“I’ve been old in all my ranks,” said Henri Philippe Pétain, created Marshal of France on December 8, 1918, at age 62. Indeed, in 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, he, like German General Paul von Hindenburg that same year, thought that his long military career was finished and was more concerned with buying a pair of gardening shears than donning his uniform once more.
An unmarried philanderer until the age of 64 (when he married at last), Pétain claimed to be still making love at 86 in 1942. In February 1916, when his moment of martial glory arrived at last and he was named commander of the French fortress city of Verdun for the battle with which his name will forever be linked, his boots were found next to those of a lady’s slippers outside a hotel door in Paris.
During one of the most extraordinary military careers on record, he helped defeat Imperial Germany in the Great War, was largely responsible for building up his nation’s defenses between the two global conflicts, disdained election as president of France when he could easily have won, and chose to remain in France to save what he could from Nazi Germany after the dismal French debacle of 1940.
For his troubles, the aged marshal was tried for treason, convicted, sentenced to death, had the sentence commuted, and ended his life in fortress detention on a remote island. After his demise, Pétain remained a controversial figure, and his body was even stolen by grave robbers, but it was eventually returned. Indeed, few soldiers have had such a rollercoaster ride of a life as this famed soldier of both republican and Vichy France. Altogether, it is a strange tale.
Pétain in the 19th Century
Pétain was born April 24, 1856, at the village of Cauchy a la Tour in the later strategic Pas de Calais region of metropolitan France, and all his long life his farmland virtues reflected his boyhood upbringing there. His family background consisted mainly of peasants, not soldiery, although two family members had fought under both Napoleons, I and III.
Pétain himself decided upon a military life and graduated from the French military academy at Saint Cyr ranked 403rd in a class of 412. His career prior to 1914 was also undistinguished: five years with the 24th Battalion of Chasseurs, and then another five with the 3rd Battalion of Chasseurs.
During 1888-1890, Pétain attended lectures at the prestigious Ecole de Guerre (School of War) and as a captain was assigned to the XV Corps before being named to the command of the 29th Battalion of Chasseurs at Vincennes for the years 1892-1893.
He spent the rest of the decade attached to the staff of the military commander of Paris and also became an officer of ordnance. After more field and teaching commands (Pétain advocated firepower over the steel of the popular bayonet charge), as a colonel he commanded infantry regiments in the years up to 1914.
“Victor of Verdun”
The early months of the war vindicated his controversial firepower theories, especially as German Maxim guns mowed down brightly colored uniformed French infantry and equally outmoded cavalry squadrons. For his part, Pétain kept his head under fire and earned his later promotions mainly because he had managed to stay alive when so many fellow officers were being killed needlessly chasing after glory in action.
Awarded the Napoleonic Legion of Honor, Pétain advanced from corps to army commander, just as did his 1916 opponent at Verdun, Imperial German Crown Prince Wilhelm, first son and heir to the German kaiser. Pétain believed that large guns could achieve a breakthrough, and his visits to the front made him popular with the soldiers at the very time when few other top French or Allied generals were to be seen in the muddy, bloody, rat-filled trenches.
Pétain held embattled Verdun by a variety of techniques, such as dogged determination, inspiring the troops to fight on, ordering a railroad to be built along with a road to supply the men at the front, and thus he emerged as the vaunted “Victor of Verdun.” Following the failure of the Nivelle Offensive and the subsequent mutiny of the French Army in the spring of 1917, Pétain was named commander in chief of the army, crushed the mutiny, and served in tandem with General Ferdinand Foch, who was chief of the general staff, after 150,000 Frenchmen had been killed in a single month.
To quell the mutiny, Pétain’s discipline was harsh and swift; among other things, he threw soldiers overnight into no-man’s-land between the French and German lines to teach them a lesson. Pétain also initiated a “defense in depth” of the French positions with the use of both planes and tanks. French Premier Georges Clemenceau, meanwhile, was more impressed with the aggressive Foch than with the defensive Pétain, who nonetheless asserted, “I am waiting for the Americans and the tanks” to win the final round of the four-year struggle with the Germans.
