Philippe Pétain is one of the most important but also controversial figures in contemporary French history. His remarkable longevity took him though several pivotal moments in history. Rather an onlooker of events in the first part of his life, he became one of the major exponents of the two world wars. The first brought him glory, the second sealed his downfall.
Until 1914, Pétain’s life, like his military career, was nothing out of the ordinary. Never called up for a foreign operation, the Saint-Cyr graduate progressed slowly but steadily, without any experience of direct combat.
The declaration of war presented an unexpected opportunity. Starting out as a Colonel, Pétain rose through the ranks at lightning speed. On 5 August, he set off for the north-east of the Aisne to provisionally command a brigade. He underwent his baptism of fire on 15 August around the bridges over the Meuse. He immediately learnt lessons from his experience: “From now on, the war will take on a different character. Materiel will play an increasingly important role as factories will increase their output of materiels and their power,” he stated. On 1st September, Pétain was given command of the 6th Infantry Division in the Marne, and became a Corps commander on 20 October. Shortly afterwards, he was made General of Division.
As commander of the 33rd Corps in Arras, Pétain imposed strict discipline and severe punishment on all those who showed any inclination to surrender or mutilate themselves. However, he also realised the importance of sparing his men, while he remained faithful to his motto: “artillery conquers, infantry occupies”. As early as 1915, Pétain advocated a war of attrition before passing over to the attack. When the Germans launched their offensive at Verdun on 21 February, Pétain took command of the sector. He implemented a number of practical measures that contributed to forging his legend amongst the soldiers: he organised regular relief of those combat units that had lost a third of their manpower or the Voie Sacrée that brought in supplies of personnel and materiel.
His opinions were not however shared by Joffre who, on the one hand, pursued an offensive approach, and on the other, demanded that most of the units be transferred to the Somme to launch his great Inter-Allied offensive. As a result, from April Pétain was promoted to a more senior command position – a skilled manoeuvre to direct him away from the battlefield of Verdun. His influence therefore was not extinguished. Nominated Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour on 27 April 1916, Pétain became a highly popular public figure.
In early 1917, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the North and North-East Armies and did not conceal his condemnation of the project for the major offensive between Reims and Soissons led by Nivelle. When this was launched on 16 April at Chemins de Dames, it quickly turned into a catastrophe. Already considered his rival, Pétain replaced Nivelle and rose to the rank of Generalissimo of the French army on the western front. The moment in time was however particularly unfavourable: from 1 to 3 June the mutiny crisis reached its climax. In his directive n° 1 of 19 May, he announced a radical change of direction in operations: the abandoning of major offensives in favour of operations of attrition warfare. Faced with mutinies, Pétain handled the troops in the same way he did in 1915, advocating the reinforcement of rules and providing the means to carry out rapid punishments. Apart from punishment, he responded the crisis with a series of practical measures aimed at improving the material conditions of the combatants: regularisation of leave permits, improvements in the procurement of supplies and measures to combat drunkenness. He thus managed to restore confidence. Despite the continuously fluctuating situation throughout spring 1918, the war ended in victory for the Allies, of whom Pétain had become one of the main instigators. On 29 August 1918, he was nominated for the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour and awarded the baton of Marshal of France eight days after the armistice. He was at the height of his popularity. Nevertheless, his longevity confronted him with the ensuing geopolitical upheavals. Having become Premier of the Vichy regime, his image of Victor of Verdun was to remain forever eclipsed by that of collaborator with the 3rd Reich.