Henri-Philippe Petain

Henri-Philippe Petain

Henri-Philippe Petain was born in Cauch-a-la-Tour in 1856. He joined the French Army in 1876 and attending the St Cyr Military School and spent many years as an infantry officer and an army instructor. After studying the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05)

Petain became convinced that the increased fire-power of modern weapons strongly favoured the defensive. Others in the French Army, for example, Ferdinand Foch, believed the opposite to be true.

On the outbreak of the First World War Petain was due to retire from the army. Instead he was promoted to brigadier and took part in the Artois Offensive. In 1915 Joseph Joffre sent Petain to command the French troops at Verdun. Afterwards Petain was praised for his artillery-based defensive operations and his organisation of manpower resources.

After the disastrous Nivelle Offensive in the spring of 1917, the French Army suffered widespread mutinies on the Western Front. Petain replaced Robert Nivelle as Commander-in-Chief. This was a popular choice as Petain, unlike Nivelle, had a reputation for having a deep concern for the lives of his soldiers. By improving the living conditions of the soldiers at the front and restricting the French Army to defensive operations, Petain gradually improved the morale of his troops.

Considered to be too defensively minded, it was Ferdinand Foch rather than Petain who was given the main role in the Allied offensive in the autumn of 1918. Promoted to Field Marshal two weeks after the Armistice, Petain remained active in French military affairs and served as War Minister in 1934.

In 1940, aged 83, Petain agreed to head the Vichy government in occupied France. Petain fed to Switzerland after the Normandy landings but when he returned in April, 1945, he was arrested and charged with treason. Petain was found guilty of and sentenced to death for aiding the German enemy. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. Henri-Philippe Petain died in prison in 1951.

Saving France - for GermanyPhilip Zec, The Daily Mirror (11th October, 1940)
Saving France - for Germany
Philip Zec, The Daily Mirror (11th October, 1940)

Primary Sources

(1) Anthony Eden, Memoirs: The Reckoning (1965)

Paul Reynaud received us, firm and courteous despite the strain. We soon got down to discussion across the dining-room table; Petain, Reynaud, Weygand facing Churchill, Dill and me, with interpreters. General Georges joined us later. We talked for almost three hours, the discussion hardly advancing matters. The speakers were polite and correct, but although at that time the Maginot Line had not been attacked, it was soon evident that our French hosts had no hope.

Early in our talks, Weygand described the military situation, explaining how he had attempted to block a number of gaps in the line. He believed he had succeeded and, for the moment, the line held, but he had no more reserves. Somebody asked what would happen if another breach were made. 'No further military action will then be possible,' Weygand replied. Reynaud at once intervened sharply: 'That would be a political decision, Monsieur Ie General.' Weygand bowed and said: 'Certainly.' Georges told us that the French had altogether only some one hundred and ninety-five fighter aircraft left on the northern front.

Despite all the difficulties, our dinner, though simple, was admirably cooked and served. Reynaud presided, with Churchill on his right, Weygand sat opposite and I on his right. As we were taking our places, a tall and somewhat angular figure in uniform walked by on my side of the table. This was General Charles de Gaulle, Under-Secretary for Defence, whom I had met only once before. Weygand invited him pleasantly to take a place on his left. De Gaulle replied, curtly as I thought, that he had instructions to sit next to the British Prime Minister. Weygand flushed up, but made no comment, and so the meal began.

I had Marshal Petain on my other side. Conversation was not easy. His refrain was the destruction of France and the daily devastation of her cities, of which he mentioned several by name. I was sympathetic, but added that there were even worse fates than the destruction of cities. Petain rejoined that it was all very well for Britain to say that, we did not have the war in our country. When I said that we might have, I received an incredulous grunt in reply.

With General Weygand my talk was perfectly friendly and consisted mainly of a discussion about our available forces in Britain and what we were doing to speed their training. I had little cheer to give him. Weygand was something of an enigma. He had a famous reputation, crowned by his victory with Pilsudski over the Bolshevik forces in 1920. I had met him on several occasions, most recently early that year in the Middle East, and always found him friendly, quick and receptive, a modest man carrying his fame without affectation or conceit. He worked well with General Wavell, for the two men understood each other. I was glad when I heard that he had been called back to France to take over the supreme command. He achieved little, but probably no man could. At this stage, though always correct and courteous, he gave the impression of resigned fatalism. He was certainly not a man to fight the last desperate comer.

(2) The Manchester Guardian (10th April, 1941)

It was a solemn House of Commons that heard Mr. Churchill today, which was natural. Mr. Churchill's was a solemn speech. It said in effect that the Allies are facing another crisis. Though it is not comparable with the gravity of the crisis that followed the collapse of France, no reader of Mr. Churchill's speech will doubt that it is grave enough. The House had sensed the occasion. It was full in all its parts.

Mr. Churchill is clearly not comfortable about France, in spite of his welcome of Marshall Petain's declaration that she will never fight her old ally. He sees how dependent Vichy is on Hitler. But his warning that we shall maintain our blockade aroused the greatest cheer of the speech. The next biggest cheer greeted his declaration that we should not tolerate any movements of French warships from African ports to the ports of Metropolitan France, for that would alter the balance of naval power in the Atlantic affecting the United States as much as ourselves.

(3) (3) William Leahy, ambassador to Vichy government, letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt on Henri-Philippe Petain (28th July, 1941)

It seems to me that he is surely, if slowly, being manoeuvred into a position where his only purpose will be to hold the loyalty of the French people and to make speeches to schoolchildren and veterans. It is certain that his popularity is decreasing because of recent approaches to full collaboration, the Syrian fiasco, the failure of Germany to repeat in Russia its performance of last year in France, and the turning over of Indo-China to Japan.

The French people are still friendly with America and practically all of them look to you as their one and only hope for release from Nazi rule. However it is impossible to guess what will happen in France tomorrow or the next day, and almost as difficult for me to point to any useful accomplishment that we have made here since my arrival six months ago. From this point of view today, it appears that only a very apparent Axis setback somewhere will sufficiently discredit the collaborationists to hold France even to its present neutral position.

(4) William Leahy, ambassador to Vichy government, letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt on the removal of General Maxime Weygand (22nd November, 1941)

With the removal of General Weygand from Africa in obedience to a German dictat, and the beginning of a British offensive in Cyrenaica, which two occurrences presumably are closely related. I pointed out to him [Petain] very clearly that the heretofore friendly and sympathetic attitude of the American Government was based on an assumption that he would not, in his relations with the Axis powers, go beyond the requirements of the Armistice Agreement, and that a removal of General Weygand under German pressure cannot be considered by anybody to be necessitated by the Armistice Agreement.

I told him that in my opinion such an unnecessary surrender to Axis demands would have a definitely adverse effect on the traditional amity between our two peoples that it would probably bring about immediate suspension of the economic assistance that is being given to the French colonies, and that it might very possibly cause America to make a complete readjustment of its attitude toward his government of France.

I requested that his decision be reconsidered. He replied that since last December (1940) Germany had constantly exerted increasing pressure to remove Weygand. That their demands included everything - among other things the bases and the fleet to which he refused to accede. Yesterday, however, the Germans sent him a 'brutal dictate" threatening in event of refusal to occupy all France, to feed the army of occupation with French foodstuffs, and to permit the native population to die of hunger.

While the great inarticulate and leaderless mass of the French people remain hopeful of a British victory and continue to hope that America will rescue them from their present predicament without their doing anything for themselves, the Government of France today, headed by a feeble, frightened old man surrounded by a group which probably for its own safety, is devoted to the Axis philosophy.