Philippe Pétain

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Philippe Pétain
Marshal Pétain and Pierre Laval (right) c.1942

Henri Philippe Benoni Omer Pétain (24 April 1856 – 23 July 1951), generally known as Marshall Pétain, was a brilliant military commander during the First World War, notably with the defence of Verdun, which made him a national hero. He was made a Marshall of France, a rare honour. From 18 May 1940 he was Deputy Premier of France, a month later he was appointed Premier, and from 10 July 1940 till late 1944 he was Head of the French State.


Pétain served briefly as Army Chief of Staff (from the end of April 1917). He was then appointed Commander-in-Chief of the entire French army, replacing General Nivelle. Following The Great War Pétain was appointed Inspector-general of the Army (Feb 1922), and on 3 September 1925 became Commander-in-Chief of French Forces in Morocco. A keen proponent of a new air force hewas appointed Inspector-General of Air Defence on 9 February 1931, the same year he was elected a Fellow of the famous Académie francaise.

On 8th February 1934 he was appointed Minister of War in the Doumergue 'National Government', which fell on November 8th.

In February 1939, Marshal Pétain, aged 83, was appointed Ambassador to Spain by France's Prime Minister, Édouard Daladier. With France's declaration of war on Germany on 3 September that year Pierre Laval wrote to Petain suggesting he should return and form a government. Shortly afterwards Daladier summoned Pétain to Paris and asked him to enter the government. The Marshal refused, as he would not enter any government that did not include Laval - whom Daladier would not have. Pétain returned to Spain.[1]

World War II

The defeat of France

In February 1940 French embassy counsellor Lemarle told Pétain, still Ambassador in Spain, that he had found in Paris "a widespread defeatist mood". After the Cabinet's failure to help Finland following its invasion by the Soviet Union, Daladier resigned as Premier (Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet also left the Cabinet). He was replaced as Premier by 'England's man', Paul Reynaud of the 'war party' in the Assembly. On March 27th, just four days after his investiture, Reynard went to London for a meeting of the Supreme War Council. With him were General Gamelin and Admiral Darlan. It was at this meeting that Reynard, with no Cabinet approval, proposed that there should be no separate armistices or peace without the approval of either great Britain or France. Churchill's personal envoy to France, General Spears, thought this was essential: "It was after all to our advantage to bind the French, as they had been uncertain starters and their hearts were certainly not in the war."[2]

On 10 May 1940 the 'phoney war' ended and the Germans finally invaded. Efforts through diplomatic channels to persuade France to leave the war having failed[3]. Marshall Petain (in Madrid) stated that "France's greatest mistake had been to enter the war."[4] By May 15th things were going badly and Reynaud said "Oh, if only the Marshall were here!" He then recalled Marshal Pétain to Paris[5] as "the last chance". At 10 a.m. on May 16th General Héring, Military Governor of Paris, advised that the entire government, including the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, should be evacuated from Paris. Transference of the government to Tours was ordered and preparations commenced. General Maxime Weygand, who was in Beirut, was ordered to return to France immediately. Meanwhile, on the same day, USA President Roosevelt told the USA Congress that "he would devote all his energies to warding off being dragged into the armed conflict in Europe".[6]

On May 18th Reynard asked Marshal Pétain to join the government as Deputy Premier. The Marshal agreed. Reynard then also reshuffled his Cabinet: he took over National Defence from Daladier who became Minister of Foreign Affairs; the Jewish Georges Mandel became Minister of the Interior, César Campinchi, Minister of Marine. On the same day Churchill sent a long confidential note to the Lord President asking him to examine 'the consequences and problems which would arise if it were necessary to withdraw the British Expeditionary Force from France.....' The following day the French Cabinet decreed General Weygand should replace General Gamelin as Commander-in-Chief. Weygand told Reynard "I cannot guarantee success". On May 23rd the R.A.F evacuated its final base in France, the airfield at Merville; the next day began the B.E.F retreat to the ports. In a conversation with Paul Baudouin, Premier Reynard asked: "If Germany were to make reasonable peace proposals, would public opinion allow us to reject them?" On the 25th Campinchi agreed with other Cabinet members, including Weygand, that peace talks must be started in the near future.[7] On May 26th it was announced that the King of Belgium would prefer (like the King of Denmark) to remain in his country and share his people's trials than to seek sanctuary in London.

