They had won the war but most now merely wanted to get out of khaki and be safely back in civilian life as soon as was humanly possible. Eventually they would all get home, free to try to pick up the traces of their civilian lives that many found had ceased to have much meaning. Too much had changed: vast empires had fallen and the world had surely altered forever. Millions had died; millions more were crippled or maimed. The young men who had survived this modern Armageddon knew they were lucky, but they had changed – in many cases, beyond all recognition – from the callow boys who had gone to war. Millions of them returned to their homes, families and girlfriends. Most coped well and against all the odds managed to live reasonably happy and contented lives. Yet many found themselves alone in a crowd. No one had really defined the nature of combat fatigue or post-traumatic stress disorder in the 1920s and there was little psychological help available until it was too late. Some soldiers back from the front had simply seen too much, experienced too many horrors, to go quietly back into the tranquillity of civilian life.

Alec Campbell was one of Australia’s last surviving First World War veterans. He died at the age of 103 years and was given a state funeral. Bryan Westwood, Alec Campbell (1991, oil on canvas, 123 x 107 cm). ART90416 Alec Campbell was one of Australia’s
last surviving First World War veterans. He died at the age of
103 years and was given a state funeral. Bryan Westwood,
Alec Campbell (1991, oil on canvas, 123 x 107 cm).

Or consider Franz Künstler, who died in May 2008, aged 107. A Hungarian-German, he was the last Great War soldier from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For him, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand n Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 was not a textbook event that triggered a world war but the moment that ended his childhood. His summer holidays began on that day, but when the train that brought the 13-year-old home from school pulled in at the station, a worried-looking father was waiting on the platform. “He told me that Franz Ferdinand had been shot, and that hard times were lying ahead of us,” Künstler remembered. “The assassination in Sarajevo destroyed my life, too. I wanted to go to university and become a lawyer.” But when Austria–Hungary declared war on Serbia, his older brothers were drafted into the army, and Künstler had to leave school to work at his parents’ farm until he was drafted himself in January 1918, to operate cannons on the Italian Front.

Künstler was surprised when, in January 2007, “fan mail” started filling his letterbox in the small town of Niederstetten in southern Germany, where he had been living since 1946. Letters came from Germany, Britain and the United States. Teenagers wrote to get his autograph, journalists wanted interviews and souvenir-hunters asked for war relics. Künstler didn’t quite see what the fuss was about. “I’m not in the least proud of being the Emperor’s last soldier,” he insisted in an interview. “I was no hooray soldier, I only did what I had to do.”

That is what 111-year old Harry Patch says, too: “I didn’t want to join up. I came from a very sheltered family… I wasn’t at all patriotic. I went and did what was asked of me and no more.” Patch is the last surviving British Great War veteran, but he considers himself a retired plumber. The two years on the Western Front make up no more than one 54th of his long life, and, for a long time, he avoided thinking about that time altogether.

“I didn’t even like the old wartime songs; they brought back too many memories. Passchendaele was as deeply buried at the back of my mind as I could possibly make it.” This changed with his 100th birthday. Even Andrew Motion, the British poet laureate, came with a film crew, to meet Patch and write him a poem.

Patch already knows that his death will be marked with a national memorial service for all that war’s veterans. The plans were announced in mid-June 2006, when Britain had fewer than 10 Great War veterans left. The event will take place at Westminster Abbey, and it will echo the burial of the Unknown Warrior there in November 1920. Across the Channel, in Paris, Jacques Chirac was planning something similar for the nation’s “dernier poilu”. Why not bury him with the nation’s great, at the Hotel des Invalides, near Rousseau and Voltaire?

At the end of January 2008, after the death of 110-year old Louis de Cazenave, Lazare Ponticelli, the last French veteran, finally gave in. On one condition: “Pas de tapage important, ni de grand défilé,” he insisted. No racket, no procession. The French veteran with the Italian surname was born in northern Italy, but poverty drove him to France, where he worked as a chimney sweep and paper-boy until the outbreak of the war. The 16-year-old lied about his age to join the French Foreign Legion, and saw some of the early fighting at Argonne and Verdun. When Italy entered the war in 1915, Ponticelli was discharged from the Legion, and, now in Italian uniform, fought against the Austrians in Tyrol. He returned to France, founded a company that builds chimneys, and became a French citizen in 1939. In 1995, after the French had begun counting their “anciens combattants”, he received the Légion d’honneur, of which he was immensely proud. He died in March 2008. 11 November 2008 will be the first Remembrance Day that will not see the old man place a bunch of carnations at the local war memorial in his Paris suburb.

