January 20, 2008 / 10:21 PM / 12 years ago

France's oldest man dies, one WWI survivor left

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s oldest man, a First World War veteran who refused a medal and spoke powerfully about the horrors of war, has died at 110, leaving just one veteran alive from the conflict.

France's Louis de Cazenave, one of France's last two surviving veterans of World War One, is seen in this November 10, 2007 file photo. Cazenave died in his home in Brioude in central France, January 20, 2007. De Cazenave, born October 16, 1897, was 110 years old and was the oldest man in France. REUTERS/Handout/Files

Louis de Cazenave died at his home in the Auvergne region in central France on Sunday, the government said.

President Nicolas Sarkozy called his death a reminder of the 1.4 million French who had lost their lives in the 1914-18 war.

Cazenave survived both the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and the Second Battle of the Aisne a year later, two of the bloodiest episodes of the “war to end all wars”.

Born in October 1897, de Cazenave became an infantryman in 1916 and retired in 1941. He refused a military decoration but was eventually awarded the civilian Legion of Honour in 1999.

“Some of my comrades weren’t even given a wooden cross,” he told Le Monde newspaper in 2005.

Recalling events etched into his mind 88 years earlier, he gave a grim account of the offensive on German positions along the river Aisne which caused about 350,000 French and German deaths and led afterwards to a partial French mutiny.

“You should have heard the wounded between the lines. They called out to their mothers, begged us to go finish them off,” he told Le Monde.

“We found the Germans when we went to get water at the well. We spoke to them. They were just like us; they had had enough.”

He described patriotism as “a way of making people swallow anything” and war as absurd and useless. “Nothing can justify it, nothing,” he said.

The last surviving “beardy,” the nickname given in France to First World War veterans because of conditions in the trenches, is now Lazare Ponticelli, 110.

He has refused an offer of a state funeral, saying it would show disrespect to war victims who never got the same honour.

Reporting by Thierry Leveque and Tim Hepher, Editing by Matthew Jones

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