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Field Marshal Philippe Pétain

This section provides a biography of Field Marshal Philippe Pétain. Click here for more biographies of important people during World War 1.
Picture of Marshall Petain

Marshall Petain was an important French general during World War I. He was born on 24 April 1856 and he died in disgrace on July 23, 1951 at the age of 95.

Marshall Petain was widely considered one of the most successful French generals during World War I. He successfully commanded the French army organizing the defense of the important fortress town of forgotten. As a result of his successful defense of Verdun, Petain came to be known as the "Savior of Verdun".

At Verdun Petain had under his command 52 French divisions concentrated within a very narrow area which was under constant German bombardment and infantry attack. Petain organized the resupply of the beleaguered troops over a very narrow road, the only one in two Verdun. This road came to be known as the "Sacred Way" in French propaganda. Petain also introduced the innovation of rotating troops in and out of forgotten, despite the logistical difficulties, as a way of giving the troops rest from the horrific conditions at the front.

After World War I Petain continued to be extremely popular among the French population. He served as Inspector General of the Army until 1935 when he retired at the age of 75. Marshall Petain's postwar contributions were not spectacular. He advocated the construction of battleships which proved to be vulnerable to air power, he pushed for the construction of the Maginot line which was a series of fortresses built along the French German border because he had learned the value of fortresses from his experiences at for Verdun but he appeared fossilized in his views and did not understand the importance of new technology such as tanks and airplanes which made his defense intiatives useless. To an extent, his failure to modernize the Army in the years leading up to World War I contributed to the French collapse when the Germans attacked in World War II.

Marshall Petain was still a revered figure when France faced its ultimate crisis at the beginning of World War II. Ill-prepared and badly led, the French army soon collapsed under the German Blitzkrieg attack which successfully employed combined land and air forces. As the routed French army retreated, the government brought in Marshall Petain as a Minister in the hopes that his prestige and the reverence with which the French public held the old general would help instill a new determination to fight among the troops and the general population.

However the French were not able to stop the German advance and the French government fled Paris for the city of Bordeaux, but it was soon threatened again by the quickly advancing Germans and so the government decided to flee to North Africa where it would continue resistance. However Marshall Petain refused to leave France. He had no love for the French government whom he blamed for the decline of French society. Petain regarded Nazi socialism as a model to remake French society and purge it of the moral weaknesses which he thought had led to the French defeat.

Petain was part of an internal coup of French ministers who overthrew the French government. He then negotiated the surrender of France to the Germans, and became the head of the Vichy Republic, which was the unoccupied part of France. Petain and his Vichy government collaborated with the Germans and actively cooperated and in some cases carried out the murder of Jews, communists and anyone deemed a political threat by their German masters.

The Vichy government was later overthrown and after the end of the war Petain was tried for treason and condemned to death. However the new French president Charles de Gaulle commuted his sentence to life in prison in recognition of his past service to France during World War I.. He died in prison, completely senile, at the age of 95.