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Last Polish WWI veteran, 105, remembers his teenage soldiering
WARSAW (AFP) — He struggles to sit ramrod straight, but 105-year-old Stanislaw Wycech is as sharp as a tack as he recounts his teenage role in Poland's fight for independence during World War I.
"I wanted to walk tall in the front rank," he told AFP at the home he shares with his 78-year-old son and 76-year-old daughter-in-law, as he toyed with the medals pinned to his jacket.
With a twinkle in his eye, he said: "In those days I could do it without a walking frame!"
Worldwide, there remain only two dozen veterans of the conflict which claimed millions of lives, scarred a generation, destroyed empires and brought political freedom for Poland and its neighbours.
According to military authorities, Wycech is the only surviving Pole.
World War I usually evokes images of the trench-lined Western front, where fighting ended on November 11, 1918.
For Poland the date marks independence, but not the end of bloodshed: in 1918-1920 Poles battled for territory with Germans, fought Ukrainians and Lithuanians and, at the gates of Warsaw, stemmed an invasion by Bolshevik Russia.
Wycech was a member of the Polska Organizacja Wojskowa (POW), or Polish Military Organisation, an underground movement seeking freedom from foreign rule.
He was born in June 1902 near Warsaw, in what was then the western edge of the Russian empire, when independence was a pipe dream.
The Russians, Germans and Austrians had carved up Poland in the 1790s, and several uprisings over the next century ended in failure.
Polish nationalists were split over who was the principal enemy: Russia or Germany. Austria provided a degree of autonomy for its Polish territories and was seen as a relatively safe haven.
Wycech's family were loyal to Jozef Pilsudski, the Socialist, fiercely anti-Russian militant who created the POW and would be the founding father of independent Poland in 1918.
Like countless youngsters across Europe, Wycech's imagination was also lit by tales of derring-do.
In his case it was the Nobel Prize-winning Henryk Sienkiewicz, whose "Trilogy" recounts Polish battles in the 17th century.
"In 1910, the Trilogy was serialised every week, and all those tales of warriors had an influence on young people," said Wycech.
"We had enemies on all sides. I wanted to free our fatherland!"
With the outbreak of war in 1914, Poles were drafted by the three empires: 1.9 million were serving by 1916, and 450,000 were killed.
Jozef Kos, who died in April aged 107, was the last confirmed imperial conscript, having been called up by Germany in mid-1918.
Wycech was too young to be drafted, and the Russians were in any case rapidly driven from his home region by the invading Germans.
Pilsudski threw in his lot with Germany's ally Austria, so the 12,000-strong POW did not oppose the Germans. But it braced for an eventual conflict.
Wycech became a messenger in 1915, aged 13.
"It's not as if we had mobile phones! No one paid any attention to a boy running through the forest," he said.
Germany and Austria proclaimed Poland independent in 1916, but many nationalists saw it as a ruse to drum up Polish recruits.
In February 1917, Wycech was admitted to the POW's "adult" wing.
"To be a soldier was an honour," he said.
In July that year, Germany and Austria ordered Pilsudski's units to swear an oath of loyalty, but he refused and was jailed by the Germans.
The POW then began attacking German troops, although Wycech was not involved.
As the German military machine collapsed, Wycech took part in his first armed action on November 10, 1918: "We disarmed several German units," he said.
He immediately joined the newborn Polish state's army, was demobilised after falling sick with typhoid, but was called back in 1919 to fight the Bolsheviks.
"So I became a soldier again at 16," he said.
Wycech was given indefinite leave from the army in November 1920 so he could complete his education.
During World War II, Wycech's teenage experience provided valuable lessons, as he worked as a resistance courier. He also took part in the ill-fated 1944 Warsaw uprising against the occupying Nazis.
After the Soviet army took over, Wycech was sentenced to death in 1945 and 1947 on trumped-up charges but freed thanks to his brother, who had the ear of the new regime.
Later in life, he worked in the demolition business and carved tombstones.
A widower since 1992, he has five grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren.
My grandfather was wounded in WWI while in the Austrian army. He never fully recovered and had a bullet lodged somewhere too difficult to operate in those days. He finally died of complications from this just before the war ended in 1945 leaving four children.
Bizarrely as I type this there is a programme about WWI in the background on tv.
My great-grandfather took an ax and chopped his trigger finger off so that he could avoid getting drafted to the Russian army. He later volunteered for the newly-formed Polish army and had to serve in the artillery outfit. My other great-granddad served as one of Pilsudski’s close lieutenants. In fact when my grandfather immigrated to the US he brought a photo of his father with Pilsudski, a family relic to this day.