Marshall Petain and 11 november 2018

Sam-Nary

Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
6,704
At present SD, USA
#11
Actually Foch does seem to have a fair share of the burden of "offensive à outrance" school of fighting, teaching it as the director of the École de guerre 1907-11 already. (Victory and defeat being mere states of mind, and so winning just required the right kind of mindset; something rubbished by Pétain and his pithy "le feu tue", fire kills, admonition.)
Foch did support the tactic, and for that reason when combined with the fact that Petain did favor more defensive tactics and recognized the problems of trench warfare, along with the lack of heavy guns and shells, that I'd hold Petain as the better tactician between the two. However, there is often a great difference between tactics and strategy. Petain may have been the better tactician, and new better how to hold of German attacks in WWI and thus had some reasoning on how to attack specific positions without wasting lives, but good tactics without good strategy isn't a war winning answer. And it's in this that I'd argue that Foch was the better strategist, in that he saw the bigger picture better than Petain and was able to respond to it. And that in a sense made them a good team in 1917 when Petain took over the French Army from Nivelle and Foch came back to the Western Front to serve on Petain's staff, and then to some degree working together when Foch was promoted to Allied Supreme Commander.
 

Sam-Nary

Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
6,704
At present SD, USA
#12
Certainly , the whole point of the argument is about Petain role during WW1
for memory , the statue to victory on the mort-homme summit , never has craft expressed history so well
https://www.reddit.com/r/france/comments/7drqnq
And Petain's role in WWI was important. Especially on the tactical level, where I think he understood the nature of the war more than his contemporaries on either side. And while I'd argue that Foch was the better strategist, Petain wasn't necessarily bad...

And a lot of how he looked at Verdun and that battle reflects that. Petain recognized that the German attack was coming on one bank of the Meuse and exposing itself to flanking fire. He also recognized that taking Verdun was not going to strategically help Germany win the war. The German army would be no closer to Paris, and unless the French army totally disintegrated, there would be no opportunity for Germany to mount a drive on Paris from Verdun. And even Joffre and de Castelnau recognized that there was not much of real strategic importance at Verdun... beyond maybe the pride of holding onto the forts there. In this, from what Horne comments on in The Price of Glory that Petain looked at the situation and figured the best strategic move would be to simply pull back and let the Germans have the city, while hitting the Germans with flanking artillery fire as the French pulled back to straighten the line. The Germans would take heavy losses they couldn't replace for ground that wouldn't take them any closer to Paris and would only hurt the French with regard to "pride." In this, by allowing the line to be straightened, Petain would save lives that could be committed to more important strategic centers and essentially force the Germans to do precisely what they supposedly claimed their goal at Verdun was... to themselves... bleed themselves white taking ground of no real value. And it would be only once the Germans had exhausted themselves that any sort of "counter-attack" could be mounted...

Within the context of 1916 and the situation, that wasn't a bad strategy to consider, though in the end, both Joffre and de Castelnau favored holding Verdun as a point of pride, which meant that Petain had to stay there and couldn't pull back. Which then pitted Petain's tactics against Falkenhayn's guns, and in the long term, Petain won... though at a heavy cost. Which shows the importance of strategy... Joffre and de Castelnau's strategy was bad at Verdun and that contributed heavily to the losses, and that only Petain's tactics was able to give France the ability to claim victory in the battle.
 

Sam-Nary

Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
6,704
At present SD, USA
#14
Please,what would have become to France if the II Reich wins at Verdun against the Republic in 1916 ? What would have become to France if in 1940 a german gauleiter,like in Poland, would have taken the power ?
But then, how do you define victory? And what makes taking Verdun in 1916 strategically important beyond the fact that it was the last city to fall in the Franco-Prussian War? It was not a major industrial base, it didn't have a massive population, and if the point was to ultimately attack Paris, Germany had positions on the Aisne that were closer to Paris than Verdun. In that sense, about the only reason we can really give for Falkenhayn attacking there in 1916 was that the French would fight for a point of pride and not a strategic objective. That French morale would crash at the loss of one city and lead to either a French surrender or suicidal attacks to retake the city. But beyond that, the only real strategic objective that Germany could have gained at Verdun was straightening the line in the region, but then... in doing so, straightening the line would benefit the French for the same reasoning.

And through 1914 to 1915, no one on the French side really saw Verdun as a critical sector of the line. Most of the attention on the Western Front was closer to the regions to the northwest of Verdun that were closer to France's main industrial areas in the north, with British attention largely focused on Flanders to try and counter German U-boats sailing from Belgium. It's only in late 1915 to early 1916 that Joffre even began to recognize how weak the positions were at Verdun and only after Operation Gericht began that it was decided to hold Verdun for a point of pride, precisely what Falkenhayn wanted.

