Henri Philippe Petain, generally known as Marshal Petain (1856 – 1951), had been a highly respected French national hero, acclaimed for his WWI role in holding back the Germans in the 1916 Battle of Verdun, which earned him the nickname “The Lion of Verdun“. He would later sully his reputation by becoming a traitor and heading the collaborationist Vichy Regime, a German puppet government, after France’s defeat in 1940.
Since his earliest days as an officer, Petain developed a rapport and exhibited an understanding of common soldiers that made him immensely popular with his men. His rise until WWI was slow, however, because his views on the primacy of the defensive in modern war, which would prove 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.
He rose quickly through the ranks during the war, and in 1916 was appointed to command the defense of Verdun in the war’s bloodiest battle, which he accomplished. The following year, after an incompetently planned attack, failed 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, which he did with a carrot-and-stick mix of reforms to improve the soldiers’ living conditions, combined with the execution of the mutiny’s ringleaders. By war’s end, Petain was a beloved national hero.
Two decades later, after the French debacle and collapse in 1940, an 84-year-old Petain was dragged out of retirement by the French president and asked to form a new government. Accepting that France had been defeated, and declining to continue the fight from overseas as urged by a junior minister, Charles de Gaulle, the aged marshal sought an armistice.
The French legislature dissolved itself and ceded its powers to Petain, and thus was born the collaborationist Vichy Regime, which aligned itself with the Germans and against the French Resistance and Free French who continued the fight inside occupied France and abroad.
After the war, Petain was tried on charges of high treason alongside Pierre Laval, the other main collaborationist of the Vichy Regime. Both were convicted and sentenced to death in 1945, but in recognition of his WWI services, Charles de Gaulle, as head of the French government, commuted Petain’s sentence to solitary life imprisonment. He was jailed in a prison fortress on a small island off France’s Atlantic coast until his death in 1951.