This French General Survived Defeat in 1940 To Become a Military Legend

January 21, 2021 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IWorld War IIFranceFrench MilitaryMaxime Weygand

This French General Survived Defeat in 1940 To Become a Military Legend

The career of General Maxime Weyland spanned half the turbulent 20th Century.

Here's What You Need to Know: Weygand viewed colonial France as an eventual springboard for the Allied liberation of continental France.

“What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over,” intoned British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. “The Battle of Britain is about to begin.” Those famous words were uttered as German armies steamrolled beaten French armies in the spring of 1940 and chased the British Expeditionary Force into the sea at Dunkirk in one of the most successful military campaigns in martial annals.

“A Man of Authority and Good Sense”

But who was General Maxime Weygand? Small in stature, weighing only 120 pounds and standing but five feet tall, Weygand was a mild-mannered and reserved soldier who is today virtually unknown among the senior military commanders of France during the early days of World War II.

It was Weygand who took over the routed French armies from General Maurice Gamelin on the very eve of their defeat. Prior to the debacle of May 1940, Weygand had been consulted by all the Great War Allied political leaders and military commanders of his generation.

His main French military rival was Gamelin. Called “a man of authority and good sense … who was always a man who did too much” by his biographer, Weygand was both a practicing warrior and prolific author like his peer, Philippe Pétain, and his protégé, ally, and sometime foe, Charles de Gaulle. All told, he published 21 books and penned 21 prefaces and introductions for other writers’ works.

Weygand was denied the highest honor of a baton of a Marshal of France despite the fact that two of his former protégés, Alphonse Juin and Jean de Lattry de Tassigny, were, indeed, given the coveted staffs.

Reviewing his accomplishments in the Russo-Polish War of 1920 when Weygand was dispatched as chief military adviser to the embattled Poles fighting the Red Army outside Warsaw, Churchill assessed him thus: “A soldier of subtle and commanding military genius veiled under an unaffected modesty … France had nothing to send to Poland but this one man. He was, it seems, enough.”

The Poles defeated the Russians, thus securing their eastern frontier for almost the next two decades, but Weygand’s true role, given full credit by some historians and virtually none by others, is still debated more than 90 years later. Another martial observer characterized Weygand as “the ideal soldier: precise, hardworking, firm in opinion, yet modest; brave, yet prudent; believing intensely in discipline, method, and organization, but neither stereotyped, nor deficient in resource.”

Noted still another contemporary of General Weygand: “I had the most absolute deference toward, and respect for, his person. Without wishing to idealize him, I considered him one of the most remarkable people of our time, due to his broad outlook, serenity, uprightness, fundamental honesty, and deep faith, as well as the wideness and catholicity of his learning, moral rectitude, and fidelity of his friendships.”

It was Weygand’s historic fate to witness his country’s fall to the Germans twice, in 1871 and 1940, as well as its resurrection and triumph twice, in 1918 and 1945. His long life spanned the Second Bonapartist French Empire of Napoleon III through the Fifth Republic presidency of “le Grand Charles,” the haughty de Gaulle. His main fear both in 1940 and 1944 was that communist revolution might break out, akin to the bloody Paris Commune of 1871

Hidden by the omnipresent shadow of Allied Generalissimo and French Marshal Ferdinand Foch (whose chief of staff he was, both during and after World War I) for nine years of his career, Weygand was present at the 1918 Armistice negotiations, reading out the terms to the vanquished Germans, in the famed railroad dining car at Compiegne that ended World War I. He was also a key player at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, in which he, albeit briefly, held sway at center stage as commander in chief of the greatest army in continental Europe before its Gallic sword was shattered.

While at the 1919 conclave, French statesman Georges Clemenceau characterized the quiet Weygand as “dangerous, but valuable,” an opinion shared by others.

A Man of Mystery

Oddly, mysteriously, and still controversially, neither Weygand’s actual birth date nor his nationality, and not even his parentage, are entirely certain to this day. Born in Brussels sometime during 1865-1867, Weygand had a  father who was most likely Belgian, and a mother who was possibly Austrian. It has even been rumored that he was the grandson of the famed Viennese diplomat Prince Clemens Metternich and the bastard son of either the mad Empress Carlotta of Mexico, or of her brother, Leopold II, King of the Belgians. No one is entirely sure.

