18.
From the French perspective, that war should have been the last, in keeping with the utopia of poet Charles Péguy, who had written to a friend, shortly before he was killed at the front in September 1914: "I am going to battle for general disarmament, and for the last of the wars."
'A Disaster Cannot be Celebrated'
The revolution, and the bright sun of the Enlightenment, with its universalistic claim, were celebrated with great pomp on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution in 1989. The Great War can only be commemorated with sadness, because "a disaster cannot be celebrated," writes historian and world war expert Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau. Within the first few years after the war ended, the French adopted the view that there was ultimately no victor in 1918, but only victims and the defeated, and that there was therefore no reason for the euphoria that quickly dissipated.
At the time, between 1920 and 1925, roughly 36,000 "monuments aux morts," or monuments to the fallen, were erected all across France, one in almost every village and town. In most cases, the architecture of these monuments expressed the will of the surviving and returning soldiers to honor the victims and not to glorify the victors. In addition to mourning the 1.4 million dead, the French were faced with the need to reintegrate the 4.3 million wounded into society. When the 537,000 prisoners of war and those missing in action are added to the total, the French military lost 78 percent of the roughly 8 million who had been conscripted (compared with 56 percent in Germany).
With such horrendous figures, how could anyone call it a victory? France had only one main enemy on one front, and it wasn't alone. Germany, on the other hand, had far too many enemies. But if that were the case, why did the Allies suffer significantly greater losses on the Western Front than the Germans, who, until the end, remained superior to the French and the British in the art of killing? And why did the French army, which was supposedly in excellent shape at the beginning of the war, lose about 230,000 soldiers in the first three months, from August to October 1914, more than in any other time period after that, even on the bloody fields of Verdun?
Throughout the entire duration of the war, almost 52 months, or 1,564 days, an average of 900 Frenchmen were killed every day. On Aug. 22, 1914, the French army experienced a disaster of historic proportions. In a series of battles near the town of Rossignol in the Belgian Ardennes Mountains, near the border with France, 27,000 French soldiers were killed in a single day, four times as many as at the Battle of Waterloo a century earlier. It was a slaughter without compare, in both the past and the future of the country's long military history.
Revisiting French Losses
The disastrous beginning of the war in the late summer of 1914, which almost led France to defeat within a few weeks, raised questions that were eventually addressed, after the war, by a parliamentary investigation committee in the summer of 1919. How was it possible that, despite the smooth mobilization of French forces, the enemy could penetrate so deeply into the country? So deeply, in fact, that the frontline stretched across French territory until the end? Why were the ore mines of Briey in Lorraine, critical to the production of arms, lost so quickly? Thirteen administrative regions, or départements, in eastern and northern France became embroiled in the war and were fully or partially occupied by the Germans. They include the center of French heavy industry, Lorraine, which was the equivalent of Germany's industrial Ruhr region.
The members of the investigative committee failed to reach any clear conclusions. A ruthless investigation would have been politically inopportune, because it would have painted the nation's new heroes after the victory, especially the supreme commander in the first postwar years, Joseph Joffre, in an overly unfavorable light.
Most of all, the committee would have had to investigate the myth that, in August 1914, France was waging a purely defensive war and that, as a result, the struggle to defend the nation was deeply just, and that the horrible sacrifices also had to be accepted as being justified.
Contrary to the general assumption, Joffre, an intelligent but arrogant and suspicious officer who kept his commanders on a short leash, lacked a precise plan of operation. Instead, he was chiefly motivated by a position: to attack at all costs, everywhere and wherever French troops encountered the enemy. There was no real defense plan, as Joffre's first order to all army commanders on Aug. 8 underscored: "Take the offensive, with all forces in combination, to seek to bring the enemy to decisive battle."
'Offensive to the Extreme'
The French leadership had not sought or even wanted war. But it had always expected it, and if war did erupt, it would be "offensive to the extreme" ("offensive à outrance"), in keeping with the theories Colonel Louis de Grandmaison had devised in 1906. These notions stemmed from the conviction that modern weapons technology and the mobilization of large-scale armies made a quick decision imperative. The Germans and the French alike believed that a lengthy war of attrition could not be sustained.
