General Maxime Weygand, 1867-1965: Fortune and Misfortune

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The career of the French general Maxime Weygand offers a fascinating glimpse into the perils and politics of military leadership and loyalty in the interwar years and after France's defeat in 1940. Of obscure birth, Weygand had an outstanding career during WWI as chief of staff for Marshal Foch and served France after the war in Poland and Syria before returning home. Alarmed by Nazi Germany's rearmament, Weygand locked horns with a political leadership skeptical of the growing military threat, leading to accusations that his desire for a strong army was anti-democratic. With German invaders again threatening Paris, Weygand argued for armistice rather than face certain military defeat. No friend of the newly-installed Vichy government, Weygand was soon shuffled off to North Africa, where he plotted the army's return to the Allied cause. After the German entry into Unoccupied France, Weygand was imprisoned. Released at war's end, he was rearrested on the orders of Charles de Gaulle and afterwards fought to restore his name. In this concise biography, Anthony Clayton traces the vertiginous changes in fortune of a soldier whose loyalty to France and to the French army was unwavering.

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1 Birth and Early Years, 1867–1914

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Few general officers commanding a nation’s army have had no certain knowledge of the identity or even the nationality of either of their parents or of the place of their birth. The baby later known to the world as Maxime Weygand was registered as having been born on January 21, 1867. A certificate of birth dated the 23rd records the birth as having taken place at Brussels and notes the infant’s name only as Maxime. The birth certificate does not record the names of the parents and gives the place of birth as a room above a storehouse, 39 Boulevard de Waterloo, Brussels. Both the date and the place of birth are open to question. The doctor had a questionable record, and the witnesses were illiterate. Post-1945 inquiries only indicated that neither the storekeeper nor the owner of the property knew anything of the infant’s parentage, and no trace remained of the two witnesses.

Weygand’s biographer, Bernard Destremau, offers five possible pairs of candidates and examines the case for each in some detail.1 The first pairing, Leopold II, king of the Belgians, and either the wife of Count Zichy, an Austrian diplomat, or an anonymous Mexican woman, raises serious doubts. Although generous with his favors, Leopold had at the time other interests, and as an adult Weygand bore no resemblance whatsoever to Leopold in either appearance or character. The argument that Leopold was the father, was, however, later to prove popular in France and was believed by many French officers of Roman Catholic and closet royalist beliefs. The second possibility, a liaison between Charlotte, the wife of Archduke Maximilian of Austria, at the time briefly emperor of Mexico, and a Belgian colonel named van der Smissen, at the time serving in Mexico, is even less probable inasmuch as concealment of an empress’s pregnancy would have been almost impossible. Least probable of all is a liaison between Weygand’s boyhood tutor, a Belgian of Spanish origin named David Cohen, and a French woman originally of Belgian nationality, Thérèse Denimal. Their claim attracts interest in Belgium but lacks credibility. Hardly more probable is a relationship between, again, Charlotte, empress of Mexico, and a Mexican, either a medical friend or a Colonel Lopez; again such a relationship would have been difficult to hide. Most likely, but not certain, is that the infant was the product of life in the louche, Vienna-style imperial court at Chapultepec in Mexico, of an affaire between Maximilian himself and a strikingly beautiful Mexican dancer known variously as Guadelupe Martinez, Lupe, or La Belle Indienne. According to this argument the baby was born either in Mexico or elsewhere and was carried by Guadelupe in the early stages of her pregnancy when she may have been a maid of honor for the Empress Charlotte. By this theory the Brussels birth documents were prepared by a compliant doctor, following the pleadings of Charlotte, who had not been able to produce a child herself, to her brother King Leopold—Maximilian’s father Francis-Joseph, the emperor of Austria, being unwilling to help. Whatever the truth, Guadelupe conveniently disappeared or was paid off soon after the birth.

 

2 Chief of Staff, 1914–18

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Staffs exist to support commanders in their duties in peace and war. Throughout the nineteenth century warfare had become infinitely more complex and commanders more and more dependent on trained staffs. Countries opened army staff colleges. Different countries chose different approaches to create the best structure for staffs. The British Army, for example, preferred commanders, at any level between a brigade and an army corps, to have two officers in charge of staffs and staff work, one for operations and intelligence, the other for personnel and supply; these officers were equal in badged rank but with the former generally the senior. At army level, personnel and supply were separated, a third senior staff officer being necessary. The French preference had evolved into one that divided staff work into three main bureaus: first, supply, logistics, and administration; second, intelligence; and third, operations, all under a chief of staff. This structure had to be considerably modified as the First World War developed, when a fourth bureau for logistics was set up in 1917.

 

3 Versailles, Warsaw, Syria, 1919–24

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Accompanying Foch in November and December 1918, Weygand visited the devastated areas of France that had been occupied by the Germans. He saw wanton German destruction of towns, villages, and farms and talked to surviving inhabitants about the suffering that they had endured. The impressions that he formed were strong and to be recalled in the 1930s: this must never be allowed to happen again, and his country, France, must play the lead role in ensuring that it did not. The impressions were to last his life, especially in May 1940. In these views he followed Foch, who saw French security as the prime issue in the peacemaking. This belief was only strengthened by the events in Germany in late 1918 and early 1919: the German army’s triumphal march through Berlin on December 19, the salute taken by the chancellor, Friedrich Ebert, and the rhetoric of the army returning unbeaten from the field of battle, soon to be extended to that of Dolchstoss, a stab in the back by politicians. Further, following the Russian Revolution, it seemed clear that France would not expect any massive support on an eastern frontier, while Austria would join Germany.

