Philippe Pétain – The Lion of Verdun

Philippe Pétain was 58 years old and a colonel when World War One broke out, and he had never seen active service. Yet within months he was a national hero and a commanding General and would soon command the entire French army and become known as ‘The Lion of Verdun’. He was later discredited as he served as the Chief of State of collaborationist Vichy France under German influence from 1940 to 1944. He would be executed for treason but  Because of his outstanding military leadership in World War I he was still viewed as a national hero in France and was instead sentenced to life in prison until his death in 1951 at the age of 95.

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He was born in 1856 in Northern France. His father was a farmer and he had four siblings. His mother died the year after his birth. He attended a Jesuit school where he was noted as an intelligent student. As a young adult, he used the money his mother had left him and studied a year of philosophy before deciding on military school. Although in the preparation exam he finished 403rd out of 412, by the final he had dramatically improved his score. In 1878 he joined the 24th infantry battalion as a Second Lieutenant. His career for decades thereafter was as a peacetime soldier. His career was described as common or slow, and while it is true that it took him 35 years to become Colonel, only a minority of his contemporaries would achieve similar rank. Promotion opportunities are scarce in peacetime, and the French army was regularly shaken by political scandals. Pétain grew deeply mistrustful of politics.

As a commander Pétain paid great attention to military drills. He was a strict disciplinarian, but a firm believer in good living conditions for his men. He also spent time as a military professor of infantry tactics, and often openly criticized established French doctrine in classes. French doctrine at the time was one of all-out offensives and placed emphasis on the decisive importance of morale. Large maneuvers of massed infantry were seen as necessary as immobility was seen to be damaging to morale. Pétain taught alternative tactics. He believed that modern rifles were accurate enough that you no longer needed group fire, and individuals should be able to choose their targets. He also called charges of dense infantry “some sort of massacre game”. Still as the war began, morale over superiority of fire was called for, and dense formations were seen to assure that. Pétain agreed with the importance of morale, but thought it could come from superior firepower, modern automatic weapons, and ground protection.

Pétain was made Colonel in July 1914, and 3 months later was already promoted to Lieutenant General, and one of the few that were capable or willing to change French strategy. During his first action on 15th of August he showed his own style of command in coordinating the use of infantry and artillery. He soon benefited from the dismissal of hundreds of incompetent Generals, many of which gained their position through political favouritism. In the first few months of the war around 300 French Colonels became Generals. Over the following months Pétain showed trademarks of command involving meticulous preparations, recognizing the essential role of artillery, attention to information, recon and liaison, use of new technologies, and harsh discipline.

In late October 1914 Pétain was put in charge of defence at Arras. There he set to work reinforcing the 1st and 2nd French lines. He also consistently filed reports requesting more artillery, heavier artillery guns, or even just more shells in order to match the Germans in some way. He often disagreed with high command about priorities and how an where to attack, and because of his constant reports, many other Generals saw him as too cautious and pessimistic. His command at Arras was marked by his characteristically tough discipline; soldiers caught sleeping on guard duty were court-martialed, and theft of telephone cable could be punishable by death. In January 1915, 40 men were caught purposefully injuring themselves in order to avoid going into combat. 25 of them were sentenced to death by being sent into no mans land with their hands tied. Pétain was however, aware of the hardships of life on the battlefield, and aimed to give the men the best possible living conditions. Supply chains were excellent under his command, and facilities for washing and resting in the trenches were set up, a luxury many did not have in abundance. He ordered several failed offensives in Arras, but on 9th of May 1915 his corps, reinforced with the Moroccan division and supported by heavy artillery launched a successful attack along the line, with the Moroccans managing to capture the strategically important Vimy Ridge. German reserves did however, prevent a full breakthrough this time. French Commander-in-chief Joffre believed that with enough men and Pétain’s method, a breach like Vimy could be successfully exploited.

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Pétain was then given command of the Champagne offensive that September. The offensive was a disaster though, with 28,000 French deaths, and nearly 200,000 wounded for no real territorial gains. Poor weather meant unsuccessful aerial reconnaissance, reducing the effectiveness of artillery which was in turn not well prepared for action. The first German line fell as expected but the second held their ground yet again. Pétain then concluded that one offensive alone could nor breach two such lines of defence, and he went on to favour a war of attrition with small detailed operations rather than large all out offensives.

