World War I: Marshal Philippe Petain

Philippe Petain during World War I
Marshal Philippe Pétain. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Philippe Pétain - Early Life & Career:

Born April 24, 1856 at Cauchy-à-la-Tour, France, Philippe Pétain was the son of a farmer. Entering the French Army in 1876, he later attended the St. Cyr Military Academy and the École Supérieure de Guerre. Promoted to captain in 1890, Pétain's career progressed slowly as he lobbied for the heavy use of artillery while repudiating the French offensive philosophy of massed infantry assaults. Later promoted to colonel, he commanded the 11th Infantry Regiment at Arras in 1911 and began contemplating retirement. These plans were accelerated when he was informed that he would not be promoted to brigadier general.

With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, all thoughts of retirement were banished. Commanding a brigade when the fighting commenced, Pétain received a rapid promotion to brigadier general and took command of the 6th Division in time for the First Battle of the Marne. Performing well, he was elevated to lead XXXIII Corps that October. In this role, he led the corps in the failed Artois Offensive the following May. Promoted to command the Second Army in July 1915, he led it during the Second Battle of Champagne in the fall.

Philippe Pétain - Hero of Verdun:

In early 1916, German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn sought to force a decisive battle on the Western Front that would break the French Army. Opening the Battle of Verdun on February 21, German forces bore down on the city and made initial gains. With the situation critical, Pétain's Second Army was shifted to Verdun to aid in the defense. On May 1, he was promoted to command the Centre Army Group and oversaw the defense of the entire Verdun sector. Using the artillery doctrine he had promoted as a junior officer, Pétain was able to slow and eventually halt the German advance.

Philippe Pétain -​ Finishing the War:

Having won a key victory at Verdun, Pétain was irked when his successor with Second Army, General Robert Nivelle, was appointed Commander-in-Chief over him on December 12, 1916. The following April, Nivelle launched a massive offense at Chemin des Dames. A bloody failure, it led to Pétain being appointed Army Chief of Staff on April 29 and ultimately replacing Nivelle on May 15. With the outbreak of mass mutinies in the French Army that summer, Pétain moved to placate the men and listened to their concerns. While ordering selective punishment for the leaders, he also improved living conditions and leave policies.

Through these initiatives and refraining from large-scale, bloody offensives, he succeeded in rebuilding the fighting spirit of the French Army. Though limited operations occurred, Pétain elected to await American reinforcements and large numbers of new Renault FT17 tanks before advancing. With the beginning of the German Spring Offensives in March 1918, Pétain's troops were hit hard and pushed back. Ultimately stabilizing the lines, he dispatched reserves to aid the British.

Advocating a policy of defense in depth, the French progressively fared better and first held, then pushed back the Germans at the Second Battle of the Marne that summer. With the Germans halted, Pétain led French forces during the final campaigns of the conflict which ultimately drove the Germans from France. For his service, he was made Marshal of France on December 8, 1918. A hero in France, Pétain was invited to attend the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. Following the signing, he appointed vice chairman of the Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre.

Philippe Pétain -​ Interwar Years:

After a failed presidential bid in 1919, he served in a variety of high administrative posts and clashed with the government over military downsizing and personnel issues. Though he favored a large tank corps and air force, these plans were unworkable due to lack of funds and Pétain came to favor the construction of a line of fortifications along the German border as an alternative. This came to fruition in the form of the Maginot Line. In September 25, Pétain took to the field for the final time when he led a successful Franco-Spanish force against the Rif tribes in Morocco.

Retiring from the army in 1931, the 75 year-old Pétain returned to service as Minister of War in 1934. He held this post briefly, as well as did a brief stint as Minister of State the following year. During his time in government, Pétain was unable to halt the reductions in the defense budget which had left the French Army unready for a future conflict. Returning to retirement, he again was summoned to national service in May 1940 during World War II. With the Battle of France going poorly in late May, General Maxime Weygand and Pétain began to advocate for an armistice.

Philippe Pétain - Vichy France:

On June 5, French Premier Paul Reynaud brought Pétain, Weygand, and Brigadier General Charles de Gaulle into his War Cabinet in an effort to bolster the spirits of the army. Five days later the government abandoned Paris and moved to Tours and then Bordeaux. On June 16, Pétain was appointed prime minister. In this role, he continued to press for an armistice, though some advocated continuing the fight from North Africa. Refusing to leave France, he got his wish on June 22 when an armistice with Germany was signed. Ratified on July 10, it effectively ceded control of the northern and western parts of France to Germany.

The next day, Pétain was appointed "head of state" for the newly formed French State which was governed from Vichy. Rejecting the secular and liberal traditions of the Third Republic, he sought to create a paternalistic Catholic state. Pétain's new regime quickly ousted republican administrators, passed anti-Semitic laws, and imprisoned refugees. Effectively a client state of Nazi Germany, Pétain's France was compelled to aid the Axis Powers in their campaigns. Though Pétain showed little sympathy for the Nazis, he permitted organizations such as the Milice, a Gestapo-style militia organization, to be formed within Vichy France.

Following the Operation Torch landings in North Africa in late 1942, Germany implemented Case Aton which called for the complete occupation of France. Though Pétain's regime continued to exist, he effectively was relegated to the role of figurehead. In September 1944, following the Allied landings in Normandy, Pétain and the Vichy government were removed to Sigmaringen, Germany to serve as a government-in-exile. Unwilling to serve in this capacity, Pétain stepped down and directed that his name not be used in conjunction with the new organization. On April 5, 1945, Pétain wrote to Adolf Hitler requesting permission to return to France. Though no reply was received, he was delivered to the Swiss border on April 24.

Philippe Pétain -​ Later Life:

Entering France two days later, Pétain was taken into custody by De Gaulle's provisional government. On July 23, 1945, he was placed on trial for treason. Lasting until August 15, the trial concluded with Pétain being found guilty and sentenced to death. Due to his age (89) and World War I service, this was commuted to life imprisonment by De Gaulle. In addition, Pétain was stripped of his ranks and honors with the exception of marshal which had been conferred by the French Parliament. Initially taken to Fort du Portalet in the Pyrenees, he was later imprisoned at Forte de Pierre on the Île d'Yeu. Pétain remained there until his death on July 23, 1951.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Marshal Philippe Petain." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War I: Marshal Philippe Petain. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Marshal Philippe Petain." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).