A Tactician, Not a Strategist
Pétain was thought to be a good tactician, not a master strategist, and for that reason Clemenceau backed Foch for the overall post of generalissimo of all the Allied armies, while Pétain ’s British counterpart, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, supported him instead for this position. The last major German offensive of the war, the so-called “Kaiser’s Battle,” the second of the Marne, was conceived to take Paris. It began in March 1918, and on April 14, Foch was appointed generalissimo to blunt it.
In 1918, as later in 1940, Pétain displayed a streak of defeatism in the face of the initial German victories as he defended Paris instead of maintaining contact with Haig’s British Expeditionary Force (BEF), a fact that Winston Churchill would recall 22 years later in meetings with the marshal as France slid down the slippery path to its doom under the Nazis.
Nevertheless, on November 11, 1918, as the Germans proposed an armistice, Pétain wanted none of it, preferring instead a French invasion of Alsace and a French-American thrust into the German Rhineland to cut off the retreating German Imperial Army and thus prevent a future World War II. Marshal Foch overruled him, however, and the war ended with the Germans on the western side of the Rhine River.
Pétain in Politics
In 1920, the newly married marshal thought again briefly of retirement, bought an estate, and settled down to raise chickens and make his own wine until he decided once more that power beckoned too strongly from Paris.
According to biographer Nicholas Atkins, “Between 1920-31, he sat on all the key military committees; in 1925, he returned to active service…; in 1931, he was elected to the French Academy, and in 1934, he briefly served as minister of war. Thereafter, a number of newspapers spoke of him as a future head of government, and although he distanced himself from these campaigns, his appetite for office had not diminished. In March 1939, he accepted the ambassadorship to Spain.”
During this period, Pétain’s marshalship was associated with the glorious victories of World War I, and he himself especially with that of Verdun; indeed, over the years, he became the most popular of all the surviving marshals and outlived them all as well. Pétain was given posts that he was not skilled for, however, a fact that escaped public scrutiny, if not that of his able, acerbic ghostwriter and rival, Colonel Charles de Gaulle.
“With his eyes fixed firmly on the past,” in Atkins’s unique phrase, while in military power, the aging marshal prepared France to fight the war of the future entrenched in the lessons learned only from the last struggle, a common failing of many generals.
The two men, Pétain and de Gaulle, collaborated on a book on French infantry usage, but de Gaulle differed with his venerable superior on the employment of armor in the next war as well as on the near total reliance on such static defenses as the stationary Maginot Line. Although Pétain recognized the value of airpower because he had experienced it during 1914-1918, the marshal did not support the concept of an independent air force such as advocated by Italo Balbo in Fascist Italy, Hermann Göring in Nazi Germany, and Billy Mitchell in the United States.
Politically, Pétain despised most French politicians of his day, preferring instead to admire such right-wing generals as Primo de Rivera and Francisco Franco in Spain, Göring in the Third Reich, and Colonel Josef Beck in Poland, and he would emulate all of them once he came to office as head of the government of Vichy France in 1940.
Pétain was, however, neither a fascist nor a Nazi, but a closet anti-Semite who believed in the family unit as a social building block (although he had no children of his own), and whose later political creed was simply stated as work, family, fatherland. Pétain looked first and foremost to the French Army as the repository of these values, and he perceived the enemies of France to be all of the established political parties, particularly the socialists and communists.
Vichy Under Pétain
By the time the Germans conquered France in 1940, Atkins believes, “The marshal was physically and mentally decrepit,” yet he was perceived by most of the French public as the man who had come home from Madrid to save his country from disgrace and dishonor and to make all of their own lives better. In this respect, again, Pétain played in 1940 much the same role that von Hindenburg took on in 1925 when he was elected president of Weimar Germany.
Pétain came out for an armistice with the now victorious Germans, and as the undisputed victor of Verdun in the last war, the aged marshal was in a uniquely qualified position to do so without any loss of face for either himself or France. Indeed, Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel all showed great respect upon meeting him, as had Generalissimo Franco earlier.
Pétain told the French people that he was giving them “the gift of his person,” that he would not flee to London as de Gaulle had done, nor to the French Empire in North Africa as he had been urged to do by Churchill. Rather, he would stay in metropolitan France and see the German occupation through with the French people. Later, at his 1945 trial for treason, he would call himself the “shield of France,” and de Gaulle its “sword.” Pétain held the homeland together until the Allies could rescue her, he avowed.