On 17 March 2008, he was buried, as he had wished, in a private ceremony outside Paris. But before that, the nation’s dignitaries gathered around his flag-draped coffin under the golden dome of the Hotel des Invalides, one of the landmarks of the French capital. The complex, built by Napoleon for aged and unwell soldiers, houses, among others, the French Army Museum, a retirement home for veterans and the tombs of the nation’s war heroes. Napoleon Bonaparte is buried here, as is Ferdinand Foch, Allied Supreme Commander in the First World War. But on 17 March, the flags were flying half-mast for Monsieur Ponticelli, “a man of peace, modest and heroic”, as the eulogy had it; and at 11 o’clock, the entire country paused in a minute’s silence. Later that day, President Nicholas Sarcozy unveiled a plaque near Foch’s tomb: “With the passing of the last French combatant of the First World War, the Nation testifies its gratitude towards those who served the colours in 1914–1918. France cherishes the memory of those who shall remain in history as the poilus of the Great War.”

P04975.011Australian First World War veterans and their wives during
a pilgrimage to Gallipoli to mark the 50th anniversary of the landing,
c. April 1965. None of these veterans is alive today.

Ponticelli’s death made front-line news; that of 107-year old Erich Kästner, 400 kilometres from Paris, did not. Tucked away in the Hannoversche Zeitung of 5 January 2008 was a small death notice: “After a long, fulfilled life, our dear father, father-in-law and grandfather has passed away.” It lists the members of the family who are “in silent mourning” after having “bidden their farewells in the circle of the family”. Shortly afterwards, a journalist of the Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung noticed that the entry for Kästner in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia had been updated. Germany’s last surviving veteran of the Great War was now marked as “died 1 January 2008”. A short article informed Swiss readers of Kästner’s death, and later several German newspapers followed. They interviewed his sons, but they knew more about their father’s service in the Second World War than in the First, where he had only served for four months, behind the front line in 1918. What he recalled best about the earlier war, they said, was taking part in a parade before Kaiser Wilhelm. The German journalists deplored that Germans had lost their last chance to ask somebody with firsthand experience “what it had been like, to serve in field-grey in this infernal war”.

A journalist of the Daily Telegraph went further. He not only regretted that there had been “no television pictures of him, bent with age, and the weight of a great number of medals”; he also demanded a formal statement from the German government. “It’s a shame that Dr Kästner’s death has past so unremarked. However blame is parcelled up for the conflict, surely no one, now, could confuse remembrance with militarism.” But it is not as simple as that. While there is still a fear of militarism, there is also another problem. The British have their poppies, their poetry and their memorials – a rich repertoire of symbols, of things to say and to do. The Germans do not have that. Even before the First World War came to sit in the dark shadow of the Holocaust, its commemoration had been a charged issue. For Germany, the war ended with a revolution. The turbulent, radical years of the Weimar Republic split the country into rivalling camps. The conservatives felt betrayed, stabbed in the back by those who had signed the peace. And the radical left wanted to forget about the Kaiser’s war that, as they saw it, had nothing to do with the new republic. Mourners were left alone with their losses and survivors without any sense of recognition, without a national tradition. “That did real harm to the republic’s cause,” a British historian explains. “It made democracy seem cynical and unfeeling.” The Nazis capitalised on this: they created huge war exhibitions, staged theatre plays that resurrected the war dead, and even began building a combined war academy and museum. With this troubled heritage, the silence of the German chancellor Angela Merkel becomes understandable. But while her reticence testifies to her knowledge of German history, it may also risk repeating past mistakes. On the internet, incorrigible brown-shirts are already voicing claims on “Kamerad” Kästner and his memory. On one right-wing site, a commentator writes: “Just think of it this way. He died without attention, without honour. But in a future, national Germany, he’ll be exhumed and buried with military honours in the crypt of the soldiers’ hall in Berlin.”

These are single, exceptional voices, louder in the anonymous space of the internet than they would be in German streets. Perhaps the internet also makes a good home for a community of memory that is global, rather than national. Stanislaw Wycech, Louis de Cazenave, Lazare Ponticelli and Erich Kästner may have gone, but they are still present in this huge, digital realm of memory – in newspaper articles, photos and even video clips – as are the other “last” Great War veterans who have died in 2008: Yakup Satar (Turkey), Francesco Domenico Chiarello (Italy) and Gladys Power (Canada).

Text © the Author

Cite as:  Spittel, Christina, “Age did weary them”, Wartime 44 (2008) 5053

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