In this sense, France was prepared, both politically and militarily. The new "Plan XVII," which Joffre developed between April 1913 and April 1914, envisioned swift and massive attacks on territory in Alsace and Lorraine that had been lost in 1871. The goal was to wrest control of the former départements on the Mosel and Rhine Rivers, which contained the cities of Metz, Strasbourg and Mulhouse, from France's "sworn enemy" once again.
The general mobilization that was decided on Aug. 1, two days before the German declaration of war, constituted a critical moment of uncertainty for then President Raymond Poincaré and Prime Minister René Viviani. A short time earlier, on July 31, 1914, a nationalist student had shot and killed the Socialist leader Jean Jaurès through the open window of a restaurant on Rue Montmartre in Paris. The politician, a powerful leader of the leftist peace movement, had been having dinner with a few of his supporters. The murder, in a sense a French version of the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, could have had dramatic consequences, including rioting among workers, calls for strikes by trade unions and a blockade of the railroads.
The government anticipated the worst. The authorities had placed 2,481 suspicious persons on a blacklist known as Carnet B. The list included pacifist agitators, alleged agitators and potential spies, who were to be arrested in the event of an emergency. But despite the dismay over the Jaurès killing, calm prevailed in the otherwise nervous capital. The French proletariat did its patriotic duty and obeyed the call to arms. Speaking at Jaurès' coffin, trade union leader Léon Jouhaux solemnly promised that the workers would respond vigorously to the mobilization by reporting to duty, and would "rise up to repel the invader."
Primacy of the French Political Class
The French concentration of troops progressed in good order. Some 800,000 active-duty soldiers and close to 1.3 million reservists advanced to their positions along the northern and eastern borders. From Aug. 2-18, 4,278 trains transported the bulk of the army to the train stations in Sedan, Montmédy, Toul, Nancy and Belfort. The armed forces requisitioned more than 600,000 horses and mules. At the same time, the navy began bringing in colonial troops from Algeria and Tunisia. Only a year earlier, France had increased compulsory military service from two to three years, in an effort to offset Germany's numerical superiority.
In a speech to the Chamber of Deputies on Aug. 4, President Poincaré invoked the "union sacrée," or sacred union, which was to bring together all parties, denominations and classes in sacred unity to defend the nation -- no small matter in a deeply divided republic, which had only introduced the separation of church and state in 1905, following a bitter culture war with the Catholic Church. The internal truce lasted almost the entire war.
And in contrast to Germany, politicians retained their primacy over the military leadership. In fact, it only became stronger during the course of the war. Joffre was ousted in 1916, because of his unsuccessful and losing strategy, as was his successor, Robert Nivelle, in 1917. In France's collective memory, the real father of victory was not a military leader but a politician, the combative republican Georges Clemenceau. "The Tiger," as he was called, became prime minister and war minister in November 1917, and he subsequently led the peace negotiations in Versailles -- a sort of French response to Bismarck's unification of the German Empire at Versaille in 1871. The occupation of the Rhineland, which began in 1919 as a result of Clemenceau's efforts, was intended to provide France with a security guarantee. Instead, it only poisoned relations between the two countries for years to come.
Near Defeat on the Western Front
In the west, the war could have ended with France's total defeat in mid-September 1914, after only six weeks, even more quickly than the German general staff had planned (and as it succeeded in doing in 1940). The attacks in Alsace and Lorraine ordered by Joffre failed, and after the fall of the Belgian city of Liège on Aug. 7, three German armies, in forced marches of up to 30 kilometers (19 miles) a day, hurried through Belgium and toward the French border. Near Dinant and Charleroi, two German armies encountered the French Fifth Army, which was advancing in the direction of Namur.
