by Leslie Anders
At the outbreak of World War I, Colonel Philippe Pétain took up his mobilization assignment as commander of the 4th Brigade of the 51st Reserve Infantry. Division. His new command at Vervins was a part of General Charles Louis Lanrezac's Fifth Army, then preparing for its share in the execution of Plan XVII. Action came quickly, as Lanrezac drove forward to meet the oncoming Germans "somewhere" in Belgium. Doubtless with misgivings, Pétain double-timed his brigade down the Meuse Valley to Dinant, where he ordered quick preparation of field fortifications. On 23 August his patrols began exchanging shots with the advance guard of the German XII Corps.
|Pétain As a New General
The Germans did not get to make a fair test of Pétain's entrenchments, however. A high-level misunderstanding between Lanrezac and the commander of the British Expeditionary Force led to the precipitate withdrawal of the British and the uncovering of the Fifth Army's left flank. Instead of fighting it out at Dinant, therefore, Colonel Pétain was ordered to abandon his lines and join in the great strategic retreat of General Louis Felix Franchet d'Esperey's I Corps
Plan XVII Fails
By this time, Plan XVII had been revealed in all its futility. Rushing across the fields and along the roads that led to Dieuze, Morhange, Altkirch, and Mulhouse, the red-trousered French infantrymen were cut down in long bloody swaths. Machine guns, barbed wire, and the entire armory of modern weapons had created an age of military technology in which Pickett's Charges were out of place. When the front stabilized, a few weeks later, nearly half the French Regular Army had been killed, wounded, or captured.
On the bleak morrow of Plan XVII's downfall, Pétain hurried his troops southward along roads clouded with late-summer dust. At sundown, 24 August, the 4th Brigade marched into the little Belgian town of Mariembourg. The next day Pétain passed through Scourmont, France, at the head of his haggard rearguard battalion. At this point, however, Fifth Army ordered his unit to detached service with the III Corps to bolster a deteriorating front south of Guise. The evening of 29 August found Pétain's force entrenched between the 1st and 5th Infantry Divisions, 2.5 miles south of Guise on the road to Marle.
The German X Corps (Second Army) immediately charged the French positions in this area. Although Pétain's gunners offered the invader a torrid reception, the French III Corps was unable to pull itself together sufficiently to make a stand. Retreat resumed, eventually pulling back across the Serre River toward Laon.
In this situation there was plenty of work for cool heads. On 31 August 1914, orders were published at Fifth Army promoting Colonel Pétain to general de brigade and assigning him to command the demoralized 6th Division, then engaged in falling back toward the line Laon-Soissons.
Collecting the division after some exertions, Pétain managed on 2 September to construct a 2.5-mile position on the south side of Mont-sur-Courville. Attacked here by the German IX Corps, the 6th division yielded and, by sundown on 3 September, had beaten an orderly retreat of 12 miles, crossing the Aisne at Verneuil. On the evening of 5 September, the division reached Louan, about 9 miles from the Seine.
|Path of Pétain's 1914 Retreat
The Tide Turns
General Pétain's long retreat ended, for on the morning of 6 September Joffre issued his celebrated "die on the spot" order to the armies of France. The generalissimo—who had been gathering divisions from the shattered eastern sectors to create a local numerical superiority along the decisive Marne front—was ready to try conclusions with the invader. Doing its part, the 6th Division wheeled about to face the onward rush of the Germans. Then, all of a sudden, the troops of the German right wing above Paris found themselves facing a dangerous flank-thrust from a newly formed French army north of Paris. Consternation reigned at the field headquarters of the Germans, and urgent orders for a general retreat were soon forthcoming for the units in the overextended sectors along the Marne.
Under a curtain of shell fire, Pétain's division almost painlessly recaptured a village east of Provins. Now the chase was on, with the French cavalry leading the way. Spearheads of the British Expeditionary Force and the French Fifth and Ninth Armies swept back into Chalons, Epernay, and Chateau-Thierry. Abandoning the Marne, the Germans relaxed their grip on the line Reims-Soissons-Compiegne and retreated to new trench positions on the high ridges north of the Aisne on 14 September. The Battle of the Marne, which saved France, passed into history as Pétain's men started digging in along the Aisne north of Reims.
Joffre, the imperturbable author of Plan XVII, reacted to his disillusioning experience with a relentless purge of the French officer corps. Those who had been the most conspicuous in their adherence to the doctrine of the offensive à outrance but the slowest to readjust to reality were quick to pay for their shortcomings. Two of the five original army commanders were removed from their posts, and seven of the 21 corps commanders were relieved. Scores of lesser officers who survived their foolhardiness joined their, seniors in Joffre's limbo.
Simultaneously, the prestige of the colorless leader of the 6th Division was increasing. The elderly brigadier was earning a name for his personal gallantry, efficiency, and economy in lives. Recognized as a tough and skilled master of the strange new art of modern position warfare, Pétain became on 15 September a major general (general de division). In mid-October he succeeded to command of the XXXIII Corps of General Louis de Maud'huy's Tenth Army and was proclaimed an officer of the Legion of Honor. The following spring he rose to command of the Second Army.
The rest of Pétain's career being rather well known, it remains to us here to ponder briefly the causes for his swift rush from obscurity across the threshold of everlasting fame. Part of the secret lies, of course, in certain qualities of his character, praised in great detail on 27 September 1914, in an Order of the Day, which otherwise made scant mention of general officers. The commanding general of the 6th Division, in the words of the citation:
"...has by his tenacity, his calmness under fire, his constant foresight, his constant intervention at difficult moments, obtained from his division a magnificent effort during fourteen days, resisting repeated attacks by day and night, and, the fourteenth day, in spite of losses sustained, repulsing victoriously a furious enemy attack."
|Joffre and Pétain at Souilly During the Battle of Verdun
But this scarcely tells us the entire story. The fact is that, in spite of the obsession of his more brilliant colleagues with offensive doctrines, Pétain had seen clearly for himself that massive and heedless infantry charges on the modern battlefield necessitated an intolerable wastage of life. In his common-sense way he had perceived what James Longstreet saw at Fredericksburg: "...the advantages conferred on the defensive by entrenchments and by nineteenth-century developments in fire power."
His capacity for reducing military realities to simple terms, his ability to thrust off those delusions captivating more sophisticated French officers, and the bitter courage he habitually displayed in defense of his unpopular teachings—these constitute at once the core of Pétain's distinctive contributions to French military history and the sure basis for his swift ascent to fame when the occasion arrived in 1914.
Source: Military Review, June 1954