On May 30th the evacuation from Dunkirk to England was in full swing, including French soldiers whom Reynaud told England's General Spears "must be put straight into boats and returned to France". The next day at a Supreme War Council meeting in Paris the British delegation included Churchill. The humiliating evacuation from Norway was announced. Reynaud again demanded that the 16,000 French troops must be returned urgently to France, as well as the 15,000 evacuated, at this point, from Dunkirk. 'More would be evacuated today' he said. Churchill then told Reynaud that he "was not authorized by his government to promise [France]] further support of the Royal Air Force."[8] It was felt nation-wide that "Britain had deserted France".[9]

On June 5th Paul Reynard informed Marshal Pétain that he had decided to reshuffle (for the second time in two months) his Cabinet, and offered him the post of Minister for Foreign Affairs. The Marshal declined saying he was not qualified for the job. The reshuffle took place the next day, in Paris, with Daladier and de Monzie dismissed because they were too much in favour of peace talks with Italy. The new Cabinet was ratified by President Albert Lebrun.[10]

Pétain as Premier

Twelve days later, on 17 June 1940, in the wake of France's disastrous defeat in the "useless, hopeless war"[11], Premier Paul Reynaud, and several other cabinet ministers, resigned and recommended that Marshal Pétain be invited to form a new Cabinet. He was then asked by the President of France, Albert Lebrun (1871–1950), to be Prime Minister and to form a new Cabinet, the majority of whom voted to sue for an Armistice with Germany. This was signed on June 22nd, and France left the war. Werth, the great expert on French politics, wrote that "had a referendum been taken, say, on June 15, on whether France should try to negotiate an armistice, there is no doubt that the vast majority would have said yes."[12] Pétain broadcasted to the nation:

The Terms of the armistice are hard; but at least honour has been saved. No-one will use our planes and our Navy.....The Government remains free; and France will [continue to] be administered by Frenchmen only. Now a new order begins.[13]

On July 10th the National Assembly of France, by an overwhelming vote (569-80)[14], passed three Acts, number one named Pétain the new Head of State with the authority to promulgate a new constitution. The function of the President of the Republic was abolished.[15] On July 15th Lebrun retired to Vizille (in Isère). Act number three prorogued and adjourned the two Chambers of deputies. For the next four years Petain and his Cabinet presided over the French national government, which had relocated from Paris to Tours, to Bordeaux, to Clermont-Ferrard, and finally to the spa town of Vichy.

Arrest and Death

After World War II Marshall Petain was arrested and put on trial by France's Far-Left in a show trial and sentenced to death. This was commuted to life imprisonment by the British puppet, Charles de Gaulle. Scandalously the Marshall died in prison in 1951, at the age of 95.[16]

"For decades it has been customary to castigate Pétain for his wartime policy of collaboration with Germany (for which there was no alternative). It is not well known, for example, that the Vichy administration of Marshal Pétain was duly recognized as the legitimate government of France by more than 16 countries, including the United States."[17]

See also


  • Pétain by Glorney Bolton, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1957.
  • Marshal Pétain by Richard Griffiths, Constable, London, 1970.
  • Petain by Charles Williams, Little-Brown, London, May 2005, ISBN 0-316-86127-8


  1. Werth, Alexander, France 1940-1955, London, 1957, p.25-6.
  2. Benoist-Méchin, Jacques, Sixty Days That Shook The West, Putnams, New York, 1963, p.21-2.
  3. Muggeridge, Malcolm, editor, Ciano's Diplomatic Papers, Odhams Press Ltd., London, 1948, p.306-7.
  4. Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945 by an editorial board, Series D, vol.viii, US Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., 1954, pps: 19, 24, 88, 197, 414.
  5. Benoist-Méchin. 1963, p.99.
  6. Benoist-Méchin. 1963, p.104 & 109.
  7. Benoist-Méchin. 1963, pps:114-118, 136, 148, 156.
  8. Benoist-Méchin. 1963, pps: 193. 203-205, 215.
  9. Werth, 1942, p.359.
  10. Benoist-Méchin. 1963, pps: 247-250.
  11. Werth, 1957, p.26, citing Lemarle.
  12. Werth, 1957, p.27.
  13. Werth, 1957, p.30.
  14. Werth, 1957, p.31.
  15. Werth, 1957, p.33.
  17. The Adelaide Institute Conference