The French commander, Charles Lanrezac, hesitated, unsure of which tactics to pursue. Should he defend at all costs the Charleroi-Namur line, as well as the banks of the Meuse River, as Joffre wished? The headstrong general, no supporter of the prevailing offensive doctrine, recognized the danger of being encircled by the Germans along his left and right flanks. Without consulting his superior, Joffre, he beat a retreat with the entire Fifth Army. Some of the officers on his staff were outraged over his trepidation, because Lanrezac's decision also forced the majority of the French troops, together with the British Expeditionary Force, to retreat along the entire length of the front, from east to west.
What no one recognized was that what appeared to be a shameful defeat actually contributed to the French being saved from the trap of the Schlieffen plan.
At first, the German armies threatened to topple Paris. The French government withdrew to Bordeaux (as it had done before in 1871, and would later do in 1940). City commandant Joseph Gallieni prepared for a siege of the French capital, which was still a fortified city of strongholds, walls and artillery at the time. He even planned to blow up the Eiffel Tower and the bridges over the Seine River, if necessary.
Miracle of the Marne
The unexpected turnaround that rescued France from disaster has since entered the history books of every generation of schoolchildren as the "Miracle of the Marne." General Alexander von Kluck, commander of the First German Army along the extreme right flank, the critical flank in the Schlieffen plan, suddenly changed his line of approach. Under the assumption that the upcoming decisive battle was looming along his left flank, he directed his troops to the southeast, instead of circumventing Paris in a wide arc to the west, as planned.
Gallieni, who, to his surprise, no longer faced the threat of attack, released his defensive forces for a counterattack. Paris taxis shuttled them to the front, where they threatened Kluck's flank, and the "taxis de la Marne" went down in history. Joffre regrouped his troops, assembled two new armies and recognized the opportunity to penetrate into a breach that had formed between Kluck's First and Second Armies.
The Battle of the Marne began on Sept. 6, along a front extending for more than 100 kilometers. It ended a week later, when the unnerved German chief of staff, Helmuth von Moltke, gave the order to retreat. He also ordered the fortification of new positions on the banks of the Aisne River, a decision that marked a turning point on the Western Front, when position warfare in the trenches began.
From the fall of 1914 to the spring of 1917 -- in fact, until the last German offensive in March 1918 -- the front, stretching 750 kilometers from Ypern in Flanders to Mulhouse in Alsace, remained more or less static. It never bulged by more than 20 to 30 kilometers in either direction. All advances (under Joffre in the Artois and Champagne in 1915, under Falkenhayn near Verdun in 1916, and under Nivelle along the Chemin des Dames ridge in 1917) failed, causing immense losses while yielding strategically insignificant gains in territory.
Non-Victory and Reconciliation
The marshals and generals have been consigned to history. The culture of the victim has replaced hero worship, leaving behind mourning, consternation and a morbid fascination with the horrors of the war. The Great War formed the culmination of a catastrophic sequence from 1870 to 1940, tying France and Germany together as archenemies in a mimetic love-hate relationship.
And yet, paradoxically, it also laid the foundation for later reconciliation, perhaps precisely because the war ended with a non-victory, at least in the French perception. In the commemorative year, the former mortal enemies have closer ties than the former allies, the French the British, and today's "entente cordiale" encompasses Germany and France rather than France and England. The idea of a war between European nations seems to have become absurd, and European unification constitutes a regional attainment of the world peace envisioned by Immanuel Kant and the philosophers of the Enlightenment.
Historian Antoine Prost, chairman of the academic advisory council for the commemorative ceremonies, sees this as the most important change brought about by 1914/18: The absolute sovereignty of the nation-states, the greatest expression and terrible culmination of which was the war, was called into question. The state, the god of the slaughter, lost its legitimacy.
Lazare Ponticelli, the last poilu, could have been laid to rest at the Panthéon in Paris, the mausoleum to the great figures of the fatherland. He rejected the honor and chose to be buried in his family plot instead. Near the end of his life, his only memories were of his dead comrades. "I cannot forget them," he would tell the visitors who were to record his testimony and legacy for posterity. "What a mess!"