Henri Philippe Pétain Defender of Verdun
General Henri Philippe Pétain. Photograph © Central News Photo Service. Pétain - The Prepared, 1917. GGA Image ID # 18bff5ef9a
TWO hundred thousand of the Kaiser’s picked men he in their last sleep at Verdun; a tribute to the valor of the French soldiers, who said: “They shall not pass.”
Over two hundred tons of copper have been aimed at Verdun — only to leave the fortress with the Tricolor floating over it. And above the fallen timber, the wrecked stonework, the broken and shattered windows, rises the name of the heroic defender, General Pétain.
This general, like Marshal Foch, was little known prior to the great war. If he had his way, he would be little known today, for like Foch and Haig— he shuns the limelight.
When Ferdinand of Bulgaria decorated him for his lectures, he put his decoration into his pocket. He has persistently refused to be photographed since the war began, and, when urged to place his lectures at the École de Guerre into book form, he said, with a shrug of the shoulders, “What’s the use?”
The battle of the Marne in the first German drive, had proved to the Germans that Paris could not be reached by that route, so to the Crown Prince was entrusted the task of attacking the French line at Verdun, of overwhelming it, and of piercing the defense. With the army under his command he hoped to press on to Paris.
His high hopes were not to be realized, for in the way stood those French who were not “degenerates’ as the Germans were wont to call them prior to the great war.
The second battle opened with considerable success for the Prussian army, and, realizing that the French forces were not handled in the proper manner, General Joffre sent Pétain to command the line.
From the very moment that he arrived, the most colossal effort of the Germans since the battle of the Marne was completely checked. Then, when victory was certain and Paris seemed to be secure, everyone began to ask: "Who is this Pétain?”
When the war broke out the defender of Verdun was but a Colonel of Infantry — the Thirty-third of Arras, he was known to be a silent man, who shunned both photographers and reviewers.
To his soldiers he had often said: “My watchwords are patience, confidence, independence, persistence, energy, tact, speed, concentration. Utilize all of these and you cannot fail to hold your own with your opponent.”
The general is an excellent horseman and can fence equally well with both hands. He has made it a point to always keep himself in perfect physical condition and has endeavored to make himself a perfect officer.
He has said that he has minutely studied over five hundred tactical and strategic encounters and that every officer —to be a good officer — should do likewise.
In lecturing to his men, Pétain would often remark: “A troop becomes invincible when prepared in advance to sacrifice itself, for it prepares, in advance, to make the enemy pay the dearest possible price for its sacrifice.”
He also believes in speed and quickness upon the march. “The constant acceleration of speed is one of the laws of progress,” he has often remarked. “If you have a horse, use it! Don’t just sit on it and let it carry you around. Get away from men at times and be your own scout.”
Someone asked a French officer one day why it was that Pétain was only a colonel (not a well-known colonel, like Roosevelt) when the war broke out. To this was given the following answer, which speaks for itself:
“Because he has a horror of advertising; because he hates politicians; because he is a man of uncompromising opinions, and he has made enemies; because he believes that he is right and that the men who differ from him are wrong; because while other officers — whom I could mention — were busy with the fanforade of brass buttons and ceremonies of garrison life, and were bent upon getting their names and photographs in the papers, Pétain was only occupied in one thing, training his officers and training himself.
When an editor asked him for some account of his military career, he sent back three dates, and that was all. He has steadily refused to be photographed since the war; the only photograph of him being in the Thirty-third Regiment book. He is tactician, strategist, but, above all and to the last ounce of him, a fighter.”
In those dark days, just prior to the battle of the Marne, when all France was hurrying to the front, Pétain was promoted to be General of Division and was sent to rally and reorganize the remnants of the Third Corps, which — in bad disorder — were in retreat before the advancing Huns.
The general took charge with little to do, and, sitting on his horse beside a bridge over which the soldiers were retreating, made each one march calmly past him and look up to see what a grim fellow was leading them. In his hand he held a pistol which he gripped firmly and occasionally shook in the direction of the oncoming invaders.
The men were apparently imbued with a new spirit, for on September 21st was issued an army order to the effect:
“Pétain — General Commanding the Sixth Division of Infantry — has, by his example, his tenacity, his calmness under fire, his incessant foresight, his continual intervention at the right moment, obtained from his division during fourteen days of consecutive fighting, a magnificent effort, resisting repeated attacks night and day, and the fourteenth day, in spite of his losses, repelling a final, very violent assault.”
A bit later, with General Sangle de Carey, he was told by General Castelnau to break the German front in Champagne. The French here fought with tenacity and fury, as only those who are defending their homes could do. It was Pétain’s army which dealt a stubborn blow, which took hundreds of cannons, and thousands of prisoners.
With these two successes to his credit, “Papa” Joffre did well when he did not hesitate to promote this stern, faithful soldier to be the leader of the defenders of Verdun. “Nach Verdun — Paris!” the Crown Prince is said to have remarked, as he raised a glass of stolen champagne on high. But General Pétain is said to have murmured: “Nach Verdun — Metz, Sedan, and then — Berlin!”
The Germans meant to take Verdun when they made the first big drive upon Paris. They did all that they could to approach it and to besiege it. The Third German Army under the Crown Prince fought incessantly with the main object of isolating, of investing, and of taking Verdun.
Assisted by his counselor, Von Eichhorn, the Crown Prince did all in his power to overwhelm and destroy the Third French Army under General Serrail.
