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General Philipe Pétain Le Maréchal de France

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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


A Frenchman of great Calibre.

1. Introduction

Pétain was a military man in essence and a great hero of defensive tactics at Verdun Salient in 1916 against repeated German attempts to take the fort and salient, he made the stand himself.

He was one of the key French Generals to secure the Allied Victory on the Western Front and bring about the Anglo-French advance to the German fortified Hindenburg Line in 1918. The Germans were obliged to agree an armistice on 11 November 1918 as a result.

2. Interwar Years/Les Anciens Combattants

Pétain was relatively inactive from 1918 to 1939 but as the Second World War loomed in 1937 – 1938 his influence and Counsel was sought as a power broker if not militarily. His particular interest was in the Anciens Combattants i.e. those who had survived the Great War to the 1920’s and 1930’s even to the 1940’s. When the Second World War was lost by France in 1940 (May) in the West, the ranks of those Anciens Combattants were greatly swelled by the French soldiers who were captured by the Wehrmacht and made prisoners of war. Pétain was Christian minded and had these soldiers in his thoughts during the Great War into the 1920’s and 1930’s and lastly in the Second World War (1939 – 1945) itself.

He wished to help them by ameliorating their lot. A large number of Anciens Combattants were driven into slave labour for the Nazis post 1940 mainly in Germany, some in France. Pétain devoutly attempted and desired their release by Hitler but this never happened despite Hitler’s repeated idle and empty promises to Pétain to release the captured Anciens Combattants to mollify him. Petain would never have agreed to head up Vichy France (a puppet state for Hitler) without this motive derived from the organization of the Anciens Combattants. He hoped to bring home these PoW’s to the Vichy Republic and occupied France soon after the Fall of France.

3. May 1940 – The Debacle

The overrunning of the French Army in May 1940 by the Germans in France paved the way for Philippe Pétain aged 80 years to take control of the Vichy Republic by the invitation of the defeated Third Republic leaders and the consent of Hitler himself. Hitler had had the idea to create Vichy France to give a semblance of normality to post 1940 (May) France. Vichy France was hated as a puppet state by the Free French and De Gaulle in London (in exile 1940 – 1944). Pétain as Head of Vichy would never be forgiven for his supposed treasonable actions.

4. Vichy itself – The Regime

Named after the Spa town in central southern France, Vichy consisted of parts of Southern France to a considerable extent. Pétain publicly shook hands with Hitler to assuage the Fuhrer’s draconian iron grip to no avail. Hitler never released these French Anciens Combattants (several hundred thousand) and Pétain was reneged upon by Berlin and the Third Reich. Pétain had hoped for dignity indeed freedom for these French soldats (PoW’s) and was prepared to put himself on the line for them. His sacrifice was in vain – these soldiers were never freed by the Nazis.

They had been captured by the German Armies in the Fall of France May 1940 and Hitler trusted no one and forgave none. Once Pétain had agreed to serve as the figurehead for Vichy he could not back out despite Hitler’s broken promises and humiliation of Pétain himself. He could not risk a German take-over of that Republic with untold consequences for its ordinary people. He was locked in as the leader of Vichy and guardian of its citizenry from slavery to Hitler. He was not used to the role of civil governor but did not let that put him off. Nor did his great age defeat him – he loved France, its soul and its history.

He had no respect for Hitler, a First World War Corporal but he swallowed his pride for the sake of the Anciens Combattants and the Southern France of Vichy. He put his own self interest aside and kept the Nazis out of Vichy by his decision to accept this figurehead role for some several years. Hitler and the Germans would have accepted no other figurehead only Pétain. That is clear; it was Pétain or German occupation in force in 1940. Pétain knew this was the blackmail. In the interests of France he received the reins of office in Vichy in 1940. This was following her abject surrender to Germany and Hitler at Compiègne – Railway carriage (used for German acceptance of Peace in World War One). That took courage at his age in his 80’s. He could easily have fled to Switzerland, England, Ireland, Spain or Africa. As always he held his ground.

5. End of Vichy and the Free French Attitude

This was the (fascist) milice (secret police) and the persecution of les juifs (Lyons-Klaus Barbie) and the ghastly toady to the Nazis – Pierre Laval who took control of Vichy in 1944. A terrible ending but the German Army brought it about by closing Vichy during that year. Pétain became a “prisoner” and then a “prisoner” of De Gaulle after the “liberation” of France. He was to die in captivity in the 1950’s and had no children. Charles de Gaulle spared him the guillotine. The Free French and the Communists despised and condemned Pétain for being a collaborator and Nazi fellow traveller. These words have a certain ring of truth but they are emotive and miss the point of Pétain’s policy in life of deep Christian Conservatism and his self-sacrificing love of all things French (he was no Church goer).

Pétain had dignity and self respect which never deserted him and this composure irritated his critics to succumb to these vituperative remarks which obscured the truth about Pétain in Vichy. He was driven to save life in World War One and Vichy also and French lives at that. Verdun was his defensive masterpiece – Vichy was the rescue society. Many British PoW’s escaped through Vichy to Spain pre 1944. He is a difficult man to read because he would not justify himself – his actions speak louder than his critics’ jibes.

6. Pétain’s Epitaph

A stand out leader in both World Wars but in very different circumstances. He was a thinking man who did nothing without forethought. He was not defeatist as some have wrongly claimed. He worked within the real world and its politic and demonstrated his realism in both World War One and his pivotal role in Vichy. He nevertheless had political and military imagination which he never allowed to be curbed. He always urged the French to be French and not dominated by the adversary “on les aura” – the phrase he coined for the Verdun Battle 1916. I salute you Maréchal de France for your courage and adherence to your patrie, come what may.