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Henri Philippe Pétain

General Pétain at his desk in his railroad car, his home in 1915, near the front.

General Pétain in his railroad car, his home in 1915, near the front. From Verdun, by Henri Philippe Pétain.

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General Pétain in his railroad car near the front, which was his home in 1915.

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General Henri Pétain took command of the French Second Army south of Verdun in July 1915.

On February 21, 1916, German artillery began the seige of Verdun, bombarding the fortress city and the single road and light-rail line to Bar-le-Duc. German forces drove the French back north and east of the city, and took Fort Douaumont on February 25. French commander Joffre put little value on forts after the fall of the Belgian forts in 1914, but Prime Minister Briand convinced Joffre that holding Verdun was important for morale. Joffre answered Briand by tasking Pétain with its defense on February 26.

Pétain vowed, 'Ils ne passeront pas' — 'They shall not pass.' He turned French artillery on the German and Austro-Hungarian guns, putting many of them out of commission He kept the Bar-le-Duc Road (le Voie Sacrée — the Sacred Way) open to supplies and reinforcements. The last German attack in July failed and the campaign was ended.

Another hero at Verdun after he recaptured forts lost earlier in the siege, General Robert Nivelle replaced Joffre in late 1916. His Nivelle Offensive in April 1917 — in which Pétain commanded the central armies from Reims to Verdun to St. Mihiel — was a disaster and led to mutinies among many of the French units involved.

The government replaced Nivelle with Pétain as Commander-in-Chief. Pétain suppressed the mutiny, but also promised his troops he would not to squander their lives in offensives with little chance of success, and would wait 'for the Americans and the tanks.'

Germany's Operation Michael began on March 21, 1918, was the first of five offensives and put German forces within 56 miles of Paris and on the Marne River. Ferdinand Foch was made Commander in Chief of the Allied Armies in France coordinating the activities of Pétain, Haig, and Pershing.

May 24, 1856


Roles held by Henri Philippe Pétain

Role Start Date End Date
Combatant - General

Books by or about Henri Philippe Pétain (3)

Title Author
The Swordbearers Correlli Barnett
Reputations Ten Years After B.H. Liddell Hart
Verdun Henri Philippe Pétain