“I was raised by a Jew,” as Maxime de Nimal, he himself asserted later. However, he was allowed to be baptized as a Catholic in 1877 at the approximate age of 10. In 1888, when Maxime was about 23, he was adopted via a financial transaction by the Jew’s accountant, one Francois-Joseph Weygand. Thus, he became the French citizen Maxime Weygand known to history ever since. Spitefully, de Gaulle once told his son Philippe that his rival was “without a drop of French blood in his veins.”

Nevertheless, young Maxime entered the French Army as a Belgian cadet, graduated from the famed military academy of Saint-Cyr in 1887, and received his first cavalry posting at the foot of the Alps. An avid reader of martial writings by Napoleon, Weygand also went to the elite, aristocratic French cavalry school at Saumur, where he was a top instructor for five years, until 1905.

Using a doctored birth certificate to effect his marriage in 1900, Weygand was a lieutenant colonel in 1914 and had served 28 days in action with the 5th Hussars when Foch selected him as his chief of staff, a post he held until 1923.  Subsequently, he served mainly as a staff officer and not, therefore, a commanding officer for rather a long tour.

“This Utter Outsider”

Called by some of his more combat-oriented peers, including de Gaulle, “this utter outsider,” Weygand’s organizational passion was in attention to detail. Beside Foch, he also idolized France’s colorful “Papa Josef” Joffre, even after the catastrophic mutinies of the French Army in 1917. Promoted to brigadier general under Foch, Weygand was sent to Switzerland to advise the Swiss how best to counter a possible German invasion, a specter that raised its ugly head again during World War II when he commanded the French Army.

Renowned as the taker of copious notes during high-level staff conferences, the unobtrusive Weygand was considered as “a useful go-between” by all the Allies and saw the entire Great War from the very top of the command pyramid, from the inside looking out. His peers, however, considered his lifelong idolatry of Foch misplaced.

On May 9, 1923, Weygand arrived in Beirut to take up the first real independent command of his career when he was named High Commissioner Levant of the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon in the Near East. Soon, noted a biographer, “The Arabs began seeing miraculous powers in this French official,” so good a colonial administrator he was deemed to be, “with both art and science in his soul … a military thinker” as well.

Indeed, Weygand developed into a sort of French Eisenhower during this period, coaxing disparate elements to work together smoothly. Like the Italians in their interwar colonies, General Weygand also became known as a builder of roads and railways. Still, a French leftist government in Paris recalled him on November 29, 1924.

Back in “Metropolitan France,” the bookish, wiry Proconsul Weygand was posted as director of the Center of Higher Military Studies in Paris, the so-called school of marshals, in 1925. He was also named as vice president of the French Supreme War Council.

Predicting France’s Doom

Like de Gaulle, Weygand was an advocate of developing armored warfare capabilities within the French Army. Weygand became the army’s chief of staff on January 3, 1930, with his rival Gamelin as his own staff chief. Gamelin was slated to succeed Weygand as chief later on, with Weygand assuming the office of president of the Supreme War Council. Therefore, the little general was designated as the future wartime generalissimo of all French armies in the field for the expected war that was to come against a rearmed Germany.

Weygand was opposed to the French disarmament mania then current, and he favored tanks and a two-year draft. Elected to the French Academy in 1931, he was revered as a wonderful organizer. He also became obsessed with airplanes and arms limitations, yet worked well with War Minister Andre Maginot and, indeed, supervised the building of the famed line of defensive fortifications named after Maginot.

In 1932 came military budget cuts under Prime Minister Edouard Daladier, who wanted Weygand out. During 1930-1935, there were 10 French war ministers under 16 separate governments in Paris and, gradually, the less dogmatic Gamelin came to the fore at Weygand’s political expense. On January 2, 1935, he edged out Weygand, both as generalissimo in time of war and on the Supreme Council, as well as in the offices of chief of staff and inspector general. Weygand retired from the army that same year.