But a strategic withdrawal... and covered by artillery from the hills on the west bank of the Meuse would have inflicted heavy losses on the Germans, saved losses on the French, and while Falkenhayn could claim to have captured the city, it would have been at a heavy manpower cost to take ground that would take him no closer to Paris than the German army already was elsewhere on the Western Front, which Germany's finite resources could not afford in the long term. Germany could brag on capturing Verdun's forts and claim a prideful victory, but it will do them no good if they suffer much heavier losses than the French and the French lines don't immediately crumble as a result.
 

deaf tuner

Ad Honoris
Oct 2013
12,352
Europix
#16
... Forgetting Pétain,good for politics, but good for history ?
... I'd say "No", to both.

Pétain, the WWI hero is also Pétain, the WWII colabo. And there's nothing worse for French history, for French politics, for French in general than forgetting it, ignoring it (totally or partially).

I think the current debate in France on that (or on Macron's acts/declarations, as it is what started it) is a bit futile: history must be faced as it was, especially one's own history.
 
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Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
2,998
Dispargum
#17
I think there would have been a Vichy France even if Petain was not the head of it. German policy could be confused and sometimes worked at cross purposes. I know there were plans bandied about at different times to annex different French territories here and there, but I also think that at the time of the 1940 surrender Germany was planning to one day withdraw from France, and when they did they wanted a government in place that they could leave behind in France. They didn't want chaos and anarchy on their western border. This was different from Poland which the Nazis intended to permanently occupy. I don't know what Germany was thinking in 1940 relative to the French Jews.
 
May 2017
508
France
#18
Thank you all for your participations.But lf France didn t have Pétain,with his enormous popularity,in 1940,the "Vichy s regime" would have been in the hands of political men of 2d category,and it would have certainly provoked a communist insurrection like in Spain or Yougoslavia,so a civil war with enormous losses.The losses in Poland ,in comparison with France, were enormous.French,even defeated couldn t accept the idea of a gauleiter.So Pétain with his 84 years was a sort of old sterilisator which permitted to pay the minima price.In Montoire,what was his real power ? In Vichy ? His complex personality was a sort of Maginot line number 2,easy to win but important in the landscape.
 

Futurist

Ad Honoris
May 2014
12,805
SoCal
#19
Thank you all for your participations.But lf France didn t have Pétain,with his enormous popularity,in 1940,the "Vichy s regime" would have been in the hands of political men of 2d category,and it would have certainly provoked a communist insurrection like in Spain or Yougoslavia,so a civil war with enormous losses.The losses in Poland ,in comparison with France, were enormous.French,even defeated couldn t accept the idea of a gauleiter.So Pétain with his 84 years was a sort of old sterilisator which permitted to pay the minima price.In Montoire,what was his real power ? In Vichy ? His complex personality was a sort of Maginot line number 2,easy to win but important in the landscape.
Poland had a lot more Jews than France had--which partially helps explain the Polish-French WWII death toll disparity.
 
Feb 2018
148
US
#20
This is horrifying to see, but sadly not surprising. Petain did more for France than De Gaulle, yet one is a monster and the other a hero. Gamelin (and to some degree, Georges) is the person that deserves a huge portion of the blame for Vichy France. Petain is just the fall guy. He had the courage to step out of retirement to do the dirty job that others knew was inevitable but ran from.

But still, how many other European leaders have been excoriated for the same behavior he did. When Napoleon demanded manpower and resources from his effective subjects Austria and Prussia, did they launch a heroic resistance or did they give him what he wanted and waited for a better opportunity? The intermin French government in 1871 agreed to a humiliating treaty to save their people from continuing a hopeless war. The Japanese allowed the U.S. and Allies to occupy them and effectively rule them for 6 years. This is not abnormal practice.

I think there would have been a Vichy France even if Petain was not the head of it.
Yep. So what is Petain to do, as elderly as he was at that point? The curse of hindsight is all too real in the condemnations of Petain. Do what he can to save the lives of his people at a time when the Nazis looked outright unstoppable? Launch an impossible guerrilla insurgency in a country completely ill-suited to it? He definitely could have done more, particularly from 1943-45. But he was also 87-89 years old in those years. How much can you really expect of him at that point? Its not like the entire French population can lead a Moses-like exodus and join De Gaulle in the promised land of resistance. Something has to be done for the French people, to get the best terms for them, and it could be argued that Petain did decently at that considering his age. But of course, somebody has to take the blame for 1940.

