Philippe Petain: Verdun, Vichy and Collaboration

He was the heroic defender of Verdun, a recipient of the Legion d’honneur, and a Marshal of France, a man respected by his troops and admired by his countrymen. Yet in July 1945, he was sentenced to death for betraying the country he had spent his life in the service of, and he would forever become associated with the word – collaborator.

Henri Philippe Petain was born on 24 April 1856, in Cauchy-a-la-Tour in the Pas-de-Calais region of France, the son of a farmer from whom he inherited the traits of caution, stubbornness, and the stoical fatalism common to the French peasant. He was a quiet child little given to play who grew into a reserved young man most remembered for his sustained periods of silence rather than any more obvious charms.

In 1876, he joined the French Army attending the St Cyr Military Academy where he controversially refused to adopt the accepted French military philosophy of elan, or the furious full-frontal assault, insisting instead that – ‘firepower kills.’ It was perhaps an indication of a difficult character for his career in the army was steady rather than spectacular and his rise through its ranks painfully slow; in the spring of 1914 at the age of 58 having at last made the rank of Colonel and with little prospect of further promotion he bought a house and decided to retire.

Placed upon the Reserve List his retirement proved short-lived and upon the outbreak of war with Germany he was recalled to the colours where following a purge of the higher-echelons of the French Army by its Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre the promotion he had so long yearned for at last materialised and by early 1916 he was General of the Second Army stationed near the fortress town of Verdun – he proved to be a competent and respected if cautious and unimaginative commander.

n the meantime, General Erich von Falkenhayn, Commander-in-Chief of the German Army, had been busy devising a strategy to break the deadlock of the Western Front. He told the Kaiser he would ‘bleed the French white’ by attacking an iconic symbol of Gallic resistance that for reasons of morale and national prestige they could not permit to fall – the place chosen was Verdun, a fortress town since the time of Louis XIV on the Meuse River in North-East France.

Delayed by bad weather the assault finally began on 21 February 1916 with a ferocious artillery barrage that not only obliterated the French outer-defences but appears to have caught them totally unawares causing confusion, bewilderment, and no little panic. Over the next few days the German advance made rapid progress culminating on 25 February with the capture of Fort Douamont, the pivotal fortification of the more than 20 that ringed Verdun and supposedly the most powerful in the world without a shot being fired in its defence. Although it was not their intention to do so it appeared the Germans were on the verge of capturing Verdun and achieving a great victory.

That same night the absent without leave General Petain was dragged from the bed of his mistress in Paris and ordered to take command at Verdun. He set about his task with vigour, the series of counter-attacks which had stalled the German advance but achieved little else at very great cost he ordered to cease and the French positions consolidated. Their time would come he told his men but for now they would hold what they had as he set about reorganising the defence; the one narrow road to Verdun from the town of Bar-le-Duc fifty miles away he kept open and in constant use as troops were rotated in and out of the front line every two weeks as the endless columns of trucks carrying ammunition, supplies, and the wounded to and from Verdun soon earned it the title the Voie Sacree, or Sacred Road.

Petain’s stoicism and calm determination soon began to filter through to the troops and confidence restored as living up to his own maxim that ‘firepower kills’ he emphasised the use of artillery subjecting the German positions to a constant and intensive barrage whilst restricting infantry assaults to specifically targeted weak points with limited objectives.

Disinclined to engage in the high-flown rhetoric of patriotism and sacrifice to exhort every last effort from his troops so favoured by others (for example the phrase ‘They Shall not Pass’ with which he is so closely associated was in fact coined by his successor Robert Nivelle who had no such qualms) he was viewed by those under his command as a soldier’s soldier, someone who cared for his men, shared their hardships, and would not squander their lives.

He was to the French people the Saviour of Verdun who had prevented a humiliating and morale sapping defeat but to the French High Command he was an over-cautious and pessimistic man whose constant demands for more men and more munitions were made regardless of events elsewhere on the Western Front. He had no vision for success, no plan for victory and some suggested displayed an unwillingness to fight, so with the situation stabilised at Verdun by the end of April he had been replaced.

