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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.




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