TOSNY, France – At age 107, Rene Riffaud has only hazy memories of his part in the “war to end all wars,” but he’s quite clear about why France has only now inducted him into the small and shrinking band of hallowed World War I survivors.
Simply put, Riffaud figures those who died were the ones who deserved the recognition: “I was more worried with living than looking back to the past,” he said.
France, belatedly, disagrees. This week, the veterans minister approved a request from Riffaud’s granddaughter that he be given an official veteran’s card – nearly 88 years after the war ended.
That decision, and the rediscovery of another veteran thought to have died, has bumped France’s tally of World War I survivors up to seven – a remarkable development raising the possibility that there may be others.
Riffaud was born in Tunisia, where he was drafted into a colonial regiment for France, he said. He now lives in a retirement home in the Eure region of Normandy.
Riffaud, who is frail and uses a wheelchair since an accident six months ago, shied away from the bright lights of a television camera crew as he told of the destruction of the war.
He recalled being stationed in a forest near the Rhine River between France and Germany and spoke about lingering ill health caused by exposure to poisonous mustard gas. He said those who died deserved recognition – not someone like himself, who took no part in combat.
“I did the war my way,” he said, clutching a black-and-white photograph of himself, dapper in his military uniform. “After the war, I was sick. I had suffered from the (mustard) gas without knowing it.”
Riffaud said he never liked talking about military issues and was not a combat soldier.
“I expect no reward from anyone,” he said. “My son had the veteran card, but I never felt the need for it. I am a ‘poilu’ because I was forced to see and do certain things.”
The issue of how many survivors remain in France is important not least because the death of the last veteran is expected to be marked by commemorations nationwide.
Riffaud and Francois Jaffre, 104, join France’s revered club of officially recognized poilus, a nickname the French use when referring to its vets from the 1914-1918 war.
Jaffre had been on the lists of the national veterans office, but slipped off when he did not tell officials he had moved from Paris to a retirement home in the suburban Yvelines region.
“We thought he was dead,” said Farida Cherkaoui, a spokeswoman for the veterans’ minister. Jaffre finally reregistered, “and that is why he has reappeared,” she added.
She said she had no details about his record in the war. According to the Friday edition of the daily Le Monde, Jaffre joined the navy at age 16, in September 1917, and served on a submarine-hunter escorting American troop ships from New York to France.
Riffaud’s granddaughter brought his case to official attention, applying last year for his veteran’s card. Hamlaoui Mekachera, France’s veterans minister, signed off on the request Thursday, his office said.
“We are very happy. Instead of there being five of them, there are seven, and I hope that they will remain among us for a very long time,” the minister said Friday on LCI television.
Mekachera said he does not expect many more World War I veterans to de discovered, but added, “It is not impossible that we could discover some. … There have been two cases in one week.”
There appears to be no exact worldwide count of surviving veterans from the war, which set a terrible new benchmark in the history of human conflict, with millions dead on muddy, trench-covered battlefields.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said its eight WWI vets were listed on benefits rolls as of September. The count of survivors was lost after the question was left off a census taken in the 1990s, said spokesman Jose Llamas.
“I know that there are less than 50 veterans worldwide,” he said. Living U.S. veterans include a 112-year old man living in Puerto Rico and a 104-year old in the Washington, D.C., area, he said.