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11-08-2015, 17:51

Philippe Retain (1856-1951)

General Philippe Retain was the commander of the French army in the Battle of Verdun in 1916. In the spring of 1917, after his country's forces had been crippled by mutinies. Retain became the army's commander-inchief. His skill in holding out at Verdun was matched by his ability to restore stability, then to build the fighting spirit in France's battered military units on the western front. In 1918, however, his reaction to the German spring offensive bordered on panic. The Allies established a unified command in April largely to place Retain under effective control. Nonetheless, he ended the war with a glowing reputation. This paved the way for him to become a political figure, notably during World War II. Retain was bom on April 24, 1856, in northern France in a village near Arras. He was the son of a peasant family. Thus, even in a French officer corps open to men from all social levels, his background was a modest one. He was commissioned in 1878, then rose slowly. He became an expert on infantry tactics, but his views were unpopular ones. In particular, he opposed the emphasis on the offensive that dominated French military thinking at the time. Some of his ideas penetrated the infantry regulations before 1914, but he was a mere colonel, and close to retirement, when war broke out. Retain rose quickly, leading first a brigade, then a division with great skill during the campaign that ended with the Battle of the Mame. In 1915 he commanded a corps in the spring offensive in Artois, then a field army in the September assault in Champagne. Even in the bloody failure in Artois, Petain distinguished himself by his adept use of artillery to open the gate for his infantry. He soon had a rare reputation among the army's rank and file for being stingy with the lives of his men. Verdun elevated Petain to the upper level of the French army. Brought in by General Joseph Joffre during the first week of fighting, he led the tenacious defense. Much of the battle took the form of massive artillery duels, and Petain alleviated the resulting strain on his forces by rotating entire divisions into the battle line for short stays, then removing them for a period of recovery. This sterling performance failed, however, to raise Petain to the level of commander-in-chief of the army. Instead, that post went to his offensive-minded subordinate. General Robert Nivelle. Nivelle's offensive in Champagne failed catastrophically in spring 1917, and Petain's moment arrived. Much of the army had sunk into mutiny by the time Petain took over in May. The new commander-in-chief restored the situation by improving food and leaves, and by making personal, inspirational visits to ninety divisions. Representatives from units as small as infantry companies had a chance to tell Petain personally of their grievances. He also used rougher measures: leading mutineers were executed or imprisoned, although the number that received such treatment remains uncertain. Petain's most potent tool was a pledge that the army would end costly and ill-prepared offensives. "I am waiting for the Americans and the tanks," he stated. As the army returned to health, Petain gave it new confidence by carrying out successful, well-planned offensives. Typical was the French attack at Verdun in late August. Conducted on a narrow front, it combined an effective artillery bombardment, overwhelming strength for the attacking infantry and a limited set of objectives. As the year went on, Petain increasingly relied on artillery, tanks, and aircraft to bear the weight of his attacks. At the start of 1918, he urged the French government to accept a defensive strategy for the entire coming year. Petain did not bear up well when the crisis of 1918 struck. With Ludendorff's March offensive threatening tŠ rupture the Allied line, he lost his composure. The French commander prepared to pull much of the French army back to defend Paris, thereby exposing the flank of the British forces under Haig. The appointment of General Ferdinand Foch as Allied commander-inchief took place in large measure to limit Petain's freedom of action. Petain's excessive caution was on display again in mid-July. Foch prepared to launch his first counterattack against Ludendorff's extended lines. With French and American troops under General Charles Mangin poised to hit the western flank of the bulge in the German line between the Mame and the Aisne, Petain called for the attack to be canceled. He feared that the Germans would continue to move southward. Foch overruled Petain, and the attack achieved a striking success. For the remainder of the war, Petain pushed his armies steadily forward without further friction with his superiors. He received his reward for his entire wartime service in December 1918, when he was promoted to the rank of field marshal. He remained on active duty until 193 1 . Petain was the only military commander from World War I to play a significant role in World War II. Tragically, it besmirched his reputation. Following the fall of France in 1940, the old general, now eighty-four, became the head of the Vichy government. Tainted as a collaborator with the Nazis, he found himself tried by his countrymen after the war. He ended his life imprisoned on the Isle d' Yeu off the coast of western France on July 23, 1951.