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BIOGRAPHY

Ponticelli was born near Bettola, a small village located in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, on 7 December 1897 as one of seven children born to Giovanni Ponticelli and Filomena Cordani. His father traded livestock on the fairgrounds and was also employed as a carpenter and cobbler.

The family owned a small plot of land, which Ponticelli’s mother cultivated. Thrice annually, she would commute to the Po Valley to work the rice fields. Ponticelli grew up in poverty, with himself and his siblings often going hungry. When he was two, his mother journeyed to France to earn a greater wage.

Ponticelli’s father and brother, Giovanni and Pietro (Pierre), both died unexpectedly. Ponticelli’s siblings were relocated to Paris with their mother, and he was left in the care of neighbours. He started working aged six, having several occupations including making clogs. By the time he was eight years old, he had saved enough money to travel alone to Paris. He was able to purchase a train ticket at the station in Piacenza.

Ponticelli spoke no French, but he was able to find work in Paris as a chimney sweep and a paperboy; he obtained a work permit aged 13. In 1914, he lied about his age to join the French Foreign Legion. He was sent to the front line in the Argonne forests that August, where the French had no trenches, but the Germans were afforded them. As such, he was tasked with digging trenches and burial pits. He reportedly saved the lives of two wounded soldiers, one German and one French, who were caught between the front lines.

Upon Italy’s entry of the conflict in 1915, Ponticelli was drafted into the Italian army and fought in Tyrol against the Austrians as a machine gunner, where he suffered severe facial injuries from a shell assault. He had attempted to remain with the French Foreign Legion, but was escorted to Turin by two gendarmes. In an undated interview, he described the shelling, “Blood was running into my eyes… I continued firing despite my wound.”

For a period of three weeks, Ponticelli’s regiment ceased fighting the Austrians, instead swapping loaves of bread and tobacco, and photographing each other. In 1918, Ponticelli was gassed in an attack from the Austrians, which culminated in the deaths of hundreds of his fellow combatants. In one of his final interviews, he remarked that he was surprised at his survival. Reflecting on war, he stated, “You shoot at men who are fathers. War is completely stupid.”

RECOGNITION

Upon the death of Louis de Cazenave on 20 January 2008, Ponticelli not only became the oldest living man in France, but also the last French World War I veteran recognised by the French government. Two other veterans, Fernand Goux and Pierre Picault, lived until November 2008, but due to the fact they did not meet the government’s criterium of serving for over six months, they were not recognised during their lifetimes.

Following Ponticelli’s death, 109-year-old Pierre Picault became the oldest living man in France and would go on to become the actual last surviving World War I veteran of the country.

Ponticelli’s age was verified by Giovanni Alunni (GRG) and Cyril Depoudent of Les Grands Centenaires Français (ESO), and was validated by each organisation on 23 January 2008 and 11 May 2022 respectively.

ATTRIBUTION

GALLERY

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