 

4 Defense Policy in a Fractured France, 1925–39

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In the years 1925 to 1939, the bulk of the interwar years, Weygand’s life fell into three phases. The first was from 1925 to the end of his tenure as director at the Centre des Hautes Etudes Militaires (CHEM), the second from 1930 to 1935 when he held senior military staff and policy appointments, and the third from 1935 to 1939 when he was technically retired but still possessed very great influence. The whole period was one of both ever-sharpening political and social division, which was worsened in the 1930s by the Great Depression and within the military by the onset and spread of what Marshal Alphonse Juin was to describe, after the end of the Second World War, as a military “sclerosis.” The immediate cause of the former lay deep in post-Revolution France. The causes of the second were the loss of so many of the army’s sharpest intellects in the trenches, financial stringency, divisive and deep-seated disputes, and, in the 1920s, overconfidence and errors of judgment.

 

5 Commander in Chief, May–June 1940

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It was still just possible that if France had entered the Second World War with the national resolve of 1914 the outcome of events might have been very different. If the French Army, even if not armored but at least motorized, had immediately sallied forth from the Maginot fortresses in effective support for Poland, the Nazi regime and the German Army would have faced grave problems, with serious fighting on two fronts and areas of Germany occupied by the French. The 1938 static defensive strategy, however, precluded such action, and in the severe 1939–40 winter two events took place that were to make French defeat inevitable. In September 1939 there had been a measure of motivation in the war even among reluctant recalled reservists and despite the political disinterest or outright opposition of the extreme Left. The long, very cold 1939–40 winter, though, sapped the morale of recalled reservists, who saw little purpose in their uninspiring daily routines; undermined by continuing antiwar and left-wing propaganda, morale slumped. Daladier’s banning of the French Communist Party in September 1939 had further enraged the Left but was an inevitable consequence of the August 1939 German-Russian agreement. At the same time the Germans had made a careful study of the lessons of the Polish campaign, developing aircraft communication with armored units and improved command and control of tank subunits and individual machines to precision.

 

6 Minister for National Defense, June–September 1940

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Among the new ministers, Weygand was to be minister for national defense, with Huntziger as minister for war.1 Most of the other ministers, however, reflected the policy aims of Marshal Philippe Pétain, now eighty-four years old, the hero of Verdun, the general who had restored the morale, discipline, and self-respect of the French Army after the “mutinies” of 1917, the only one of the First World War marshals still on his feet, but a man whose mental clarity of vision and analysis was already noted by observers as declining during the course of the day.2 He was no friend of Great Britain; in the bitterness of defeat he saw Britain as simply trying to use France to suit British needs. He had been much influenced by the Spanish Civil War, which confirmed his belief that social order and some form of firm moral regeneration were needed in France. The pattern for this was to be that of the new national slogan, Travail, Famille, Patrie. Youth organizations and schools would be restructured along very authoritarian lines, as would labor and agriculture. These changes would take shape later in the institutions of the “National Revolution,” the semimilitary youth organization Chantiers de la Jeunesse, the Secours National, the Corporation Paysanne, and the Légion Française des Combattants, and in institutionalized anti-Semitism.

 

7 A General Out of Step: North Africa, 1940–41

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Regarding much of Weygand’s life, admirers pay their respects, sometimes perhaps too generously, detractors pour out their criticisms, often unjustly or harshly, and the small details of his daily life and work are not fully covered—for example, the impression Weygand made on individuals who were later to matter or on groups of soldiers whose impressions were apparently too insignificant to record. Above all, this is true in the period of Weygand’s command in North Africa, where his presence, covert actions, and personal example were very real, but difficult to quantify and easy to belittle. He was to create an ethos: “We are not here just to defend North Africa, but to prepare to clear the enemy out of France.” He always referred to the Germans as “les boches” and their activities as “les bocheries.” His February 1941 secret instructions to regiments and garrisons concluded with exhortations to make every effort for their love of their country and their “longing for revenge,” in particular to remember their duties, train hard, and keep fit. Improved morale and self-confidence had in fact already begun.

 

8 Final Misfortunes and Final Years, 1941–65

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Following his dismissal Weygand was soon joined by Renée and his son Jacques, both also banned from staying in North Africa. His long-time military secretary, Commandant Gasser, and his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant de Leusse, were allowed to return to Algiers. His biographer records that on bidding them farewell Weygand remarked, obviously with de Gaulle’s forces’ activities in Syria and Africa in mind, “Listen my loyal helpers, I will never order Frenchmen to open fire on other Frenchmen, I will never take such a responsibility. I do not have the right. I am not French, I am not French.” Whether this comment was made in not unreasonable emotion, made deliberately for the record, or possibly both will never be known.1

The first roof over the Weygand family’s head was the villa owned by the Count and Countess de Leusse family, known critics of any form of collaboration. The family soon moved to the Parc-Hotel at Grasse, where his aides quickly noticed they were continually watched by Vichy police agents. There, after Pearl Harbor, Weygand was visited by a diplomat from the American embassy at Vichy, Douglas MacArthur, the nephew of the Pacific War general, bringing both a letter dated December 27, 1941, and a personal message from President Roosevelt.2 The letter spoke of Roosevelt’s continuing respect for Weygand and regret that he had been recalled from Africa and of the successes (soon to be undone) of the British Army in Libya and of the Red Army on the Eastern Front. Roosevelt continued with an assurance that the United States, now at war but not against France, would devote its work to the repatriation of France and French power.

 

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