Philippe Pétain was the hero of the Battle of Verdun in World War One. Pétain restored some form of pride to an army on the verge of defeat. Pétain turned a potential disaster for France into what some saw as a victory – at least, it was argued, Verdun did not fall to the Germans. He remains a controversial figure – a hero in World War One but vilified for what he did in World War Two and imprisoned for life.
Philippe Pétain was born in 1856 in Cauchy-à-la-Tour near St. Omer. He was educated at a Dominican college at Arceuil before joining the infantry in 1878 as an officer. Pétain followed what would be considered a normal route for an officer. By 1906 he was teaching at the École de Guerre and in 1912, aged 56, he was promoted to colonel. Just before the outbreak of war, Pétain was promoted to general.
Pétain gained a reputation among soldiers as a man who cared about the well being of his men. When he was brought in to command the French Second Army at Verdun, Pétain was well received by the men there. They believed that he would not be willing to tolerate the mass slaughter that was occurring there – on both sides. Though there was no definitive victor at Verdun, the French saw it as a victory in that the Germans did not take the city and this had seemed a very real possibility before Pétain took control of the army there. This French ‘victory’ won Pétain much praise in the French government and military.
In April 1917, the French army mutinied. A series of mutinies lasted until August 1917. Out of the 600 men sentenced to death for leading the mutiny, only 43 were actually executed. To somehow bring the average French soldier back on board with regards to the army’s hierarchy, Pétain was appointed commander-in-chief of the French army and he believed in a policy of healing rather than wholesale punishment. His immediate task was to restore morale. The fact that he was appointed commander-in-chief did much for this.
In December 1918, Pétain was promoted to Marshal and given his Marshal’s baton at Metz. Between 1925 and 1926, he furthered his reputation even more by commanding the force that defeated Abd-el-Krim in Morocco. In 1929, Pétain was appointed Inspector-General of the Army and he served as Minister for War between February and November 1934.
Pétain was known to have political views that were considered to be to the right of centre. After he retired from the army, he became the first French ambassador to Franco’s Spain in March 1939. However, he was re-called back to France and appointed Prime Minister on June 16th 1940 – just as France appeared to be on the verge of a military collapse against Nazi Germany. On June 22nd, Pétain concluded an armistice with the Germans. No one assumed that Pétain had a magical formula for defeating the Nazi invaders as Blitzkrieg had ripped apart the French army by the time Pétain was appointed Prime Minister. However, what happened after June 22nd 1940 split the French nation.
Under the terms of the armistice, France was split in two. The German ran the territory they had occupied during their invasion. Pétain, with his National Assembly government based in Vichy, ran the other half in preparation for when Germany would fully occupy France – this was scheduled for November 1942. On July 10th 1940, the National Assembly gave Pétain the right to rule by authoritarian methods to rid his half of France (known as Vichy France) of its “moral decadence”. The police in Vichy France proceeded to round up those considered to be decadent. The police helped the Germans round up Jews who were sent east to the death camps. To some, if there was a police state in German-occupied France, there was a police state in the other part of France – run by a Frenchman. To many, Pétain seemed to be no more than a puppet of the Germans who did what he was expected to do.
When the German military had to withdraw from France after the success of D-Day in June 1944, Pétain was taken with the retreating German army. In July 1945, Pétain, the hero of Verdun, was put on trial for treason. The evidence to many was overwhelming and Pétain was found guilty. He was stripped of his rank of marshal and sentence to death. This death sentence was later commuted to life in prison on the Île de d’Yeu in the northern Bay of Biscay. Here Pétain died in 1951. His wish was to be re-buried at Verdun, the scene of his greatest military glory; successive governments have ignored this wish.