The grim struggle for Verdun would continue for a further eight months and though Petain’s presence as Commander of the Second Army remained throughout the laurels of final victory would go to General Nivelle but any sense of triumphalism was muted for it had been bought at a terrible cost with due to the rotation system implemented by Petain more the three-quarters of the French Army passing through Verdun some 400,0000 of whom became casualties. German losses were barely any less and attacked on the Somme and by the Russians in the East by the battles conclusion it was not the French Army that was being bled white.

As a result of his failure at Verdun in July 1916, Von Falkenhayn had been sacked and so also in December of that same year General Joffre was removed as Commander-in-Chief of the French Army to be replaced not by in most people’s minds his obvious successor Philippe Petain but the more emollient and belligerent General Nivelle who had, he said, a plan to win the war.

Robert Nivelle was brash, outspoken, and confident that despite the exhaustion of the French Army following the prolonged struggle at Verdun his planned assault on the German held Chemin des Dames Ridge would succeed where all others had failed. Indeed, he was confident to the point of complacency and little effort had been made to keep the location of the intended breakthrough secret or conceal the preparations. When the assault was launched on 16 April 1917, the Germans were ready and waiting.

Promised a great victory that would bring an end to the war once and for all the French troops threw themselves repeatedly at the German trenches. Indeed, the willingness of the French High Command to sacrifice the lives of their men in such a manner so soon after the trauma of Verdun astonished them especially when it was clear there would be no breakthrough. Nivelle, however, refused to cancel the offensive or significantly scale it down but with the intensity of the attacks flagging and sometimes not being carried out at all on 9 May having endured 187,000 casualties for very little gain and under intense political pressure he had no choice but to do so.

The senseless slaughter of Nivelle’s offensive proved the final straw, the French soldier had simply had enough and they refused to leave their trenches. It was mutiny, Officer’s orders were ignored and some were even shot at and many taken prisoner. Soldiers Committees were formed and representatives elected from among the ranks. They would occupy the front-line positions but they would not fight and those units marching towards the front were berated for doing so and bleated at like sheep.

The French Army appeared on the point of a collective meltdown and action had to be taken and swiftly. General Nivelle was sacked and replaced by the only man the troops might be willing to trust – Philippe Petain.

Petain quickly set about trying to restore morale, he visited every Division in revolt, addressed the soldiers directly avoiding the committees where possible, drank their cheap wine, listened to their complaints and told them that there would be no further meaningless waste of life. He then doubled their rations and granted extended home leave to those who had been the longest on the front-line.

But he would also impose discipline where required and examples of the more recalcitrant would be made of even if publicly of the 629 men who were subsequently tried and sentenced to death by Court Martial only 20, those who had actually fired upon their Officers, were executed. That at least was the official figure but the truth was it was many, many more. Nonetheless, he slowly restored the French Army’s morale even if he now doubted their ability to fight and certainly to take the offensive.

When in March 1918, the Germans launched Operation Michael, their big push to win the war, they adopted new tactics that included short but intensive artillery barrages, the extensive use of poison gas, and specially trained storm-troopers some armed with flamethrowers – they quickly broke through the British front-line.

The situation soon became desperate and Field-Marshal Haig called for urgent French support but Petain refused saying that he would instead withdraw the French Army to defend Paris; but to do so would have created a fatal gap in the Allied lines. Despite Haig’s protestations however, Petain refused to budge.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and Haig went above Petain’s head to the politicians accusing him of being a defeatist who in a panic was undermining the Allied war effort and making the prospect of a German victory more likely. He demanded he be replaced even vowing to place himself under the direct command of any replacement.

It worked and the obdurate Petain, despite his popularity with the army, was forced to step down to be replaced by Ferdinand Foch who became the Commander-in-Chief of all Allied armies on the Western Front. The German assault eventually petered out and Foch was to order a series of brilliantly executed counter-attacks, in which Petain played his part, that were to lead to the general advance that would bring the war to its conclusion.

Despite his demotion Petain had a good war, and in 1919 he received his Marshal’s baton and such was his apparent popularity that he was persuaded, against his better judgement, to stand for the Presidency of the Third Republic, but he lost heavily.

Between the wars he was to hold a number of prominent posts including Inspector-General of the Army, Minister of War, and Minister of State. He was a strong proponent of the defensive Maginot Line along France’s north-eastern frontier with Germany, and advocated a neutral and isolationist French foreign policy.

