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Philippe Pétain

Henri Philippe Benoni Omer Joseph Pétain (24 April 1856 – 23 July 1951), generally known as Philippe Pétain or Marshal Pétain (Maréchal Pétain), was a French general who reached the distinction of Marshal of France, later Chief of State of Vichy France (Chef de l'État Français), from 1940 to 1944. Pétain, who was 84 in 1940, ranks as France's oldest Head of state ever.

Due to his outstanding military leadership in World War I, particularly during the Battle of Verdun, he was viewed as a hero in France. However, during the 1920s and 1930s, while remaining the highest ranking military authority, he neglected to modernize French military capability with the sole exception of the Maginot Line which later proved to be useless. After the French defeat in June 1940, Petain was legally voted in as Head of State (Chef de l'Etat ) by the French Parliament. However, Petain surrendered France to Germany and, along with his cabinet, including later on Pierre Laval, illegally transformed the French State into a dictatorship headed from the town of Vichy in central France. As the war progressed, the Vichy Government sank deeper into collaboration with the German occupant which finally took control of the totality of metropolitan France. Petain's actions during World War II resulted in a conviction and death sentence for treason, which was commuted to life imprisonment by Charles de Gaulle. In modern France, he is generally considered a traitor, and pétainisme is a derogatory term for certain reactionary policies. Due to his treason conviction, historians refer to him by his name Philippe Pétain, while for example, a resistance leader Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque, who was promoted posthumously, is now referred to as Maréchal Leclerc.

Early life

Pétain was born in Cauchy-à-la-Tour (in the Pas-de-Calais département in the north of France) in 1856. He joined the French Army in 1876 and attended the St Cyr Military Academy in 1887 and the École Supérieure de Guerre (army war college) in Paris. His career progressed very slowly, as he rejected the French Army philosophy of the furious infantry assault, arguing instead that "firepower kills". His views were later proved to be correct during the First World War. He was promoted to Captain in 1890 and Major (Chef de Bataillon) in 1900, but unlike many French officers, served only in mainland France, never in Africa or Indochina. As a Colonel he commanded the 33rd Infantry Regiment at Arras from 1911; the young lieutenant Charles de Gaulle, who served under him, later wrote that his "first colonel, Pétain, taught (him) the Art of Command". In the spring of 1914 he was given command of a brigade (still with the rank of Colonel), but having been told he would never become a general, had bought a house pending retirement - he was already fifty-eight years old.

World War I

Pétain distinguished himself in World War I, and was hailed as a French hero and the "Saviour of Verdun".

At the end of August 1914 he was quickly promoted to Brigadier-General and given command of the 6th Division in time for the First Battle of the Marne; little over a month later, in October 1914, he was promoted again and became XXXIII Corps commander. After leading his corps in the Spring 1915 Artois Offensive, in July 1915 he was given command of the Second Army, which he led in the Champagne Offensive that autumn. He acquired a reputation as one of the more successful commanders on the Western Front.

Pétain commanded the Second Army at the start of the Battle of Verdun in February 1916. During the battle he was promoted to Commander of Army Group Centre, which contained a total of 52 divisions. Rather than holding down the same infantry divisions on the Verdun battlefield for months, akin to the German system, he rotated them out after only two weeks on the front lines. His decision to organize truck transport over the "Voie Sacrée" to bring a continuous stream of artillery, ammunition and fresh troops into besieged Verdun also played a key role in grinding down the German onslaught to a final halt in July 1916. In effect he had applied the basic principle that was a mainstay of his teachings at the "École de Guerre" (War College) before WW-1 : " le feu tue ! " or "firepower kills !" which in this case was French field artillery which delivered well over 15 million shells on the German assailants during the first five months of the battle. Although Pétain did say "On les aura!" (roughly: We'll get them!), the other famous quotation "Ils ne passeront pas!" (They shall not pass!) often attributed to him, is actually from Robert Nivelle, who had succeeded him in command of the Second Army at Verdun, and who at the very end of 1916 was promoted over him to replace Joseph Joffre as French Commander-in-Chief.

Due to high prestige as a soldier's soldier, Pétain served briefly as Army Chief of Staff (from the end of April 1917) then replaced Nivelle in 1917 as Commander-in-Chief of the French army, after the failed Nivelle Offensive and the subsequent mutiny in the French army. Pétain crushed the mutiny by selective punishment of ringleaders, but also by improving soldiers' conditions (eg. better food and shelter, and more leave), and promising that men's lives would not be squandered in fruitless offensives. Pétain conducted some successful limited offensives in the latter part of 1917, but (unlike the British, who conducted a major offensive at Passchendaele that autumn) he held off from major offensives until the Americans arrived in force on the front lines , which would not happen until the early summer of 1918. He was also waiting for the new Renault FT17 tanks to be introduced in large numbers, hence his statement at the time : " I am waiting for the tanks and the Americans".

