A poor defence
Charles Williams Little, Brown, 568pp, £30
A splendid cartoon by Philip Zec, published in the Daily Mirror on 11 October 1940, showed Marshal Petain waving his sabre on the palm-fringed beach at Dakar, gallantly defending the Senegalese slice of the Vichy-controlled French empire against a British and Free French attack. The Allied attempt to seize Dakar Harbour in September had been a dismal failure, one of the many disasters of 1940, and the Mirror was in Winston Churchill's bad books after publishing what was regarded as a defeatist article by H G Wells. To regain the government's confidence in the paper, and to deride and belittle the Vichy leader (then aged 84), Zec showed him in a wheelchair being pushed along the shore by a Nazi soldier in jackboots.
The image does not appear in Charles Williams's biography of this now somewhat forgotten figure (in Britain at least) who presided over the French armistice with Hitler in 1940 and the subsequent dismemberment of France. Williams tries to make a positive case for Petain, a soldier who is usually perceived at best as defeatist, at worst as a traitor. Here he is depicted as a patriotic general, a hero of the First World War who did what was required of him in difficult circumstances at the start of the Second. Yet in spite of the whitewash, he emerges as a sad and vain figure, a conservative nationalist caught up in an unfamiliar political world that he disliked intensely.
It is, in fact, difficult to summon up enthusiasm for the life and career of Henri Philippe Petain. A mediocre officer who found himself on top of the heap at the end of the First World War, largely as the result of Buggins's turn, he shared all the postwar prejudices of that large section of the French middle class that was anti-Semitic, anti-communist and sympathetic to fascism. Although he never joined Action Francaise or any of the groupuscules of the French right, Petain packed off French Jews to German concentration camps without a qualm. His hero was Miguel Primo de Rivera, the absurd Spanish fascist of the 1920s. Before he was called to play his part as the saviour of the nation, his job was as France's ambassador to Franco's victorious new nation, seeking to bind up wounds at the end of the civil war.
Somewhere in the catalogue of conflictive episodes that has defined the Anglo-French relationship over the centuries, the disastrous defeatism of Marshal Petain must surely have a prominent place. As defeat loomed on the Belgian border in the desperate days of June 1940, the French ruling elite gave up with barely a strug- gle, claiming that the British, too, would be bound to succumb. They ignored the impassioned words of Churchill, who urged them to continue the resistance from the Brittany peninsula. Whatever happened, Churchill told them, Britain "would fight on and on and on, toujours, all the time; everywhere, partout; pas de grace, no mercy. Puis la victoire." Petain thought he was joking; for he had no stomach for such a fight. Indeed, Chur-chill noted that Petain "had always been a defeatist, even in the last war".
Williams attempts to address this cal-umny, portraying the "Victor of Verdun" as a general who preferred defence to attack, and who always paid attention to the care of his troops. The great battle of 1916 was chalked up as a French victory, and made Petain's reputation. It brought him the lasting loyalty of thousands of ex-combatants. Yet it remains one of the great bloodbaths of the Great War, lasting for most of that year and causing nearly a million casualties.
Petain lived for a very long time, and he comes across as a man who was always old. Born in 1856, he was already old at the time of the Dreyfus affair in the 1890s, in which he first played what would become his customary pusillanimous role. He was old in 1914, and contemplating retirement, when summoned to assemble his brigade at Arras, experiencing shots fired in action for the first time in his life. And he was really old - some would say senile - in the summer of 1940 when he became prime minister and president. He died in prison in July 1951 at the age of 95, after General de Gaulle had commuted his conviction for treachery in 1945.
Williams assumes that British readers will be fascinated that, although always old, Petain had an active sex life with many partners and a long-suffering wife whom he treated abominably. Yet with few genuine details available, Williams can provide only a dreary and unnecessary recital of gossip and innuendo. Whatever claims Williams may have as an exemplary biographer, his skills are not much in evidence in this book. His style is often arch and irritating, with an excess of worldly-wise comment. Characters are introduced with little ceremony, and are often not to be found in the index. Entirely lacking is any sense of the French social and political context that Petain personified, and there is no reference to the extraordinary life beyond the grave of the man who surrendered his country to Hitler. The Germans are generally perceived to have come to terms with their past; the French still have great difficulty living with the legacy of Petain.
Richard Gott is the author (with Martin Gilbert) of The Appeasers, published by the Phoenix Press