With the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War I just around the corner, world leaders of the war’s victorious Triple Entente powers are looking back at those who finally brought the grinding trench warfare to its bitter end. One of those was French Marshal Philippe Petain, who led France’s forces during the Great War, who halted the German advance into France at Verdun in 1916.
In fact, Petain’s role at Verdun, combined with his favor of firepower over manpower saved countless French lives throughout the war and his promotion to Commander-In-Chief may have saved France from falling out of the war entirely. It was what he did later in life that tainted his legacy.
On Wednesday, Nov. 8, French President Emmanuel Macron praised Marshal Petain for his leadership and vision during the Great War – and rightfully so. But in France, Petain will always be a controversial figure. He was the World War I hero that collaborated with the Nazis after the Fall of France. In doing so, he became the head of state of the infamous French regime based in Vichy.
His legacy is marred by his collaboration, but his memory is controversial. The once-hero is beloved by some, hated by others, but remembered by all for better or worse. President Macron touched on this when he said, “Marshal Petain was also a great soldier during World War I” despite “fatal choices during the Second World War… I pardon nothing, but I erase nothing of our history.”
Petain in World War I.
World War I on the Western Front was not going well for the Entente Powers. The Germans made great gains at the beginning of the war. Petain, newly promoted to a general’s rank, was one of few French commanders who saw real success. It was at Verdun where his true genius came in to play. He kept rotating his frontline troops every two weeks instead of keeping them on the battlefield.
This gave him a reputation of being more of a soldier’s soldier than just a general commanding faceless masses of troops. That it was a more effective tactic was a great bonus.
In the interwar years, Petain went to work for the French government and became ambassador to Fascist Spain. After the outbreak of World War II in Europe, he returned to France and became a member of the government yet again. After the fall of Paris, he escaped to Bordeaux with the rest of the government. In deciding how to proceed after the fall of the French capital, the government was reshuffled and Petain became Prime Minister.
The majority opinion of the new French government called for an armistice with Nazi Germany, which was accepted. The new puppet government of France would convene at Vichy, the name that would become synonymous with collaboration in the coming years.
Henri Petain was the the leader of the new Vichy France while Paris became just another city in Hitler’s “Greater Germanic Reich.” Vichy France produced volunteers to fight alongside the Nazis, produced war materials, and even ordered overseas possessions to fight Allied forces.
France was, of course, eventually liberated and, after the war’s end, General Charles DeGaulle became head of the new French provisional government. Petain was put on trial for treason, convicted, and stripped of all military rank and title, save for one – Marshal of France. Imprisoned in the Pyrenees Mountains, Petain’s health began to steadily decline until he died in 1951.