Of course, there is so much more to this. But I would like to close with Horne's eloquent treatment of Petain in Price of Glory:

Seldom have the elements of Classical Tragedy been more poignantly arrayed than in the last years of Pétain. We see the old man, about to retire twenty-six years earlier to the cottage at St. Omer, now called back in his dotage to assume a responsibility Frenchmen in their prime quail before. The deep-rooted pessimism and bitterness towards Britain surges to the fore; and who indeed in France in the summer of 1940 does not believe that Britain will have ‘her neck wrung like a chicken’? The huge majority of Frenchmen are solidly behind the Hero of Verdun, the man who saved the French Army in 1917 (though, in five years time, many crying ‘traitor’ will conveniently try to forget this). Once again, he is the one man the Army will venerate and obey. Only an eccentric handful, brave to the point of folly, rallies to the Cross of Lorraine raised by Pétain’s former subaltern and erstwhile admirer, Charles de Gaulle.

In vain the Marshal believed that France’s conquerors, being themselves soldiers, would grant her an honourable peace. Pressed by Hitler to total, dishonourable collaboration, he resisted, but had little to resist with. The wily Laval treated him contemptuously as an ornamental front to cover his own ambitions, presented disastrous documents for him to sign late in the evening when his old mind was befuddled. But never was he completely Laval’s or Hitler’s man. Derided, misguided, isolated and betrayed he stayed on at his invidious post; ‘If we leave France now, we shall never find her again,’ he said repeatedly. Above all he stayed in the apparently genuine belief that somehow he alone stood for the safety of the million of his beloved soldiers captive in Germany. In his name, things were done by Vichy France that shocked the world, and especially her former Ally; but how much worse might it have been without that aged hand at the helm? Steadfastly Pétain refused to give Hitler bases in Algeria or surrender the French fleet. Though battered, his honour remained intact, accompanied to the end by a certain tragic nobility; fifty French hostages are to be shot, eighty-six-year-old Pétain offers himself in their stead as a single hostage.

Finally, as the Allies landed in North Africa, Hitler, breaking his word, invaded Unoccupied France. ‘Fly to Africa,’ the faithful Serrigny urged Pétain. No, he replied. If I leave, a Nazi Gauleiter will take over, and then what about our men in Germany? ‘A pilot must stay at the tiller during a tempest…’ You are wrong, replied Serrigny, reproaching him gently:

"You think too much about the French and not enough about France."

Victorious, de Gaulle returned to France; Pétain was spirited away to Germany by the Nazis. As the Third Reich collapsed, alone of the Vichy survivors he begged to be allowed to return to France to face trial.

"At my age, there is only one thing one still fears. That is not to have done all one’s duty, and I wish to do mine."

Through Switzerland he returned to France. He was met by General Koenig. He put out his hand. Koenig refused to take it. By edict of the man who had once applied to join the Regiment he commanded, and to whose son he was godfather, Pétain was placed on trial for his life, clad in the simplest uniform of a Marshal of France, and wearing just the Médaille Militaire — the only decoration shared by simple soldiers and great commanders. Urged by his lawyers to take his baton with him into court, Pétain replied scornfully ‘No, that would be theatrical.’ At the beginning of the trial he made one simple, dignified statement to the French people over the head of the Court, which he insisted had no power to try the Chief of State. Modestly he outlined his career in the service of France, ending:

"When I had earned rest, I did not cease to devote myself to her. I responded to all her appeals, whatever was my age or my weariness. She had turned to me on the most tragic day of her history. I neither sought nor desired it. I was begged to come. I came. Thus I inherited a catastrophe of which I was not the author… History will tell all that I spared you, whereas my adversaries think of reproaching me for what was inevitable…. If you wish to condemn me, let my condemnation be the last."

Through much of the lengthy hearing he nodded and dozed. As its last witness, the defence produced a general blinded at Verdun, who admonished the court prophetically:

"Take care that one day — it is not perhaps far distant; the drama is not yet finished — this man’s blood and alleged disgrace do not recoil on the whole of France, on us and our children."

Finally Pétain spoke his last words;

"My thought, my only thought, was to remain with them [the French] on the soil of France, according to my promise, so as to protect them and to lessen their sufferings."

The Court was unmoved. France can be savage in the retribution she exacts, and now, amid the passions of victory and with the wounds of the war still unhealed, the clemency Pétain accorded the mutineers of 1917 is not for him. Guilty of High Treason is the verdict, and the ninety-year-old Marshal is sentenced to death.
Ultimately the sentence was commuted to one of life imprisonment, and for six years Pétain was confined to the Ile de Yeu, off the Vendée coast; during which time he never uttered one word of recrimination.

Even if one subscribes to the theory of WW2 Petain was a demon and traitor, then he still has to be considered on balance with the rest of his service, as others have mentioned. Take the good and the bad. But that seems to be a rare trait in our current world, where only polarizing takes are acceptable.
 

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