The battle of Verdun, which began in February 1916, is the French symbol of the First World War. It has been described as a war within the war. "Those who died at Verdun will never die in the memory of France" was the promise engraved on the memorial.
Consequently, every effort has been made to tell the story of Verdun to succeeding generations of French children. However a recent enquiry by the Minister of Defence suggested that no one under the age of 25 had any oral memory of Verdun. The veterans had died. But this was not altogether true. The last survivor died this month in Cagnes-sur-Mer in his 104th year. Colonel Jean Petit had the distinction of serving as a fighting soldier in both world wars.
Petit was born in 1894, and in the summer of 1914 was a candidate to enter the military college of Saint Cyr. With the beginning of war in August the examination was deemed void and all applicants to have passed; they were then commis-sioned and sent into the field. The 1914 intake, given the name of "Revenge", numbered some 600. More than half of them were to be killed.
Petit fought in various parts of France, notably in Artois, but in the summer of 1916 was sent to Verdun. It was Marshal Petain's policy to pull troops out of the battle and put new troops in. Usually this meant withdrawing decimated units since men were being killed in their tens of thousands. Lieutenant Petit was there when the battle was at its height, but the German command was becoming preoccupied with Franco-British plans on the Somme.
General Mangin had long wished to take back the fortress at Douaumont, which had been lost to the Germans at the start of the battle. In October he gave orders accordingly. On 24 October Petit led his battalion of chasseurs and recaptured the fort, along with a detachment of Moroccan troops (amongst whom was the future Marshal Juin). Petit and his men took some 600 German prisoners, but he was severely wounded and was transferred to hospital.
When the war was over, Petit went back to Saint Cyr for further training. He remained in the army, transferring to the reserve during the 1930s. Mobilised in 1939, he was with the French army in North Africa when the armistice was signed. He was appointed colonel in 1942 before the Allied invasion of November. Subsequently he took part in the Franco- American invasion of south-eastern France, which began on 15 August 1944. As the Americans worked northwards rapidly and the French fought their way westward towards Toulon and Marseilles, encountering stiff resistance, communications became vital. Petit was put in charge, establishing his base at Sainte Maxime. For his work he was awarded both French and American decorations.
He left the army in 1949 and went to live in Cagnes-sur-Mer, where he had business interests. He served on the municipal council for several years, having been elected as an independent. Twice married, he had eight children, 54 grandchildren and 41 great-grandchildren.