France between the wars was hopelessly politically divided and Governments came and went with alarming alacrity, Left and Right clashed on the streets of Paris and other major cities, and there appeared to be no middle-way. In such a divisive and frenzied political atmosphere, only exacerbated by the World Economic Depression and mass unemployment, it proved impossible to adopt a coherent policy for national defence and despite being personally popular Petain was acknowledged as a man of the Right, and his political superiors were often not. Anything he proposed was judged not on its merits but on his politics.

Petain, a stubborn, phlegmatic, essentially humourless, reactionary set in his ways blamed the Third Republic for the moral decay of France and feared a Communist takeover. When the General Election of 1936 returned a Left-Wing Popular Government, Petain believed it meant the death of France. The Right-Wing press agreed and began to openly declare for a dictatorship, and their preferred candidate for the role was, Philippe Petain. The ageing and increasingly truculent Marshal of France appeared to agree.

He was becoming an irritant to the Government and in 1939 he was appointed Ambassador to Franco’s recently established fascist regime in Spain where it was thought he would receive a more appreciative audience for his views.

By September 1939, France was once again at war with Germany. The country was ill-prepared for another conflict with years of under-funding, social division, and political in-fighting denuding the French Army of its martial spirit. There was no enthusiasm for the battle to come and the elan of previous years had gone, a defensive mentality now dominated French strategic thinking best emphasised by their misplaced confidence in the Maginot Line – they would simply remain behind their fortifications and wait for the Germans to attack them.

Spurning the opportunity to take the initiative in the coldest winter for decades the poorly paid French soldiers froze in their trenches with nothing to do. Those returning from leave often did so drunk, while many others did not return at all. The so-called Phoney War was taking its toll on French morale.

In the meantime, Petain was recalled from his Ambassadorial post in Spain.

On 10 May 1940, the German Army launched its Blitzkrieg on the Low Countries. Holland and Belgium were quickly overrun and the French Commander, General Gamelin, committed the bulk of his army to France’s northern frontier to meet what he believed would be the German’s main thrust. But on the 12 May, German Mechanised Units struck west through the lightly defended and supposedly impassable Ardennes Forest.

By 15 May, the Germans had crossed the River Meuse and the French Army was in full-retreat. France was in danger of being split in two and the armies in the north in danger of being cut-off and surrounded. Even the usually implacable French Premier Paul Reynaud felt obliged to contact his British counterpart Winston Churchill to tell him that all was lost and France beaten. Churchill was able to stiffen his resolve but the situation remained perilous indeed.

Despite the increasingly frantic efforts to stem the German tide by the end of May 1940, the British Expeditionary Force was being evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk. Meanwhile, in Paris the Government was undecided what to do as preparations were made to evacuate the city. Reynaud wanted to continue the fight even if this meant abandoning France altogether and doing so from their colonies overseas. The Army High Command and Petain in particular, insisted that all was lost. Churchill declared that Petain had been a defeatist in World War One and was still one today. He offered to grant full British citizenship to all Frenchmen and absorb both countries into one if only they would continue to fight. But despite his protestations and unwavering support for Reynaud the French Prime Minister was out-voted in Cabinet and forced to resign. Petain was appointed in his place.

On 14 June, Paris was occupied. Three days later, broadcasting from Bordeaux where the French Government had been forced to flee, Petain announced to the French people that he would be seeking armistice terms. On 22 June, France surrendered.

In accordance with the Armistice terms France was divided into three zones, northern and western France including the Atlantic coast was to be occupied by the Germans whilst a small strip of land beside the Alps was allocated to the Italians to placate Mussolini. Southern France was to remain nominally independent.

On 1 July, the French Government moved to the Spa town of Vichy and nine days later the 84 year old Petain was appointed Head of State with full powers. He immediately set about putting France right, as he saw it.

He had long blamed the Third Republic for the corruption and moral decay that had blighted French society. The Liberal Republicanism and the socialism it spawned had been responsible for the dilution of the French fighting spirit. So France would no longer be a Republic but a State. Liberal values and secularism were disavowed in favour of an authoritarian Catholic social hierarchy. The rallying cry of the Revolution, Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite was now replaced with Travail, Familie, Patrie. The very idea of equality of man was dismissed as an absurdity – the Conservative Revolution was underway.

