French general and statesman, head of the Vichy regime (1940–42). A national hero in World War I, he was sentenced to death as a traitor for his submission to the Germans in World War II.
Born in Cauchy-à-la-Tour, the son of a peasant family, Pétain attended St Cyr, where he graduated in 1878. In 1888 he became an instructor at the École de Guerre, a position he held until he was almost sixty.
Promoted to general in 1915 during World War I, he became a national hero (1916) for his defence of Verdun, succeeding General Robert Nivelle (1857–1924) as commander-in-chief in 1917. In 1918 he was named marshal of France, becoming vice-president of the Supreme War Council in 1920 and inspector-general of the army in 1922. An advocate of defensive military policy, he retired from the army in 1931 but entered politics as minister for war in 1934 under Doumergue. Many consider that the weakness of the French army at the start of World War II was directly attributable to Pétain's outdated notions of how a modern army should be organized. Nevertheless, shortly before the fall of France in 1940 he succeeded Raynaud as prime minister and immediately sought to negotiate an armistice with the Germans. The government that he subsequently established in Vichy was a puppet regime for the Third Reich, until German occupation in 1942. Pétain was arrested in 1944 and brought to trial by de Gaulle's provisional government in 1945. His subsequent death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on the Île de Yeux, where he died at the age of ninety-six.
Subjects: Military History.