to: Phase 2 - The German offensive on 21 Februari 1916
Pétain is a French general who was a national hero for his victory at the Battle of
Verdun in World War I but was discredited as chief of state of the French
government at Vichy in World War II. He died under sentence in a prison
fortress. Born into a family of farmers in northern France, Pétain, after
attending the local village school and a religious secondary school, was
admitted to Saint-Cyr, France's principal military academy. As a young
second lieutenant in an Alpine regiment, sharing the rough outdoor life of
his men, he came to understand the ordinary soldier. The extraordinary
popularity he was later to enjoy with the rank and file in World War I is
believed to have had its origin there.
|Pétain and Joffre
walking to the Headquarters in Souilly
His advancement until the outbreak of World War I in 1914 -he was 58 when
he finally became a general - was slow because as a professor at the War
College he had propounded tactical theories opposed to those held by the
high command. While the latter favoured the offensive at all costs,
Pétain held that a well-organized defensive was sometimes called for and
that before any attack the commander must be sure of the superiority of
his fire power.
After successively commanding a brigade, a corps, and an army, Pétain in
1916 was charged with stopping the German attack on the fortress city of
Verdun. Though the situation was practically hopeless, he masterfully
reorganized both the front and the transport systems, made prudent use of
the artillery, and was able to inspire in his troops a heroism that became
historic. He became a popular hero, and, when serious mutinies erupted in
the French army following the ill-considered offensives of General
Robert-Georges Nivelle, then French commander in chief, Pétain was named
He reestablished discipline with a minimum of repression by personally
explaining his intentions to the soldiers and improving their living
conditions. Under him the French armies participated in the victorious
offensive of 1918, led by Marshal Ferdinand Foch, generalissimo of the
Allied armies. Pétain was made a marshal of France in November 1918 and
was subsequently appointed to the highest military offices (vice president
of the Supreme War Council and inspector general of the army).
Following the German attack of May 1940 in World War II, Paul Reynaud, who
was then head of the government, named Pétain vice premier, and on June
16, at the age of 84, Marshal Pétain was asked to form a new ministry.
Seeing the French army defeated, the "hero of Verdun" asked for
an armistice. After it
was concluded, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, meeting in Vichy,
conferred upon him almost absolute powers as "chief of state."
With the German army occupying two-thirds of the country, Pétain believed
he could repair the ruin caused by the invasion and obtain the release of
the numerous prisoners of war only by cooperating with the Germans. In the
southern part of France, left free by the armistice agreement, he set up a
paternalistic regime the motto of which was "Work, Family, and
Fatherland." Reactionary by temperament and education, he allowed his
government to promulgate a law dissolving the Masonic lodges and excluding
Jews from certain professions.
He was, however, opposed to the policy of close Franco-German
collaboration advocated by his vice premier Pierre Laval, whom he
dismissed in December 1940, replacing him with Admiral Francois Darlan.
Pétain then attempted to practice a foreign policy of neutrality and
delay. He secretly sent an emissary to London, met with the Spanish
dictator Franco, whom he urged to refuse free passage of Adolf Hitler's
army to North Africa, and maintained a cordial relationship with Admiral
William Leahy, the U.S. ambassador to Vichy until 1942.
When, in April 1942, the Germans forced Pétain to take Laval back as
premier, he himself withdrew into a purely nominal role. Yet he balked at
resigning, convinced that, if he did, Hitler would place all of France
directly under German rule. After Allied landings in November 1942 in
North Africa, Pétain secretly ordered Admiral Darlan, then in Algeria, to
merge the French forces in Africa with those of the Allies. But, at the
same time, he published official messages protesting the landing. His
double-dealing was to prove his undoing.
In August 1944, after the liberation of Paris by General Charles de Gaulle
Pétain dispatched an emissary to arrange for a peaceful transfer of
power. De Gaulle refused to receive the envoy. At the end of August the
Germans transferred Pétain from Vichy to Germany. Brought to trial in
France for his behaviour after 1940, he was condemned to death in August
1945. His sentence was immediately commuted to solitary confinement for
life. He was imprisoned in a fortress on the Île d'Yeu off the Atlantic
coast, where he died at the age of 95.
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on 21 Februari 1916