Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Pétain: Verdun to Vichy

By Robert B. Bruce
Potomac Books, Inc. 2008
James Thomas, Reviewer

Lt. Pétain
Marshal Henri Philippe Benoni Omer Pétain is the great enigma of French history. The hero and savior of France in the Great War, he was the collaborator and traitor to his nation in the Second World War. Robert Bruce warns the reader in the preface that while Pétain may be most remembered for leading the Vichy government, this biography would focus on his military career. That is quite a difficult task in itself. Something Bruce wrote toward the end of the book might well have been more useful at the beginning, when he said that perhaps Pétain lived too long. He would indeed have remained a great heroic figure had he died prior to 1940, but it is the actions of one's entire life that define a person.

That said, Bruce does an excellent job presenting the life and military career of the hero of Verdun. In many ways, Pétain was the ideal model of the Third Republic's military. He was 14 years old when France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War and Germany was born. That moment in the impressionable teenager's life defined who he would be. Like so many soldiers and civilians in France, vengeance against the Germans was the theme of his life for the next decades. As France the nation prepared itself to get back at Germany for the humiliation of the war that brought the birth of Germany and the creation of the French Third Republic, so too did the young Pétain.

Following all the proper steps to build a military career, the ambitious and driven Pétain studied at Saint-Cyr and the Ecole de Guerre. Service in a variety of infantry units, even teaching infantry tactics and climbing through the officers' ranks, Pétain was made general as the Great War began in that auspicious summer of 1914. Doing well in the early stages of the war, it was at Verdun that he ultimately defined himself, his talents and his love of France. As the hero of the savage slaughter that finally stopped the German onslaught, Pétain symbolized French stubborn resistance and willingness to do whatever necessary to defeat the hated Allemands.

Joffre and Pétain at Souilly Headquarters, March 1916

By the time the war ended in November 1918, Pétain was named Marshal of France and had achieved legendary if not mythical status to the people of France. The ceremony in which Pétain received his marshal's baton took place in Metz, under the statue of another great French marshal, Napoleon's ablest subordinate, Michel Ney. Attaining the honor in Lorraine, finally regained from Germany, made it glorious to the utmost.

In some ways, the last third of Bruce's book then reads almost as if it were an afterthought. A dozen or so pages describing those profoundly significant years between the wars (in the middle of which the book's photographs are placed) and then the last pages are devoted to the fall of France, Vichy, and the final years of Pétain's life. Professor Bruce warned the reader in the preface that this would be the case, and in fact he does a nice job in the pages devoted to this part of the story, but naturally the reader wants more. As the series description on the back of the book notes, part of the purpose of the series is to encourage further study, and that it certainly does.

Still, for a relatively brief examination of a remarkable and controversial figure, Robert Bruce's little biography of Marshal Pétain is quite good, especially for readers with more military than political interest in the man, and most particularly for those more interested in the Great War than the Second. Pétain, like most of the entries in Dennis Showalter's Military Profiles series, is an excellent piece and a very good place to begin learning about Pétain.

James Thomas

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