The year 1918 saw major German offensives on the Western Front. The first of these, "Michael" in March 1918, threatened to split the British and French forces apart, and, after Pétain had threatened to retreat on Paris, led to the appointment of Ferdinand Foch as Allied Generalissimo, initially with powers to co-ordinate and deploy Allied reserves where he saw fit. The third offensive, "Blucher" in May 1918, saw major German advances on the Aisne, as the French Army Commander had ignored Pétain's instructions to defend in depth, and had instead allowed his men to be hit by the initial massive German bombardment. Later in the year Pétain was stripped of his right of appeal to the French Government, and told to take his orders from Foch, who increasingly assumed direction of the Allied offensives. Pétain was made Marshal of France in November 1918.

Between the wars

Unlucky in love early in life, Pétain was a bachelor until his sixties, and famous for his womanising - women were said to find his piercing blue eyes especially attractive. At the opening of the Battle of Verdun he is said to have been fetched from Paris by a staff officer who knew which mistress he could be found with. After the war Pétain married an old lover, Madame Hardon, then widowed; although the couple were too old to have children, they remained married until the end of Pétain's life.

Pétain emerged from the war as a national hero. He was encouraged to go into politics although he protested that he had little interest in running for an elected position. He continued to play a military role, commanding French troops during their alliance with the Spanish in the Rif War after 1925. Pétain is also on record as a strong supporter of the Maginot Line which proved to be exceedingly costly while being geographically limited thus a strategically ineffective border fortification system. Pétain had based his strong support for the Maginot Line on his own experience of the role played by the forts at Verdun in 1916. Although he supported the massive use of tanks he saw them mostly as infantry support, leading to the fragmentation of the French tank force into many types of unequal value spread out between Cavalry and Infantry. Modern infantry rifles and machine guns were not manufactured on Pétain's watch, with the exception of a light machine-rifle in 1929. A modern infantry rifle prototype only came out in 1936 but very few had been issued to the troops by 1940. Thus French infantry had to face the enemy in 1940 with the old weaponry of 1918. Petain was made Minister of War in 1938, thus overseeing French military aviation and the Navy as well. Yet French aviation entered the War in 1939 without even the prototype of a bomber airplane capable of reaching Berlin. French industrial efforts in fighter aircrafts were dispersed among several firms, each with its own model. On the naval front France had purposely overlooked building aircraft carriers and focused instead on four new conventional battleships which later proved to be useless to the war effort. Captain Charles de Gaulle continued to be a protégé of Pétain throughout these years, naming his eldest son after him before finally falling out over the authorship of a book which the younger man had ghost-written for Pétain; in later years, in a reference to the Rif War, de Gaulle was sometimes known to observe "Marshal Pétain was a great man; he died in 1925". Pétain finally retired as Inspector-General of the Army, aged seventy-five, in 1931.

He expressed interest in being named Minister of Education, a role in which he hoped to combat what he saw as the decay in French moral values. In 1934 he was appointed to the French cabinet as Minister of War. The following year, he was promoted to Secretary of State. During this period, he repeatedly called for a lengthening of the term of compulsory military service for draftees entering the military service, from two to three years. Pétain served as French ambassador to Spain following the Nationalist victory in the Spanish Civil War, arriving in March 1939.

World War II and Vichy France

Until the summer of 1940, Pétain was held in high regard by statesmen both at home and abroad. French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud brought Pétain (along with General Maxime Weygand and the newly-promoted Brigadier-General de Gaulle, whose 4th Armoured Division had launched one of the few French counterattacks in May 1940) into his War Cabinet, hoping that the trio, and especially Pétain, would instill a renewed spirit of resistance and patriotism in the French army. The social and political divisions in France were too great, however, and in Pétain, Reynaud did not recognise a man who despised the corruption, inefficiency and political fragmentation of the French Third Republic.

Maxime Weygand was unable to stem the German advance during the second stage of the Battle of France. When defeat for metropolitan France became certain, the Cabinet debated their continuing the war in North Africa, to fight on from the colonial territory alongside the British. Pétain's refusal to leave the country at this juncture created an impasse that divided the Cabinet and which was only broken by Reynaud's resignation and President Albert Lebrun's invitation to Pétain to form a government. Lebrun soon became sidelined, leading to the appointment of the old Marshal as head of state with extraordinary powers. The constitutionality of these actions was later challenged by de Gaulle's government, but at the time Pétain was widely accepted as France's saviour.

On 22 June he signed an armistice with Germany that gave Nazi Germany control over the north and west of the country, including Paris and all of the Atlantic coastline, but left the rest, around two-fifths of France's prewar territory, unoccupied, with its administrative centre in the resort town of Vichy. (Paris remained the de jure capital.)

The Chamber of Deputies and Senate, meeting together as a "Congrès", had an emergency meeting on 10 July to ratify the armistice. At the same time, it voted 569-80 (with 18 abstentions) to grant Pétain the authority to draw up a new constitution, effectively voting the Third Republic out of existence. On the next day, Pétain formally assumed near-absolute powers as "Head of State".

