PARIS - France unfurled its military majesty yesterday in honor of its last World War I veteran, who died last week at 110, and all the other Frenchmen who fought in the conflict.
Flags fell to half-staff and President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled a plaque at the gold-domed edifice where Napoleon is buried to honor Lazare Ponticelli and the 8.4 million other Frenchmen who served in a war that tore Europe apart.
The day of national commemoration was ordered by Sarkozy, who wants younger generations to remember the sacrifices of "les poilus" - an affectionate nickname meaning hairy or tough that France uses for its World War I veterans.
"Never again will anyone tell their grandchildren or great-grandchildren about the terrible life of the trenches," Sarkozy said. "No more, will anyone hear the old 'poilu' tell his grandchildren or great-grandchildren: 'Never make war again.'
"We will never forget them."
The solemn day began with a funeral Mass attended by Sarkozy, government ministers, soldiers and teary-eyed members of Ponticelli's family, at Saint-Louis Cathedral, part of the Invalides complex that honors France's military and houses Napoleon's tomb.
"You didn't talk much but when you did, we felt your wisdom, that you doubted nothing and were determined," Ponticelli's grandson, Patrick Large, said during the Mass.
Flags representing all military divisions that fought in World War I were later ceremoniously unfurled. Ponticelli was a French citizen for most of the past century and an unusual soldier who fought first for France, then for Italy, where he was born.
Representatives of the Italian Alpine brigade for which he fought, along with its French counterpart, attended the Mass.
The 1914-1918 conflict, known at the time as the Great War or the "war to end all wars," killed millions. Only a handful of veterans from the war are still living, scattered from Australia to the United States and Europe. Germany's last WWI veteran died on New Year's Day.
Monuments to battles and war dead cover swathes of France where trenches divided the landscape during the war, which left 1.4 million French fighters dead.
Ponticelli was born Dec. 7, 1897, in Bettola, northern Italy.
To escape a tough childhood, he trooped off at age 9 to join his brothers in France, eventually becoming a French citizen.
He worked first as a chimney sweep in Paris, then as a newspaper boy. When the war broke out, he was only 16 and lied about his age to enlist.
"It was my way of saying 'Thank you' " to France, he said in a 2005 interview with the newspaper Le Monde.
Ponticelli joined the Foreign Legion during the war and served in the Argonne region of forest, rivers and lakes in northeast France.
When Italy entered the war in 1915, he was called up to fight with an Italian Alpine regiment. He tried to hide, but was found and sent to fight the Austrian army.
Ponticelli returned to France in 1921, and he and his brothers started a company that made factory smokestacks. The company, Ponticelli Freres, grew into a manufacturer of specialized industrial equipment and is still in business.
After the ceremony, burial was in a family plot in Paris. *