Jewish Political Studies Review 21:1-2 (Spring 2009)
In this fascinating little book Herbert Lottman brings to life thirty years of troubled relations between Pétain and de Gaulle, two emblematic figures of French history from opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum. These are Pétain, the disgraced World War I leader who later collaborated with the Germans during the Second World War and was condemned to death for high treason (the sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment) and de Gaulle, the war hero who saved the honor of his country and returned, triumphant, with the victorious allies to become the president of the Republic. The two met for the first time in 1910. De Gaulle, then a fledgling second lieutenant just turned twenty, joined the infantry regiment commanded by Pétain, the son of a farmer, who was fifty-four at the time and had not gone beyond the rank of colonel after serving thirty-four years in the army. Young and ambitious, de Gaulle was a member of the French nobility. They had nothing in common except perhaps an eye for the ladies and the fact they were both loners; they held widely different views on how modern warfare should be conducted. However, when de Gaulle left the regiment three years later, Pétain had nothing but the highest praise for him. Likewise, the younger man was later to write that the colonel had the gift and art of command. The two men went their separate ways. Pétain, still a colonel and with no hopes of promotion, began thinking about retirement and bought a house in the northern France, not far from his birthplace, while the newly minted lieutenant went on with his career.
Then the First World War broke out. Suddenly the aging warrior was recalled to life. He was given a command and the rank of brigadier; soon he was entrusted with the task of stopping the Germans at Verdun. He was so good at his job that a few weeks shy of his sixtieth birthday he became supreme commander of the French army. When the war was over a grateful nation bestowed on Philippe Pétain the rank of Marechal de France– Field Marshall. The ambitious young officer, now a captain, did not fare so well. Already wounded twice – some say that the towering six-foot, four-inch figure of de Gaulle, always the first to charge, presented an easy target – he led yet another attack at Verdun, was wounded again and captured by the enemy. He was believed dead; Pétain himself eulogized him as “an outstanding officer” (15). Despite his five attempts to escape, peace found Captain de Gaulle still a prisoner of war.
While Petain received the highest honors, de Gaulle had to go back to military school to make up for the years spent in prison. He then moved to the École Superieure de Guerre – a higher military academy. Yet finding himself once more in the classroom did not sit well with him. His superiors found him to be arrogant. Furthermore he had the audacity to publish a book under his own name before graduating. It took the direct intervention of Marshall Pétain to save him from the humiliation of a mediocre grade which would have slammed the door of promotion in his face. Soon Captain de Gaulle found himself attached to the staff of his illustrious protector. His task was to “assist” Marshall Pétain in his writings. The grand old man – by this time seventy – planned a sweeping history of the army from the French revolution to the present time. De Gaulle set to work on the book, which was to be called simply Le soldat (the soldier). Pétain lavished praise on his protégé and spared no effort to ensure his speedy promotion.
In 1927 Major de Gaulle took over the command of a battalion in Treves. He left with a clear conscience since he believed the book ready for publication. Pétain disagreed; furthermore he found another collaborator. Worse still, de Gaulle learned that there would be no mention of his name in the finished work. He fired off a highly undiplomatic letter of protest. Deeply wounded, Pétain shelved the book. And yet he did not withdraw his support for the younger man; time and time again he intervened to keep him on the fast track. They now saw eye to eye on most military issues; until de Gaulle, who had been busy writing book after book of his own, published Vers l’armee de métier (towards a professional army). He believed that modern armies could no longer rely on conscription and calling up reservists; he was also convinced of the urgency of creating armored divisions and not relying on defensive measures. Pétain disagreed, as did the general staff. When Pétain became minister of war in 1934, he turned down de Gaulle’s request to join him. De Gaulle never forgot what he perceived as a snub. He switched his allegiance to Paul Reynaud, then head of the government. With the outbreak of the Second World War he was appointed under-secretary of defense. Reynaud also called on Pétain, who became vice premier before forming the government and asking for an armistice with Germany.
The rest, as they say, is history. Pétain became the despised ruler of Vichy France and de Gaulle went on to lead the Free French from London. And yet, when the old and enfeebled Marshall was stripped of all his titles and condemned to death, it was de Gaulle, then the new ruler of liberated France, who commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.
Herb Lottman, who is the author of a decisive biography of Marshall Pétain, as well as a number of other acclaimed biographies, has been living in France for decades and is an officer in the National Order of Arts and Letters of France.
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. Translated into English in 1941 under the title The Army of the Future.
. Herbert R. Lottman, Pétain, Hero or Traitor: The Untold Story (New York: W. Morrow, 1985).
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Michelle Mazel, born in Poitiers (France) during the war, is a graduate of Sciences Po – the Institute for Political Science – and the Paris Faculte de Droit. She is a writer of both fictional and non-fictional works and currently resides in Jerusalem.