Those Civil Servants who were known to harbour Republican sympathies were dismissed from their posts and their replacements made to swear an oath of allegiance to the new regime. The Catholic Church was raised in status and expected to take a more active role in society, all criticism of Nazi Germany was forbidden, and a massive campaign of propaganda was undertaken to persuade people of the benefits of the new/old France.

On 24 October 1940, a reluctant Petain was persuaded by his egregious Prime Minister Pierre Laval to attend a meeting with Adolf Hitler at Montoire.

Throughout their initial meeting Petain, as was his way, remained largely silent making Hitler ponder on the issue of whether or not he was actually senile, but when he did speak he was to prove himself a tough and wily negotiator. Following his return, on 30 October, he broadcast to the Nation informing them of his meeting with Hitler and declaring “I enter today into the way of collaboration,” words that continue to haunt France to this day for they were sincerely meant as the Vichy Regime did nothing to impede the Germans at any point. Indeed, many within the Government were eager to facilitate the Germans in any way they possibly could.

Prior to the outbreak of the war France had been a hotbed of fascist propaganda, and Far-Right organisations such as Action Francaise and the Croix de Feu had been prominent, active, and responsible for much of the violence on the streets. Now many on the Far-Right believed they had carte-blanche to impose their views on the population as a whole. Petain did little to rein them in, if indeed he ever wanted to.

With little prompting from the Germans he had already passed a series of anti-Semitic laws. So when the Germans began rounding up French Jews for transportation to the Concentration Camps in August 1941, French Officials were enthusiastic participants. Many of these Jews were incarcerated in the most appalling conditions in the Velodrome at Drancy that was used as a transit camp. The Camp itself was administered by French Officials and guarded by French soldiers. Of the 75,000 French Jews who were transported to Auschwitz very few ever returned.

Is this what Petain meant by collaboration?

On 11 November 1942, in response to the Allied invasion of North Africa the Germans occupied the whole of France this despite Petain ordering that French forces resist the Allies in all of France’s colonial possessions which they did with vigour before the Commander in North Africa, Admiral Darlan, who was assassinated not long after, ordered that they lay down their arms.

With the whole of France now occupied any pretence towards independence came to an end. Even so, the Vichy Government remained responsible for Civil Administration.

In January 1943, the Milice, a brutal Right-Wing Militia, was formed under the Command of the fascist Joseph Darnand, whom Petain was to appoint Secretary for the Maintenance of Public Order. They ruthlessly hunted down, tortured, and executed members of the Resistance. Petain was later to complain of their excesses but he did nothing to curtail them. The Vichy Government also provided the Germans with a steady stream of forced labour, and as many as 50,000 Frenchmen were to join the SS. Indeed, the French SS Charlemagne Division was amongst the last troops defending Hitler’s Bunker in Berlin in April 1945.

In September 1944, following the Allied invasion of Fortress Europe, the entire Vichy Cabinet was removed to Sigmaringen in Germany where they became a Government-in-Exile. Petain, by now 89 years of age, refused to co-operate any further. Instead, he insisted upon being allowed to return to France as a private citizen. He must have known that this would mean his being put on trial for his life but he remained adamant. On the day of his 90th birthday he was driven across the border into France.

Arrested upon his return he was tried for treason on 25 July 1945. Barring an opening statement when he questioned the validity of the Court to try him, he did nothing to defend himself and remained silent throughout the rest of the trial. On 15 August, he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Charles de Gaulle, the Head of the Provisional Government, and still formally a member of Petain’s Staff, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment on the grounds of his advanced old age and previous services to France.

Unlike so many of Hitler’s other Quislings, Petain was not a fascist who had a craving for power for its own sake, but he was a bigoted Right-Wing Reactionary, set in his ways, who misguidedly believed that by collaborating with Hitler he could maintain the dignity of France.

He died in prison at IIe d’Yeu on 23 July 1951, aged 95. He had been senile for a number of years.

At first the Government insisted that his tombstone should read “No Profession”, but they later relented and it was inscribed with “Marshal of France”. His request that he be buried at the site of his greatest triumph Verdun was denied, however.

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