Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Marshal Pétain

Philippe Pétain (his full name was Henri Philippe Benoni Omer Joseph Pétain) was born in April 1856 to a family of a farmer. He was strongly influenced by his great-uncle who served under Napoleon and told him many war stories. Philippe Pétain therefore decided for a military career. He joined the French Army in 1876 and later reached higher military education at military academies in Brittany and Paris. He later server in various positions and units.

Younger Philippe Pétain, public domain picture, source: wikimedia commons

As a commander 33rd Infantry Regiment (in a rank of colonel, around 1911), he was superior to a young lieutenant Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle later said that Marshal Pétain "taught him the art of command". In 1914, at the eve of World war I, he was told that he will never reach the rank of a general (he was 58 at a time). Therefore, he bought a villa and planned his retirement. However, as the war started, he was quickly promoted to a general and send to a front line. In August, he participated in the Battle of Guise within general Lanzarac´s Fifth Army as a brigade commander. The battle ended as a French tactical victory as they were able to stop German advance (general Karl von Bulows´ second army).

Scheme of the western front in 1914, including battle of Guise, public domain picture, source: www.firstworldwar.com
At the end of August, he took command of 6th Division and participated in the First Battle of the Marne. In October, he was promoted again to a Corps commander. He led his Corps to Artois offensive in spring 1915 and as a commander of French 2nd Army to Champagne offensive in autumn (both were unsuccesfull attempts to break German defense). In 1916, he commanded his 2nd Army at the start of famous Battle of Verdun and during the battle, he took command of whole Army Group. His tactics was based on usage of great firepower, rotation of divisions on a frontline and emphasis on logistics of continous stream of ammo, reinforcements and supplies. The battle enterd history as one of a bloodiest and brutal battles of modern age with more than 2,5 milion of participated soldiers and around 300 000 killed. It lasted fo over 300 days and has ended with French victory.

French heavy mortar during the Battle of Verdun in 1916, public domain picture, source: wikimedia commons
Pétain´s star was on the rise and he was named Commander-in-chief of the French Army in April 1917. However, one of the problems he had to face were multiple munities in the French Army. He held all French offensives and his strategy is described by his own words: "I´m waiting for the tanks and the Americans" (which refers to a fact that United States entered the war). During the 1918 when several German offensives took place, he was decribed by British general Haig as "someone who had lost his nerve". At the last phase of World War I, he was not named as an "Allied Generalissimo" as this position was given to Ferdinand Foch. Nevertheless, he was celebrated as a great hero after the war and he was named the Marshal of France.

Pétain, Haig (British), Foch and Pershing (American) (from left) in 1918, public domain picture, source: wikimedia commons
After the war, he married one of his many mistresses (he was well-known womanizer) and failed to get elected as a president. He was also a great supporter of a fortification system called "the Maginot line". He was also a supporter of independent air-force. He saw Hitler´s rise in Germany and 1939, he became French ambassador in Spain. When Nazi Germany attacked France in May 1940, he returned to France and joined new government despite he was warned by Spanish dictator Franco (Hitler´s ally) to not to do that and avoid being connected with inevitable catastrophy. The situation on the front was very bad and many military and political leaders - Pétain was one of them - urged to sign armistice with Hitler. On June 16th, the government of Paul Reynaud resigned and hand rule over to Pétain. One day later, Pétain announced that he will sign armistice under any conditions of capitulation. It was done on June 22nd in the same wagon in which Marshal Foch signed armistice with defeated Germans in 1918.

German commanders in a good mood before French signing of surrender, 1940. Picture belongs to Bundesarchive (Bild 183-M1112-500)
Germans demanded complete control over north and west of the country including Paris and Atlantic coastline. Rest of the country (roughly 2/5 of pre-war French territory) was left to the French control, co-called Vichy state was formed. Marshal Pétain was given power over the puppet state - and now comes the most controversial part of his biography. Pétain´s regime soon turned to be very authoritative, de-facto dictatorship. Soon, republican principles were rejected. Pétain himself said that France should be "a social hierarchy and should reject the false idea of the natural equality of men". Censorship was imposed, freedom of expression often lead to a criminal prosecution. Antisemitic laws followed very quickly. Pétain appointed Joseph Darnand - an SS-officer - as the Secretary of a Maintenance of Public Order. At this period, Winston Churchill described Pétain in this way: "He had always been a defeatist, even in the last war". His government lasted to November 1942 when German forces entered the unoccupied territories of France in reaction to allied operation "Torch". From that moment, he was really nothing more than a puppet with absolutely no power in his hands. When France was liberated in 1944, Pétain was taken by Germany to Sigmaringen when the government-in-exile was formed (Pétain, however, was forced to escape France). Late April 1945, he was taken to Switzerland and returned to France.

Liberation of Paris, 26th August, 1944, public domain picture, source: wikimedia commons
He was on trial in July and August of 1945. He was sentenced to death but the sentence was changed by General De Gaulle to life imprisonment.. Marshal Pétain spent rest of his life in prison on a small island called Ile d´Yeu. "The Lion of Verdun" died there in 1951 at the age of 95. His fate symbolic for the turbulent 20th century.

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