It was September 8th and 9th, 1915. General Foch was hurling back the Germans on the Marne, but many more Germans under the Crown Prince — the 3d, 5th and 16th, 1st Bavarian, and two Reserve Corps — were approaching Verdun, the eastern pivot of the French armies between Toul and Belfort.
Here is where the most important railway lines of northeastern France converge, and here is where the Germans would have found a great arsenal and a huge amount of supplies. Its capture would have very materially altered the course of the war.
The French under Serrail had ten infantry divisions — the Crown Prince fifteen. Outnumbered, the French had to retreat, and General Serrail had a difficult and thankless task to perform.
As he fell back through the broken and wooded country of the Argonne — so as not to lose connection with the other French armies on the left — he had to protect Verdun from North, East, and West.
The Crown Prince had such great numbers that he could deploy around his opponent and could surround and drive into Verdun a part of the French army. This he did.
To the east of Verdun German reserve divisions made their way, on the right bank of the Meuse, with the object of crossing the river at St. Mihiel, and joining the German force on the left bank.
This would have divided Serrail's army, and such a success would have heavily counter-balanced the success which the French were then having in the Marne.
On September 8th, the army of the gallant Serrail reached the limit of its retirement, and, on the day following, the French counter-attacked along the entire front.
Two cavalry corps were sent, meanwhile, to check the progress of the Germans, who had succeeded in crossing the Meuse, near St. Mihiel.
The French fought valiantly, and success was theirs, even as at the Marne. At St. Mihiel the Germans were driven back with heavy losses across the Meuse; on the left, the 3d German army corps — which was endeavoring to reach Bar le Duc — was thrown back, after a murderous struggle.
In the center the 16th German army corps lost eleven batteries, destroyed by the French 75's. Verdun was saved for the time being.
The Germans retreated to the Aisne and intrenched, leaving many prisoners, guns, and other booty behind them, but Verdun was not to be left alone. In February 1916, one of the greatest and most sanguinary battles of the war began before the ill-fated town.
In the presence of the Kaiser, the army of the Crown Prince started a determined and desperate drive against the great French fortress. For ten days the battle raged on the plains, in the forests, and on the hills before Verdun, and the loss of life, on both sides, was something appalling.
By February 26th, after six days of continuous fighting, the Germans had driven the French line along several miles of front, had occupied several villages a few miles north of Verdun, had hurled the French from a peninsula of the Meuse, formed by a bend in the river, about six miles from the city, and had carried by storm the outlying fort of Douaumont, at the northeast corner of the Verdun fortifications.
Here the triumphant advance was halted by the French in a series of brilliant counterattacks, and the German offensive died down until March 1st, when it was again renewed.
The losses to the German army, up to this time, had been about one hundred and seventy-five thousand men, including between forty thousand and fifty thousand killed.
Heavy reinforcements had been brought up by the Germans, and it is estimated that the troops engaged in the attack numbered at least five hundred thousand, assisted by all the artillery used in the Serbian campaign and part of that formerly employed on the Russian front.
Here is where Pétain was called upon to lead the French army of defense; Serrail, as we have seen, having done a masterful piece of work in eluding and outwitting the Germans in their advance of the former year.
The battle lasted from February the 21st to April the 15th. There was a slight rest, and then the offensive was assumed again, the attacks on Verdun continuing until June 10th. But the French stood first under an avalanche of shot and shell and drove back wave after wave of Teutonic infantry.
Here was the fiercest fighting of the war, the Germans losing fully three hundred thousand men in killed, wounded, and prisoners: the French perhaps three-quarters of that number, and the British one hundred thousand.
Finally, on October 24th the French took the village and Fort of Douamont; also Thiaumont, the Haudromout quarries, La Carlette Wood, and the trenches along a four-mile front to a depth of two miles. The ground retaken was the same that the Crown Prince’s army had required two months of hard fighting to capture.
On the 24th four thousand German prisoners were taken, and, on the day following, Petain’s men began to encircle Fort Vaux, the only one of the outer fortifications which remained in German hands.
The German attempts to regain lost ground were fruitless and four of their separate attacks were beaten back. By the first of November the French had taken seven thousand prisoners.
Flushed with victory, on November 4th the French began the attempt to take the village of Vaux, held by the Crown Prince, and gained a foothold in the shot- riddled town. Next day the entire village was captured and also that of Damloup. This closed the furious affair.
The long and bloody struggle for Verdun thus apparently ended, although artillery duels still continued at varying intervals. The French had shown an indomitable courage in its defense — first under Serrail in 1915 — again under Pétain in continuous fighting from February to November, 1916.
The laurels for this prolonged and bitter struggle rested entirely with the French; and right nobly they had fought the Prussian war machine to a standstill. Well might the populace of Paris cry vociferously: “Viva la France! Viva Pétain!”
Pétain alone did not win the great fight, it was the French themselves; for no one man — no matter what his personal attributes — could ever have enthused his troops to the proper point of sacrifice that was necessary for the defense of the grim fortress. Modern warfare was here seen in its panoply of terror.
The town, the farms, the countryside were transformed into a vast scene of ruin and desolation, while many a poor soldier went completely insane from the ghastly horrors of the battle.
So, to the cry which is now heard ’round the world — “Viva le General Pétain!” — let us add another vociferous chorus — “Viva le Poilu! —Hurrah for the brave soldiers of la Belle France!”
Charles H. L. Johnston, Famous Generals of the Great War Who Let the United States and Her Allies to a Glorious Victory, Boston: The Page Company, 1919.