Unknown French veteran of 1914 war emerges from mists of time

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The Independent Online

A living unknown soldier has emerged from the mists of time and claimed his place among the "last patrol" of surviving French veterans of the 1914-18 war.

René Riffaud, 107, was so horrified by his experiences of the trenches that he refused to sign up as an official "veteran" in the 1920s. Now, at the urging of his family he wants to "re-enlist" and join the half dozen other French official survivors.

His request - likely to be approved this week - has more than just personal or sentimental importance. President Jacques Chirac has pledged that the last survivor will be given a full state funeral. With only six other veterans still alive in France - one of whom was also recently "rediscovered" - M. Riffaud's re-enlistment will give him a lottery ticket for everlasting fame as the "last poilu". (Poilu, or "hairy man", is the French nickname for Great War veterans and equivalent to the British Tommy.)

Born in Tunisia on 19 December 1898, M. Riffaud was called up to the 42nd Regiment of Colonial Artillery in 1917 and fought in the Ardennes during the final Allied offensives of 1918. Now living in a retirement home at Eure, in upper Normandy, his lungs are still scarred by mustard gas.

M. Riffaud says he did not apply for a veteran's card because "I didn't have fond memories of the war ... I never wanted to attend any ceremonies. That would have brought back memories of barbarity. Oh, no, no, no ..."

He retired in 1973 as head of a company which made electric motors near Paris. At the urging of his granddaughter, Laurence Berthaud, M. Riffaud has decided to apply for veteran status - almost 90 years later. "I was a poilu or someone will have to prove I wasn't. I went along with all the others to smash my head in places that weren't much fun."

The other rediscovered veteran is François Jaffré, 104. He served as a sailor on anti-submarine ships in Atlantic troop convoys. He signed up as a veteran but was lost to officialdom and declared dead after a change of address. He has been found living in a nursing home in Yvelines, near Paris.

Five other survivors are known of the more than seven million French soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought in 1914-18. The oldest, identified only as "Maurice", is 111 and was twice injured and badly disfigured.

The cases of M. Riffaud and M. Jaffre raise an awkward question, however. Are other centenarians out there who, like M. Riffaud, chose not to recall the war or who, like M. Jaffre, were "lost" by a ministry? Could France bury its last poilu with state honours only to find he was not the last after all?