"Marshal Pétain saved them once before, in 1916. He was the hero of the Great War."


Marshal Philippe Pétain was 84 years old when the German army invaded France in June 1940.  He should have enjoyed a golden old age; instead, he was called upon to forge a shameful peace with Germany that would forever besmirch his earlier triumphs.

He made his name at the Battle of Verdun in 1916, in which 250,000 men were killed over a period of ten months.  Pétain understood the importance of overwhelming firepower, and he set up a supply system that allowed the French artillery to fire 15 million shells at the German lines in the first five months.  Verdun was a shattering experience for both sides, but it can be seen as a victory for France in that the German army failed to capture the strategically vital town of Verdun.

Pétain buoyed his troops' morale with the words "Courage! On les aura" ("Courage! We'll get them").  Always viewed as a soldier's soldier, he was made Commander-in-Chief in 1917 and Marshal in 1918.

Arguably, Pétain was partly responsible for France's 1940 defeat.  As the pre-eminent military figure in the 1920s and 1930s, he helped shape France's military.  He was a strong proponent of the ineffective Maginot Line, and he failed to modernise French arms or aeroplanes, so that French infantry faced Hitler's Blitzkrieg with 1918 weaponry.

When the German army overran France in June 1940, Pétain was invited to form a new government and negotiate an armistice.  The terms of the negotiation gave Germany control over the north and west of France, but left 40% of the country unoccupied, to be governed by Pétain's new regime in Vichy.  "Free" France was officially neutral in the war, although it was obliged to cooperate with Nazi Germany in numerous affairs, not least the deportation of Jews and the re-supply of the German military. 

Pétain and Hitler in 1940
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikePétain and Hitler in 1940 - Credit: Deutsches Bundesarchiv

Pétain had some sympathy with the authoritarian approach of the Nazis, and he took this opportunity to reverse the liberalism of the previous decades.  He awarded himself extraordinary powers and ran the country more like an army than a democracy.  The motto liberté, égalité, fraternité was replaced by travail, famille, patrie (work, family, fatherland).


After the war, Pétain was stripped of his military rank and sentenced to death for his role in the Vichy regime.  Charles de Gaulle, his one-time protégé and subsequent political opponent, commuted the sentence on grounds of old age.  He was imprisoned on the Île d'Yeu, and died in 1951.