Lazare Ponticelli

Ponticelli was the last surviving foot-soldier in the French Army of World War I.  He died last week at age 110.  He wasn’t even naturalized as a French citizen until 1939.  Yet his memories are our last contact with the most brutal and senseless war in modern memory.  It was fought not even for the ostensible reasons for the American Civil War, but because the French and Germans got pissed off at each other and dragged all of Europe and the United States into it. That’s not geopolitially correct, but it’s close enough.  Anyway, I just read the Economist obit and I want to weep. I fear to think of his dreams. The
German soldier gesturing to show he had two children–I’m sure it happened a lot on both
sides. The Christmas temporary armistice in 1914 with soldiers from both
sides drinking, exchanging addresses and photos, and playing soccer–and those
hideous officers, hidebound old veterans of African colonial slaughters, putting
a stop to such unmanly civility PDQ.

Wilfred Owen has a wonderful poem called
“Strange Meeting” about the two adversaries who meet on the “other side.” And
there’s that theme through a lot of the writing–“If we’d met before we’d
probably have been friends.” That is the part of WW1 that appals me and
sometimes, if I think about it, upends my thoughts in contemplating our Civil
War: men who did know each other did their best to kill one another because some
high-ranking guy pointed them in the direction, all in the name of Duty. What a
wonderful homophone….

How damned many cases of PTSD came out of the
WW1 trenches disguised as “shellshock” or “battle fatigue”? Worse, how many came
out of the Civil War when there was no psychiatry even at the “meatball” level? If you haven’t read it already, highly
recommended is Pat Barker’s “The Ghost Road,” about an early
psychiatrist at a “rehab” in Scotland. His “prime directive” is to
reassemble men who were psychologically demolished at the Somme and Paeschendaele to
return to France for more of the same, and he is self-disgusted and resigned at
the same time to doing a task that makes him sick but not enough so he would
stage a one-man mutiny. His primary patient is the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who,
God bless him, survived the war and died an old man. Of course Wilfred Owen did
not.

Ponticelli saw all this stuff. He saw that war is about killing someone’s father, someone’s son, someone’s brother or child. It’s not about politics or sacrifice, it’s about slaughter. It is a marvel to me that more men like him did not stick service
revolvers in their own mouths to turn off the memories. But God bless the old
man’s soul–he deserves rest after a long and I gather prosperous and rewarding
life.  But I still wonder what he dreamed about on his last
night.

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