Two More WWI Veterans Surface in France

They fought for France in the horror that was World War I, surviving the "war to end all wars" only for the French bureaucracy to lose track of them and their exploits — until now.

France has rediscovered two centenarian veterans of the 1914-1918 conflict that killed millions, increasing the number of known survivors from five to seven and raising the possibility that there may be others that French officials do not know about.

The issue of how many survivors France still has is important not least because the death of the last one is expected to be marked by commemorations nationwide.

Francois Jaffre, 104, was thought to have died; in fact, he merely had moved to a retirement home west of Paris.

And Rene Riffaud, 107, can thank his granddaughter for his new inclusion in France's dwindling and revered club of officially recognized "poilus" — meaning hairy or tough — as France calls its WWI vets. She brought his case to official attention, applying last year for a veterans card for him.

Hamlaoui Mekachera, France's veterans minister whose father also fought in WWI, 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 doesn't expect many more to de discovered, given the fact that they will most likely be aged 100 or more.

"It is not impossible that we could discover some," he said. "There have been two cases in one week."

Jaffre had been on the lists of the national veterans office, but slipped off when he didn't tell officials he had moved from Paris to a retirement home in the Yvelines.

"We thought he was dead," said Farida Cherkaoui, a spokeswoman for the veterans' minister. Jaffre finally re-registered, "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 was born in Tunisia and joined the Fifth Group of African Campaign Artillery in April 1917, Cherkaoui said. Riffaud lives in a retirement home in the Eure region of Normandy, where The Associated Press interviewed him on Friday.

His memories of the war were hazy. He recalled being stationed in a forest near the Rhine that separates France and Germany and spoke about 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 took so long in getting the veteran card because I wasn't a fighting soldier. I never engaged in military discussions. I was more worried with living than looking back to the past," he said.

"I expect no reward from anyone. 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. I have nothing of a volunteer."

There appears to be no exact worldwide count of surviving veterans from the war that set a new benchmark in the history of human conflict with its fetid trenches, corpse-filled battlefields of mud, and the use of poison gas, machine guns, tanks and artillery bombardments.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said eight WWI vets were listed on benefits rolls as of September 2005. The count of survivors was lost after the question was left off a census taken in the 1990s, said USDVA 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.

Britain has 13 survivors, of which three live in Australia, said Dennis Goodwin of the World War One Veterans Association. The British government has voiced support for a plan to hold a state funeral when the last one dies. It would be the first such funeral since the death of Winston Churchill in 1965.

The Turkish War Veterans Association says it has no WWI survivors. Italy appears to have about 10. Germany has no official figure. An official at the German organization for war graves estimated there might be five, but said he didn't really know.

The oldest surviving French veteran, Maurice Floquet, will turn 112 on Dec. 25, according to Cherkaoui. He lives in the Var region of southeastern France.

The French count of survivors had, until now, steadily dwindled. President Jacques Chirac, in his first year in power in 1995, asked for a census of survivors so they could be awarded the Legion of Honor, France's most prestigious award.

That count turned up nearly 4,000 "poilus." The figure had shrunk to just six — not including Jaffre and Riffaud — for Armistice Day last November, the annual commemoration of the end of the fighting on Nov. 11, 1918.

Six then became five with the death last weekend of Ferdinand Gilson, aged 107, in the Loiret region south of Paris, according to Marie-Georges Vingadassalon of the national veterans office.

Gilson was 18 when he was called up to the 115th Infantry Regiment, was gassed twice, recovered from the Spanish flu when an epidemic followed the war, and then worked for the Resistance in World War II.

The rediscovery of Jaffre and Riffaud comes as France is marking the 90th anniversary of the 1916 battle of Verdun, a bloodbath that remains seared in the national consciousness. In coming weeks, the first stone will be laid for a memorial to Muslim combatants from Senegal, Morocco, Algeria and elsewhere who fought for France in the war.