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How grit and firepower won at Verdun

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in Leaders & Managers,Profiles in Leadership

The actions of French commander Philippe Pétain at the Battle of Verdun show it’s not just brains but guts that make a leader.

For much of the late 1800s, military fashion had it that élan and the bayonet would win wars. Pétain found that notion ridiculous. He said firepower was the key to modern warfare.

It didn’t take long during World War I for his doctrine to prove right. Pétain rose in only six months to commanding general of the French Second Army.

His high water mark came at Verdun.

French defenses had fallen, the Germans held most of the high ground and the French commander was preparing to withdraw. When Pétain reported this up the chain, his furious supervisors put him in charge. 

Even though he hadn’t slept in 24 hours, Pétain ignored pleas to rest and swung into action with a big map, little room to maneuver and a night of deploying reinforcements and rerouting artillery to rain fire on the attacking Germans.

He called each corps and headquarters, saying: “This is General Pétain speaking. I am taking over command. Inform your troops. Keep up your courage. I know I can depend on you.”

Under Pétain, the French regained their footing and surprised the Germans, who thought they’d already won.

In this breathing space, Pétain launched ambitious efforts to resupply the line. In his first two weeks—as he ordered rails laid and rock quarried—French trucks carried 190,000 men, 22,500 tons of arms and 2,500 tons of supplies to Verdun.

Using detailed reports, he orchestrated artillery fire. To his officers, he interrupted with: “What have your batteries been doing? We will discuss other points later.”

Unlike many commanders of the era, Pétain cared about his men. While the Germans ground down their front lines, Pétain instituted a rotation in which front-line divisions were withdrawn after three days and given a week to recover.

While many contributed to the Allied victory at Verdun, Pétain towered above them all.

— Adapted from “Victor of Verdun,” Robert B. Bruce, Military History.

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