Henri-Philippe Pétain is most remembered today as the convicted traitor of the Second World War, but he truly endeared himself to the French nation during World War I. Verdun played the biggest part of his ascension to national hero.
Beginning the war as an obscure 58-year-old colonel in command of an infantry brigade, Pétain rose quickly in rank, assuming command of the Sixth Division in September 1914, the Thirty-third Corps in October, and the Second Army in June 1915. From the start, he distinguished himself by his meticulous attention to detail, his careful preparation, and his reliance on artillery. His talents became most apparent when his Second Army played a large role in the September 1915 offensive in Champagne. The French failed to break through German defensive lines, but Pétain’s after-action report identified shortcomings in French methods and provided important ideas about future operations.
On 25 February 1916, the day Fort Douaumont fell, Pétain became commander of French forces at Verdun. In the terrible destruction of what the French soldiers called the “furnace,” he finally succeeded in halting the Germans. Though the French suffered huge losses, Pétain’s careful husbanding of his troops avoided even greater bloodshed. Among his innovations, he introduced the noria system, which rotated divisions in and out of the trenches without permitting them to become ineffective in combat. (The noria system was named after a device used to raise water from a well, which consisted of a revolving chain of buckets that filled at the bottom of the well and emptied at the top.) Despite Pétain’s success and his concern for his soldiers, General Robert Nivelle was chosen to replace General Marshal Joseph Joffre as commander of French forces; Nivelle then brought France to the edge of disaster with his ruinous offensive in April 1917. With much of the army in mutiny, Pétain replaced Nivelle in May.
|Joffre and Pétain at the Souilly Headquarters on the Voie Sacrée
In subsequent months, Pétain revived the French Army by meting out a combination of rewards and punishments, including about 55 executions (not the hundreds that some critics have alleged). He also insisted on limited offensives in which massive amounts of artillery prepared the way for the infantry. In October Pétain launched an attack on the fortress of La Malmaison in the Chemin des Dames, near where Nivelle’s offensive had failed, and successfully seized this dominating piece of terrain. His success and his careful methods convinced French soldiers that he would not needlessly waste their lives. For the remainder of the war, Pétain remained in command of French forces, though General Ferdinand Foch leaped over him to become supreme commander of Allied forces. Other French leaders, including Foch, frequently criticized Pétain for his pessimism and caution, but he nevertheless established a particularly strong relationship with the American commander, General John J. Pershing.
Pétain had a significant influence over French forces in the interwar period, but his role has sometimes been exaggerated. Others made greater contributions in structuring and preparing French forces for the next war. Nevertheless, he played an important part in the design and placement of the Maginot line; he himself chose the best sites for its major fortresses. Eventually, however, another war would come and Pétain's reputation would crash.
Source: History Today and the History Channel