Henri-Philippe Pétain (1856-1951) was a World War I French general who was later imprisoned for treason. A 58-year-old colonel at the start of battle in 1914, Pétain earned acclaim for stopping the Germans at the Battle of Verdun and assumed command of the French forces in 1917. He held a series of top military posts in subsequent years, becoming chief of state after Germany’s invasion in 1940. In his pursuit of a “National Revival,” Pétain collaborated with the Nazi regime and adopted repressive measures against Jews. Tried for his actions at the end of World War II, Pétain was sentenced to death before his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain endeared himself to the French nation during World War I. Beginning the war as an obscure fifty-eight-year-old colonel in command of an infantry brigade, he rose quickly in rank, assuming command of the Sixth Division in September 1914, the Thirty-third Corps in October, and the Second Army in June 1915. From the start, he distinguished himself by his meticulous attention to detail, his careful preparation, and his reliance on artillery. His talents became most apparent when his Second Army played a large role in the September 1915 offensive in Champagne. Though the French failed to break through German defensive lines, Pétain’s after-action report identified shortcomings in French methods and provided important ideas about future operations.
In February 1916, Pétain became commander of French forces at Verdun. In the terrible destruction of what the French soldiers called the “furnace,” he finally succeeded in halting the Germans. Though the French suffered huge losses, Pétain’s careful husbanding of his troops avoided even greater bloodshed. Among his innovations, he introduced the “noria” system, which rotated divisions in and out of the trenches without permitting them to become ineffective in combat. (The noria system was named after a device used to raise water from a well, which consisted of a revolving chain of buckets that filled at the bottom of the well and emptied at the top.) Despite Pétain’s success and his concern for his soldiers, General Robert Nivelle was chosen to replace General Marshal Joseph Joffre as commander of French forces; he then brought France to the edge of disaster with his ruinous offensive in April 1917. With much of the army in mutiny, Pétain replaced Nivelle in May.
In subsequent months, Pétain revived the French army by meting out a combination of rewards and punishments, including about fifty-five executions (not the hundreds that some critics have alleged). He also insisted on limited offensives in which massive amounts of artillery prepared the way for the infantry. In October Pétain launched an attack on the fortress of La Malmaison in the Chemin des Dames, near where Nivelle’s offensive had failed, and successfully seized this dominating piece of terrain. His success and his careful methods convinced French soldiers that he would not needlessly waste their lives. For the remainder of the war, Pétain remained in command of French forces, though General Ferdinand Foch leaped over him to become supreme commander of Allied forces. Other French leaders, including Foch, frequently criticized Pétain for his pessimism and caution, but he nevertheless established a particularly strong relationship with the American commander, General John J. Pershing.
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Pétain had a significant influence over French forces in the interwar period, but his role has sometimes been exaggerated. Others made greater contributions in structuring and preparing French forces for the next war. Nevertheless, he played an important part in the design and placement of the Maginot line; he himself chose the best sites for its major fortresses. Later, during the mid-1930s, he served as minister of war for a brief period. As France fell before the German attack in May-June 1940 (see World War II), Pétain became premier a week before the capitulation. Subsequently naming himself the head of state in Vichy France, he headed a curious government that adopted “Work, Family, Country” as its slogan and sought a “National Revival.” In April 1942, at the age of eighty-five, he passed real power to Pierre Laval, who pursued an openly collaborationist policy with the Germans.
Though Pétain later claimed that he had been playing a “double game,” the harshest evidence of his having accepted German influence is his government’s anti-Jewish measures. Vichy provided limited protection to native French Jews, but it adopted repressive measures on its own from 1940 to 1942, including property confiscation, dismissals from government service, and exclusions from professions and higher education. Though Jews had a better life in France than they experienced in other Nazi-occupied or Nazi-controlled countries, the Vichy government interned thousands of foreign Jews under primitive conditions, and as many as three thousand Jews may have died in camps under French control. The Vichy regime also rounded up foreign Jews in the unoccupied zone and handed them over to the Germans. The “savior of Verdun” cannot escape blame for these actions.
Tried in France after the war, Pétain was found guilty and condemned to death. After Charles de Gaulle commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, he was confined on the [Icirc]le d’Yeu, where he died on July 23, 1951, at the age of ninety-six. Despite his wish to be buried among the fallen of Verdun, he remains buried on the small island off the coast of Brittany. His many contributions in World War I remain overshadowed by his actions in World War II.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.