These Men Were French Heroes … Until They Weren’t

Triumphal poster showing General De Gaulle watching the liberation of a war-damaged France.

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Why you should care

Because even “great” men fight and fall from grace.

In a book about the French Revolution he was ghostwriting during the 1920s, Charles de Gaulle opined that some of the country’s generals had been stripped “of prestige, often of life, sometimes of honor.” As described in Julian Jackson’s De Gaulle, Marshal Philippe Pétain — the champion of Verdun — suggested the young captain move the part about life to the end of the sentence. Refusing to bow to the experienced soldier’s advice, an uppity de Gaulle declared, “It is an ascending gradation: prestige, life, honor.”

De Gaulle once held Pétain in high regard — some say his son, Philippe, had been named after the famed maréchal. But this editorial quibble foreshadowed their future, as both men went on to rule France, be sentenced to death and trade labels of “villain” and “hero.” And Pétain would be stripped of his honor, but spared his life, by his former charge.

The marshal is a great man who died in 1925. Trouble is, he didn’t know it.

Charles de Gaulle

Colonel Pétain, as he was known in 1914, had never seen any action and was preparing to retire at the age of 58. But retirement wasn’t in the cards thanks to World War I, during which this cautious military man built a reputation as a great field commander who would not attack “until he had an overwhelming superiority,” says Robert Paxton, a Columbia University professor emeritus and specialist in Vichy history. Known for vowing to hold Verdun at all costs — famously saying, “Ils ne passeront pas” (“They will not pass”) — he was awarded the marshal’s baton in 1918. He also developed a taste for leadership and accolades: One of his next roles was mobilizing French troops against the 1925 Rif rebellion in Morocco, a victory that earned him a series of political appointments in the 1930s.

When German tanks started rolling toward France again, de Gaulle was neither well-known nor well-liked. Compared with the cautious Pétain, de Gaulle had always been Bolshie and, like stereotypical millennials today, the young nationalist told his bosses just what he thought; he was, according to Paxton, “ready to take risks” on the battlefield. The future first president of the French Republic favored mechanized warfare and the use of specialized armored divisions in combat, rather than sticking with French doctrine, which dictated that tanks support infantry maneuvers. His efforts to repel German forces — including the use of tanks at Montcornet in one of France’s few successes at holding off Hitler’s troops — got him promoted to brigadier general and, later, undersecretary of state for defense and war. De Gaulle’s objective was winning at any cost, a position that would once more pit him against his former boss.

“Better to be a Nazi province” was the message from Pétain to French Premier Paul Reynaud, Ian Crofton writes in Traitors & Turncoats, noting that the latter fancied joining efforts with Britain to combat Hitler, despite heavy French losses. Leadership squabbles led to Reynaud being out, Pétain being in and negotiations for peace initiated with Germany, to the chagrin of de Gaulle and Reynaud. Pétain signed an armistice on June 22, 1940, and once again he was hailed a hero for saving the nation from more bloodshed. 

Pétain’s government moved to Vichy, where it controlled roughly 40 percent of France, with the rest left to German occupation. De Gaulle, meanwhile, moved to Britain, where he drummed up support for Free French Forces, starting with a Winston Churchill–approved BBC radio address to his countrymen. In response, Vichy sentenced de Gaulle to death for treason — a high-ranking military leader with an equally high ranking atop France’s hit list. 

“Pétain was sure the war was over,” Paxton says, while “de Gaulle was sure it was not over.” One was hailed a hero, the other a traitor, but all of that was about to change. Vichy became a collaborative hellhole known for deporting French Jews, and de Gaulle went on to rally support in Africa, raise troops and help lead the liberation of his country. “[De Gaulle’s] bet was right,” Paxton says. 

With France liberated in September 1944, Vichy’s elite were summoned to Germany, but Pétain returned home to face charges of treason at a trial in the summer of 1945. His defense? “If I could no longer be your sword, I wanted to be your shield.” Still beloved by many, Pétain was stripped of his military rank and sentenced to execution by firing squad. De Gaulle commuted the 89-year-old’s sentence, freeing the old man to live out his final days on the Île d’Yeu.

“The marshal is a great man who died in 1925. Trouble is, he didn’t know it,” de Gaulle said of his former mentor’s fall from grace. And indeed, as the younger man prospered from his good fortune and sound bet during World War II, he watched France’s once-great hero be stripped of his prestige and honor, but not quite his life.


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