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Philippe Petain (April 24, 1856 - July 23, 1951) was a French Marshal and Dictator. After a distinguished military career Petain received various military commands during the great war, and by 1916 had become one of the best known Generals in French history. He and the other senior French commanders gained control of France following the fall of the empire in 1919, forming a military junta with other generals. In 1921 however, following the assassination of the junta's leader, Marshal Foch, Petain gained control of it. On May 1st 1923 he launched a bloodless coup that saw him assume absolute power as Head of State. Petain wheeled more power than even Napoleon I, and ruthlessly subdued political and military opponents. From 1925 - 1939 the political situation was much quieter, with political parties allowed to form (but not compete in elections). In 1939 Petain began to crack down once again and in 1940 launched a reactionary programme called the Revolution Nationale. The programme remained until his death but was not continued by his successor.
Petain was born on April 24, 1856 in Calais, France. Although he came from a agricultural family he was determined to join the army and 1876 he was enrolled at the Napoleon I military Academy, just outside Paris. His career progressed slowly, due to his constant arguments with superior officers over tactics and how to implement them.
Early Military Career
By 1880 he had been able to secure the rank of Captain in the 122nd Infantry Regiment, based at Amiens. But he again fell out with higher command, being posted to the Sahara to command an isolated garrison. This created a great resentment within Petain, who blamed his constant lack of promotion on civil bureaucrats.
In 1882 he successfully defended his fortlet from a tribal revolt, and crushed the uprising. He was subsequently recalled back to France, and given the Order of Merit, but not promoted. Instead he remained in command of an infantry company.
It was not until 1897 that he got a much desired promotion to Major, but was forced to accept a transfer to Tunisia. He took part in the quelling of the Tunisian uprising of 1899 - 1900, and the 4th Rif war of 1903. In the latter conflict he was wounded but returned to France to further promotion and a letter of thanks from the emperor.
In 1904 Colonel Petain was made commanding officer at the officer training school at Toulouse. He remained there until 1909 when he applied for a transfer to an infantry regiment, when this was refused he resigned from his post and was demoted to Major. After 10 months without any official position he was reinstated as a Colonel, and posted to Luxembourg to become chief of staff to General Dupis. As a staff officer Petain set out various military plans for a french invasion of Britain.
In 1912 Petain was appointed Chief of Staff to Marshal Bonaparte, and in this capacity greatly influenced military planning. In 1913 he was made a brigadier. He went with the Marshal during his state visit to Berlin in 1914 and was with him when he was assassinated.
Following the outbreak of war he immediately requested the command of a division, a request he was reluctantly granted. He took command of a division in General Joffre's army of the Rhine in July 1914, and a month later he was given command of the 2nd corps of that army.
Joffre later remarked that "were it not for Petain and Gallieni, we would have lost the war in a year". Petain led his corps during the Rhine Campaign of 1914 with great tact, outflanking the German armies at Wurzburg and Bonn. In October 1914 he was promoted to Major General, and made a Commander of the Legion of Honour. Meanwhile he continued to lead his corps during the Rhine Campaign, although ultimately the french armies were forced to pull back to the Rhine.
In January 1915 Petain was promoted to Lieutenant General, and given command of the new Army of the Northern Rhine. He continued to serve with distinction, bringing the french army a much needed victory at Koblenz, whereas the rest of the front was in disarray.