Pétain was reactionary by temperament and education, and quickly began blaming the Third Republic and its liberal democracy for the French defeat. In its place, he set up a more authoritarian regime. The republican motto of "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" was swept aside and replaced with "Travail, famille, patrie" (Work, family, fatherland). Conservative factions within his government used the opportunity to launch an ambitious program known as the "National Revolution" in which much of the former Third Republic's secular and liberal traditions were rejected in favor of the promotion of an authoritarian and paternalist Catholic society.

Pétain immediately used his new powers to order harsh measures, including the dismissal of republican civil servants, the installation of exceptional jurisdictions, the proclamation of anti-Semitic laws, and the imprisonment of his opponents and foreign refugees. He organized a "Légion Française des Combattants", in which he included "Friends of the Legion" and "Cadets of the Legion", groups of those who had never fought but who were politically attached to his regime. Pétain championed a rural, Catholic France that spurned internationalism. As a retired Generalissimo, he ran the country on military lines, which might have been better received had he not already surrendered to Hitler and become, especially after 1942, his puppet.

Neither Pétain nor his successive Deputies, Pierre Laval, Pierre-Etienne Flandin or Admiral François Darlan, gave significant resistance to requests by the Germans to indirectly aid the Axis Powers. Yet, when Hitler met Pétain at Montoire in October 1940 to discuss Vichy's role in the new European Order, the Marshal "listened to Hitler in silence. Not once did he offer a sympathetic word for Germany". However, Vichy France remained neutral as a state, albeit opposed to the Free French. After the British attack on Mers el Kébir and Dakar, Pétain took the initiative to collaborate with the occupiers. Pétain accepted the creation of a collaborationist armed militia "Milice" under the command of SS-Major Joseph Darnand, who, along with German forces, led a campaign of repression against the French resistance ("Maquis"). Pétain admitted Darnand into his government as Secretary of the Maintenance of Public Order (Secrétaire d'Etat au Maintien de l'Ordre). In August 1944, Pétain made an attempt to distance himself from the crimes of the Milice by writing Darnand a letter of reprimand for the organization's "excesses." The latter wrote a sarcastic reply, telling Pétain that he should have "thought of this before" he turned the Milice loose on the French population.

Pétain provided the Axis forces with large supplies of manufactured goods and foodstuffs, and also ordered Vichy troops in France's colonial empire to fight against Allied forces everywhere (in Dakar, Syria, Madagascar, Oran and Morocco), in line with his commitments in the 1940 armistice. He also received German forces without any resistance (in Syria, Tunisia and Southern France), the latter due to Laval's urging.

On 11 November 1942, Germany invaded the unoccupied zone in response to the Allied Operation Torch landings in North Africa and Vichy Admiral François Darlan's agreeing to support the Allies. Although Vichy France nominally remained in existence, Pétain became nothing more than a figurehead, as the Nazis abandoned the pretence of an "independent" Vichy government, although he remained popular with the French public, and was cheered by the crowd when he attended Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris at Easter 1944. On 7 September 1944, he and other members of the Vichy cabinet were forcibly moved to Sigmaringen in Germany and soon after he resigned as leader.

Postwar trial and legacy

On 15 August 1945, Pétain was tried for collaboration (or treason), convicted and sentenced to death by firing squad. Charles de Gaulle, who was President of the Provisional Government of the French Republic at the end of the war, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment on the grounds of his age and his World War I contributions. There was also a sense among segments of the French population that his trial was rushed and unfair . In prison on Île d'Yeu, an island off the Atlantic coast, he soon became entirely senile, and required constant nursing care. He died in prison in 1951, at the age of 95, and is buried there. Calls are sometimes made for his remains to be re-interred in the grave which had been prepared for him at Verdun .

In modern France, the word pétainisme suggests an authoritarian and reactionary ideology, driven by the nostalgia of a rural, agricultural, traditionalist, Catholic society.

Lists of the successive Pétain governments until 1942

Pétain's First Government, 16 June - 12 July 1940


Pétain's Second Government, 12 July - 6 September 1940

Pétain's Third Government, 6 September 1940 - 25 February 1941


  • 28 October 1940 - Pierre Laval succeeds Baudoin as Minister of Foreign Affairs.
  • 13 December 1940 - Pierre Laval loses his positions. Pierre Étienne Flandin succeeds Laval as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Jacques Chevalier succeeds Ripert as Minister of Public Instruction and Youth. Paul Baudoin becomes Minister of Information
  • 2 January 1941 - Paul Baudoin ceases to be Minister of Information, and the office is abolished.
  • 27 January 1941 - Joseph Barthélemy succeeds Alibert as Minister of Justice.
  • 10 February 1941 - François Darlan succeeds Flandin as Minister of Foreign Affairs

Pétain's Fourth Government, 25 February - 12 August 1941


  • 18 July 1941 - Pierre Pucheu succeeds Darlan as Minister of the Interior. Darlan retains his other posts. François Lehideux succeeds Pucheu as Minister of Industrial Production.

Pétain's Fifth Government, 12 August 1941 - 18 April 1942

See also



Among a vast number of books and articles about Pétain, the most complete and documented biography:

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