25. The Old Marshall Who Went From National Hero to Terrible Traitor
Henri Philippe Petain (1856 – 1951), commonly known as Marshal Petain, was once a highly respected French national hero. Since his earliest days as an officer, Petain developed a rapport and understanding of common soldiers that made him immensely popular with his men. During World War I, he was instrumental in holding back the Germans at the Battle of Verdun, which earned him the nickname “The Lion of Verdun”. Unfortunately, when the next world war came around, Petain sullied his reputation, and went from beloved hero to terrible traitor. After France was defeated and conquered by the Nazis in 1940, he headed the collaborationist Vichy Regime, a German puppet government.
Petain’s rise was initially slow. His advocacy of the primacy of defense in modern war, which proved correct in WWI, ran counter to the French Army’s orthodoxy that an attack could overcome any obstacles if the men had sufficient elan, or spirit. During the war, he rose quickly through the ranks, and in 1916 he successfully led the defense of Verdun in the war’s bloodiest battle. The following year, an incompetently planned attack failed catastrophically, and led to widespread mutinies throughout the French Army. Petain, the general most trusted and beloved by common soldiers, was appointed to restore the situation.