For the next two years, from the town of Vichy, which was Pétain ’s seat of government, all power was vested in this one man, with the hated politician Pierre Laval acting as his German-approved deputy. Under this duo, anti-liberal laws were passed, French slave labor was shipped off to work in the Third Reich, and Jews were allowed to fall into the clutches of the German SS and Gestapo for shipment to Auschwitz and extermination.
For the first time since 1789, France possessed no national representative body. Mail was opened routinely, and eavesdropping on telephone conversations became a common occurrence.
Nevertheless, there was created a “cult of the marshal” akin only previously to those of Napoleon and Joan of Arc, with Pétain’s hero- worship cresting with bags of mail containing 2,000 personal letters to him arriving daily. Pétain was always shown in military uniform, with “his upright figure, broad shoulders, and piercing blue eyes,” according to Atkins.
Vichy at War
Although the marshal consistently refused to join the Tripartite Pact in its ongoing fight with Churchill’s stubborn England, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Pétain permitted right-wing French fascists to don German uniforms and fight in the East as volunteers alongside like-minded Dutch, Belgians, and Spaniards.
The great dilemma for Marshal Pétain was what to do if the Allies invaded North Africa, which they did during Operation Torch in November 1942. Following light resistance on the beaches at Oran, Algiers, and Casablanca, the Vichy forces there went over to the Allies, leading Hitler to retaliate with an immediate invasion of unoccupied France. With this invasion of November 11, 1942, there were now a trio of Frances: that of Marshal Pétain at Vichy, of Admiral Jean Darlan (soon to be assassinated) at Algiers, and of General de Gaulle in London (Free France).
There was soon to be a fourth, as the prospect of an Allied invasion of metropolitan France neared ever closer—the resistance within the country itself.
As these events unfolded, Pétain wanted to act as an intermediary between the Third Reich and the United States in an alliance against Josef Stalin’s Russia, and indeed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt kept his trusted assistant Admiral William D. Leahy as ambassador to Vichy for some time, much to de Gaulle’s constant irritation.
Following the success of the Allied invasions of France (Operations Overlord at Normandy in June and Dragoon in August 1944 in the south of France), the marshal and Laval were removed by the Nazis to Castle Hohenzollern in Germany as the Reich was poised to receive the first attack on German soil by French troops since 1813.
With the end of the war fast approaching, the marshal was escorted to the Swiss border by the Germans on April 22, 1945, but was returned to France, where Gaullist French General Pierre Koenig refused to either salute him or shake his hand for his wartime conduct as “the chief” at Vichy.
A Convicted Traitor
In Paris at his Gaullist postwar trial for treason, the aged marshal began his defense by reading aloud a prepared statement into the record: “It is the French people who, by its representatives gathered in the National Assembly on July 10, 1940, entrusted me with power. It is to the French people that I have come to make my account. The High Court, as constituted, does not represent the French people, and it is to them alone that the Marshal of France, Head of State, will address himself.”
He spent the rest of the trial silent and alone in the middle of the courtroom, wearing his uniform with a sole decoration, the Military Medal, allowing his attorney to make his case for him.
Upon Pétain’s conviction as a traitor and his death sentence, de Gaulle intervened to commute it to life imprisonment to be served at Fort du Portulet in the remote southwest of France. He later claimed that it was his intention to keep Pétain there for two years before allowing him to end his life in retirement at Villeneuve-Loubet, but in November 1945, the aged prisoner was removed instead to the Ile d’Yeu, an island south of the Brittany Peninsula known today for its water sports facilities.
“Sliding into senility and haunted by hallucinations—including one of a roomful of naked women…” according to Atkins, it was on this remote spot, like Napoleon I, that Marshal Pétain died on July 23, 1951, aged 95. He was buried on the island as well, despite his expressed wish to lie alongside his dead troops at Fort Douaumont at Verdun.
A band of right-wing fanatics in 1973 exhumed his body, and with it headed off for the fortress city of Verdun, but the marshal’s remains were discovered in a garage outside Paris and returned to the lonely Ile d’Yeu, where they remain still.
This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.
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