The defeat of Champagne did not reduce confidence in Pétain overall, and in February 1916 he was given command of the second army at Verdun in order to hold against the German offensive. It was here that Pétain displayed his command of logistics. Rather than holding the same infantry divisions in position for months at a time like the Germans did, he rotated them out after only two weeks on the front lines. Also he organised truck transport supply lines along what became known as the ‘sacred way’ to move up to 90,000 men and 50,000 tons of supplies per week in and out of verdun. This allowed there to be a continuous stream of artillery, ammunition and fresh troops into the besieged Verdun which is credited with resulting in the grinding down of the German onslaught to a final halt in July 1916. In essence Pétain proved some of his previous war college teachings at Verdun, including “le feu tue!” of “firepower kills!”, which in this case meant the French field artillery which fired of 15 million shells on the German positions during the first 5 months of the battle. Eventually French Commander-in-chief Joffre wanted forces at Verdun to go on the offensive, so Pétain was replaced by Robert Nivelle in May 1916.

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The Sacred Way of Verdun

By this time Pétain was a huge national hero, though his fame was somewhat overshadowed slightly when it was Nivelle who won back the lost ground at Verdun. However, when Nivelle became Commander-in-chief and was subsequently responsible for a disastrous offensive at Chemin des Dames in April 1917, which Pétain had vehemently opposed, Pétain was made Chief of Staff of the French Army.

At this point in the war Pétain’s main challenge was no longer in beating the Germans, but instead was dealing with a French army on the brink of collapse. The failed offensive in April had provoked mutiny in the ranks, with many soldiers refusing to participate in another pointless attack. Many people, including Pétain, believed the extent of the mutiny was caused by pacifist propaganda and Socialists, when really the men were still very much committed to defending their positions, just no further wastes of life like at Chemin des Dames. Pétain ordered 428 death sentences and 2,870 jail sentences in order to death with the situation. At the same time, he also ordered relief measures to make soldiers lives more bearable; leaves were made more regular, barracks were made more habitable, and food was provided in greater quantity and quality than before. By July the collapse of the french army was avoided. Pétain would later call his work in 1917 more important than that at Verdun.

In 1917 and 1918 Pétain only ordered limited small offensives as his priority was now to preserve his men long enough for American troops to arrive in force. Critics began again to call him too cautious, and to favour the optimism of Ferdinand Foch. When the Germans broke French lines in their spring offensive of 1918 it was therefore that Foch was favoured over Pétain abd became Commander-in-chief. Although Pétain was heard to apparently make some very pessimistic remarks at this time about the future of the war for the Allied forces, he still turned out to be a capable opponent of the Germans towards the end of the war. He was able to effectively defend and launch counter offensives with the assistance of new French tanks and american forces.

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Philippe Pétain meeting with Adolf Hitler

Pétain ended the war regarded “without a doubt, the most accomplished defensive tactician of any army” and “one of France’s greatest military heroes” and was made Marshal of France on 21 November 1918. He was subsequently summoned to be present at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919. In January 1920 he was appointed Vice-Chairman of the Supreme War Council. This was France’s highest military position. Petain would hold it until 1931. In 1934, Pétain was appointed minister of war, and then secretary of state in the following year. In 1939, he was appointed French ambassador to Spain. In May 1940, with France under attack from Germany, Pétain was appointed vice premier. In June he asked for an armistice, upon which he was appointed ‘chief of state’, enjoying almost absolute powers. The armistice gave the Germans control over the north and west of France, including Paris, but left the remainder as a separate regime under Pétain, with its capital at Vichy. Officially neutral, in practice the regime collaborated closely with Germany, and brought in its own anti-Semitic legislation. In November 1942, in response to allied landings in North Africa, the Germans invaded the unoccupied zone of France. Vichy France remained nominally in existence, but Pétain became nothing more than a figurehead. In the summer of 1944, after the allied landings in France, Pétain was taken to Germany. He returned to France after liberation, was brought to trial and condemned to death. This was immediately commuted to solitary confinement for life by General Charles De Gaulle. Pétain was imprisoned on the Île d’Yeu off the Atlantic coast, where he died on 23 July 1951.

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